Four Ways Trump’s Promise to Remake the World Could Pan Out

The possibilities range from essentially cosmetic changes to chaos.

Jens Stoltenberg Donald Trump Theresa May
NATO secretary general Jens Stoltenberg, American president Donald Trump and British prime minister Theresa May attend a ceremony at NATO headquarters in Brussels, May 25, 2017 (NATO)

Gideon Rachman argues in the Financial Times that Donald Trump’s promise to reform the international system could pan out in one of four ways:

  1. Trump succeeds in getting the changes he wants and the system survives, in a modified form, with America still the global leader.
  2. A new system emerges, with the rest of the world operating under multilateral rules and ignoring unilateralist America as far as possible.
  3. America’s withdrawal leads to a collapse in the rules-based order — and chaos.
  4. Trump is satisfied with essentially cosmetic changes and the system continues much as it is now.

It’s too early to tell which will prevail

There are arguments to be made for each scenario:

  1. Canada and Mexico have entered into negotiations to revise NAFTA. Protectionism is on the rise. European allies are raising defense spending.
  2. The Trans Pacific Partnership is going forward without America. The EU is leading on free trade. China is forging ahead with its One Belt and One Road Initiative.
  3. No power can take over as global security provider. Neither the euro nor the renminbi is ready to serve as the world’s reserve currency. All countries will suffer if the United States continue to block WTO judges.
  4. Big business would revolt if Trump made good on his promise to break up NAFTA and the president has largely outsourced foreign policy to the Defense Department, which is keen to sustain America’s involvements around the world.

Rachman’s view

Rachman suspects cosmetic change is the likeliest outcome, although he worries Trump might break the world America built by accident:

Nationalistic gestures are always likely to provoke nationalistic responses, particularly from a rising power, such as China.

My view

I believe his scenarios #1 and #2 are more likely.

Even if Trump can be satisfied with essentially cosmetic changes, his rhetoric alone, and the simple fact that America gave so much power to such a buffoon, is causing countries to rethink their relations with the United States. Allies hope for the best but must plan for the worst.

And Trump didn’t come out of nowhere. He is accelerating, rather than ushering in, the demise of American hyperpower. Even Barack Obama, who defended the liberal world order, recognized that America’s moment in the sun was coming to an end and he nudged allies to take more responsibility. Trump isn’t giving them a choice.