by FEISAL AMIN AL-ISTRABADI
Anyone born after 1945 has lived their entire life in a global political and economic order whose rules were written by the United States. This system was the result of conscious decisions made by presidents of both parties, from Franklin Roosevelt (though he did not live to see it come to fruition) through Barack Obama, each of whom maintained it. This Pax Americana included the creation of such entities as the United Nations, the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO), and (now) the World Trade Organization. Seventy-five years later, the 2020 election may well determine the fate of this international system.
A fundamental premise of this system as the U.S. created it was that it would—not always, but generally—play by the rules it had drafted. Yet, over the past four years, the U.S. has increasingly and consciously isolated itself from the world, even its closest allies. “America first” increasingly looks more like “America alone.”
The clearest example of this phenomenon was its decision to withdraw unilaterally from the U.N.-backed Iran nuclear agreement. Two years later, in the summer of 2020, the U.S. realized that certain sanctions against Iran were about to expire. It was forced to go back to the U.N. Security Council to seek continuation of those sanctions but suffered its most humiliating defeat at that body ever. Of the 15 Members, the U.S. was only able to garner one other vote to its side. America’s closest NATO allies (Belgium, France, Germany, the United Kingdom) did not support it. The latter three, each a party to the original agreement, had urged the U.S. not to withdraw, but to try to improve it from within.
The U.S. balked against the combined weight of world opinion, acted unilaterally, only to realize later that it actually needed the support of allies to accomplish its strategic objectives. It needed the very countries that are in NATO, an alliance that Donald Trump said was “obsolete” in 2016.
America is the world’s greatest military and economic power. It is stronger than any other state in the world, but it is not stronger than the rest of the world combined. If the U.S. continues to bully the world, rather than engaging with it, even its closest allies will start to contemplate institutions not reliant on the U.S. Two states are now actively creating institutions looking to a post-American world: China and Russia. Neither wishes the U.S. well.
A similar tale can be told about global trade, where a bipartisan consensus on free trade over the past 75 years has been shattered in the last four years. The U.S. has engaged in tariff wars not only with China, but with our closest allies, including Canada, a country with which the U.S. actually runs a trade surplus.
Retaliatory tariffs from countries like China, Canada, and the European states against American goods have had real-life consequences, some of them here in Indiana. Hoosier soybean farmers have lost access to Chinese markets, which took them decades to develop. China found other markets to purchase soybeans, and
it is unlikely that Indiana farmers will return easily to the Chinese market. Meanwhile, as the U.S. isolates itself from an international consensus on free trade, of which it had been the principal champion, even the leader of one of America’s closest allies, Germany, has publicly wondered aloud whether there should be an alternative to the dollar as the currency of international trade, an eventuality that, should it occur, would have a dramatically negative impact on the value of the dollar.
The Trump administration’s rejections of these foundational U.S. policies are not irrational. Americans may conclude that they no longer wish to carry the burden of being the guarantors of the international system. The rising power likely to take over that role is America’s ideological adversary, China. It may be that the U.S. electorate prefers a world in which China writes and enforces the world’s rules, one in which the U.S. role is diminished, which is the trajectory we are on now and likely to continue to if the president is reelected. What is distressing to this former-practitioner-turned- observer of international relations is that a debate on the desirability of such an eventuality is not now taking place. We may simply stumble into it.
Feisal Amin al-Istrabadi is the founding director of the Center for the Study of the Middle East at Indiana University, where he is also a professor of practice at the Maurer School of Law and the Hamilton Lugar School of Global and International Studies. An attorney, he represented Iraq at the United Nations as ambassador and deputy permanent representative from 2004–2007.