State of the Union: The Era of the Liberal Leviathan Is Over

Jan 31, 2018

This article was first published on January 31, 2018 on the Ethics & International Affairs blog.

Donald Trump delivered his first State of the Union address–and used the rostrum in the House of Representatives to again break with some of the precepts which have defined the so-called "bipartisan American foreign policy consensus," even though, at the same time, he continues to reframe some of the policies generated under that consensus in terms of a more "America First" approach.

What is clear, however, is the extent to which the President, in his statements, repudiates the idea, implicit in much of U.S. foreign policy action over the last half century, that the United States is prepared to take on more of the costs of providing and sustaining the mechanisms of the international order in order to reap the benefits of global leadership. There is no embrace of G. John Ikenberry's arguments that a powerful state transforms its raw force into legitimacy for its leadership by supplying a series of international public goods–in part to avoid generating challengers. While Trump was speaking specifically about trade deals, his rhetoric about such international arrangements draining the vitality and wealth of the country reflected a view that the United States does not, in his opinion, receive an adequate return on its investment to justify the costs. Listening to the speech, I was struck by how much I was reminded of similar themes that were heard in 1990-91 by Russian politicians arguing that the Russian core should emancipate itself from the Soviet Union and its bloc of states–that Russia had been drained in order to support the Soviet global position. (Boris Yeltsin rode to electoral victory, in part, by his advocacy of a "Russia First" policy.) At the same time, the "liberal leviathan" position–that a benevolent hegemon like the United States underwrites the costs of the liberal global order to dis-incentivize challengers to its position–runs up against the President’s embrace of competition: he views the international system as defined by interstate rivalry, and therefore wants to husband American strength to compete more effectively. In part, this also reflects a view that is skeptical of having allies for allies’ sake. Again, we see this assessment that the return on American investment has been insufficient reflected in Trump's world view.

The State of the Union was also marked by an open and explicit rejection of two of the aspirational issues embraced by the preceding Obama administration: the effort to close the detention facility at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba; and the pursuit of the total elimination of nuclear weapons. Barack Obama had identified these two initiatives as critical to reasserting American moral leadership: seeing Gitmo as a blot on America's commitment to uphold human rights while arguing that the United States could not ask other countries to deproliferate while the U.S. itself continued to maintain its nuclear stockpile. Both grew out of the "liberal leviathan" view: that the most powerful state must lead by example. Trump, in contrast, views the elimination of nuclear weapons as appealing in theory but impractical in a world defined by interstate rivalry; possession of a strong and capable nuclear arsenal is seen as essential to deterring others from frontal assaults on the American homeland. Meanwhile, as long as the United States is engaged in a struggle with extremist elements around the world, no tool will be excluded from the toolbox–and Gitmo, while it can be reformed and better regulated, is still, in Trump's view, an essential part of that effort. In both cases, whether "global public opinion" wants Guantanamo closed or the U.S. to make greater efforts to eliminate its nuclear arsenal, those sentiments are, to the Trump administration, immaterial. In fact, throughout the speech, Trump made it clear that as president, his only lodestone is what serves the needs and interests of American citizens, not any world community.

However, the president reaffirmed other aspects of American engagement with the world. The State of the Union address reaffirmed the U.S. commitment to continue to lead an international coalition to defeat the Islamic State. While he did not resurrect the term "rogue regimes" (or the more anodyne "states of concern"), Trump argued that certain governments are beyond the pale given their internal governance and external destabilizing activities. But the focus–on North Korea or Iran–was less about the dangers they pose to the "international community" and more on the direct challenges to the United States itself. As with Trump’s decision to approve a limited surge of U.S. forces in Afghanistan, what we continue to see is a re-baptizing of earlier Bush and Obama policies to make them better conform to an "America First" worldview, where the U.S. is leading efforts not because of an embrace of any "liberal leviathan" role to eliminate threats to the global order, but because these regimes are problems for the U.S. This view was reinforced by Trump’s open embrace of greater transactionalism in foreign policy–at one point, suggesting that U.S. aid and assistance to other states should be directly linked to their support of U.S. initiatives.

Trump did not deliver an isolationist speech, calling on America to "come home." But the State of the Union, taken in conjunction with his remarks in Davos, reinforces this theme of America renegotiating its commitment to the international order and focusing on improving its competitive edge rather than on habituating others to its leadership. My takeaway from the State of the Union? "The era of the liberal leviathan is over."

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