America adrift: Trump has ended the 'post-World War II era'

America adrift: Trump has ended the 'post-World War II era'
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The Trump administration — inadvertently or purposefully — is accelerating the collapse of the post-World War II international order, an order constructed by America and its allies which built the institutions and global systems that served as a historical force for global peace and prosperity for decades.

The post-World War II order advanced core American interests; the U.S., along with similarly valued Western European allies, defeated Soviet communism, thereby eliminating an existential nuclear threat. This order also unleashed unparalleled economic opportunity in the heartland; America served as the engine of global growth typically through vast commercial deals denominated in dollars, written in English and under U.S. laws.

After 1945, all presidents made the effective functioning of the international order a foundational foreign policy priority — including, of course, President TrumpDonald TrumpClinton, Bush, Obama reflect on peaceful transition of power on Biden's Inauguration Day Arizona Republican's brothers say he is 'at least partially to blame' for Capitol violence Biden reverses Trump's freeze on .4 billion in funds MORE’s GOP forebears Eisenhower, Reagan and Bush 41, in particular, who embodied global leadership as part of their presidential DNA.


No international ordering system lasts forever. After 75 years, the post-World War II order is ripe for disruption. President Trump, however, has poured accelerant on this system, collapsing it with no strategy for a new 21st century global structure that protects national interests, preserves U.S. leadership and reflects American values. In fact, President Trump has taken steps which unwittingly cede the runway to our global and regional adversaries to challenge American leadership.

For instance, by abandoning the Kurds in northeastern Syria, President Trump has set forth a cascade of events which will weaken American leadership and the post-World War II order. ISIS militants, sympathizers and supporters are escaping into the region and beyond; ISIS ideology remains intent on confronting the West, and now their trained fighters are back in the battle. Russia wins too: It is advantaged by tearing at the fabric of NATO, with Turkey now confronting the U.S. and Europe. President Trump has given Russia, Iran and Syria's Assad regime the opportunity to re-control most of the oil in Syria as U.S. forces on the ground retreat. Further, without ambassadors in many of the key states — including Russia, Jordan, Egypt and Qatar — the U.S. cannot systematically advocate its policy positions on a day-to-day basis. And at a critical time in the transition from the post-World War II order, President Trump’s skepticism of the national security establishment has hollowed out, devalued, and marginalized the Foreign Service, to such an extent that the Department of State both indicates and accelerates this breakdown of the old order.

While the tragedy of Syria is just one example, history will recognize that the Trump administration oversaw the imminent collapse of the post-World War II order. The next decade will witness massive challenges to any emergent order. The future will be marked by great-power competition, particularly among China, Russia and the U.S., while ascending powers like India, Turkey, Iran and a UAE/Saudi bloc (potentially joined with the Israelis) jockey for benefit among the great powers and pursue their own regional aspirations. By its nature, multi-actor competition will increase the risks of chaos and disorder. A lack of predictability and financial stability will almost certainly increase conflict and undermine market confidence and economic prosperity.

The yet unnamed “post-post-World War II order” will also have to contend with the extreme consequences of climate change, particularly in South Asia, the Horn of Africa and the Arabian Peninsula. Increased heat waves, drought, food insecurity and a struggle for resources will ignite a set of grievances that will challenge weak nations and provide a robust platform for militia groups to seek redress from elites, institutions and states. The world witnessed Al Qaeda and ISIS — but, in the next generation, envision these groups on steroids with expansive operating space as a result of climate change stress.

Finally, artificial intelligence (AI) will be unpredictably consequential to any new world order. AI will serve as a force multiplier in the military and the intelligence community — as a tool to improve governance or to surveil citizens — and across all facets of the economic spectrum. The race for AI is on between the U.S. and China; the first adaptor for general AI will gain significant advantage over the rest of the world. As an authoritarian state, China is able to concentrate capital and talent to its goals — but whether that approach prevails is unknown. Nevertheless, the globe is experiencing the first results of AI today, whether with facial technology in the Hong Kong crackdown or with autonomous cars on the streets of Palo Alto.

The post-World War II international order is effectively over. The Trump administration negligently hastened the inevitable, largely through chaos and a lack of a strategic, apolitical plan regarding future risks. In so doing, the Trump administration has unmoored American foreign policy principles, ignored national security expertise and created grave risks for the homeland and the world at large.

R. David Harden is managing director of the Georgetown Strategy Group and former Assistant Administrator at USAID’s Bureau for Democracy, Conflict, and Humanitarian Assistance, where he oversaw US assistance to all global crises.