The Future of US Foreign Policy: An End to Liberal Internationalism?

Liberal internationalism, despite what the phrase may imply, does not favor the views of Democrats over Republicans. Instead, liberal internationalism features bipartisan values—including freedom, democracy, an open global economy, and respect for human rights. Defined by international engagement, it promotes liberal states’ engagement with other states’ affairs and wider global issues. Since World War II, the liberal internationalist stance of American foreign policy, often referred to as ‘Wilsonianism,’ has been upheld to cope with both direct and indirect challenges related to U.S. national security.

The election of President Donald Trump has added fuel to the perennial discussion about the direction of American foreign policy. Current scholarly and practical discourse has circulated around his ‘martyred’ transactional approach to foreign policy, which is based on populist nationalism and mercantilism, and which jeopardizes the core beliefs of the liberal order. His withdrawal from the Trans-Pacific Partnership, decision to back out of the Paris Climate Agreement, disdain for the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO), opposition to free trade, and even his amicability toward authoritarian leaders all represent fundamental challenges to established Western liberal ideas that have never previously been questioned—at least not to this degree.

In early 2017, the International Security Studies Forum (ISSF) assembled a group of dedicated political scientists to provide insights into whether the internationalist component of U.S. foreign policy will prevail or erode as a result of President Trump’s influence. In the 2017 ISSF policy roundtable paper, Robert Jervis introduces the topic by providing a global context for the debate: Trump’s term has coincided with watershed events such as Brexit and populist movements throughout Europe. In light of these circumstances, each author or team of co-authors presents their interpretation of the future of liberal internationalism in the United States.

Joshua Busby and Jonathan Monten begin by presenting an eclectic view. Citing the 2016 Chicago Council on Global Affairs survey, they demonstrate that the majority of American people firmly support liberal internationalist values, such as mutually reinforcing alliances, globalization, and free trade. The authors note that, despite the overarching public support for it, the core fundaments of liberal internationalism in U.S. foreign policy have been primarily sustained by a small number of political elites who hold the power to construct foreign policies. The authors suggest that as foreign policy concerns carry low salience for many American voters, liberal internationalist views fall short of material reflection in the political process—a point highlighted in Trump’s election. As a result, Trump as well as his nationalist and protectionist base, could erode the bipartisan scaffolding of the liberal internationalist consensus of U.S. foreign policy, notwithstanding the evidence that most Americans subscribe to liberal internationalist views.

On the other hand, Robert Shapiro analyzes growing partisan difference regarding American foreign policy and anticipates that liberal internationalism will be sustained, albeit in a deeply partisan context. Particularly, Shapiro notes that over the past several years, Democrats and Republicans have viewed the same foreign policy issues, including immigration, refugee policies, terrorism, foreign aid, military spending, and international trade, with increasingly diverse perspectives. This divergent trend has become more pronounced by Trump and his supporters, increasing the level of political row. Shapiro concludes that this may undermine the consistency of bipartisan consensus in American liberal internationalist foreign policy.

Stephen Chaudoin, Helen Milner, and Dustin Tingley enrich the discussion with an optimistic view of the future of liberal internationalism. They argue that domestic and international constraints will prevent Trump and his supporters from imposing dramatic changes to the existing liberal internationalist components of American foreign policy. While acknowledging that Trump’s expressed foreign policy principles often directly contradict liberal internationalism, Chaudoin and his co-authors also question how significantly his policies could, in practice, deviate from liberal internationalist tenets—especially considering Congress’s support for liberal internationalism and its impact on trade, immigration, and the role of the military. The authors argue that diverse liberal internationalist voices in the democratic political and economic systems in America will ultimately conserve liberal internationalism.

Besides these domestic constraints, Trump also faces international constraints. An American retraction from an established international system could incur significant costs to U.S. national interests, as a country’s leverage in most international institutions, including the United Nations, the International Monetary Fund, the World Bank, and NATO, is nominally based on that country’s contributions. If the U.S. yielded any degree of burden sharing within these institutions, other members would acquire greater influence in exchange for their increased contribution. In this situation, other great powers like Russia or China could steer international systems toward their own national interests, which would likely undercut American foreign policy imperatives. With these factors considered, Chaudoin and his co-authors conclude that Trump is unlikely to take these risks, and that although liberal internationalism may be impacted by his foreign policy, its key characteristics will be preserved by domestic and international pressures.

In another essay, Brian Rathburn relays his expectation that Trump will face difficulty constituting and sustaining the domestic coalition necessary to his foreign policy-making. The rationale behind this theory is twofold: First, Trump’s perspectives on foreign policy oppose the liberal internationalism upon which most Americans agree. Second, Trump has already fragmentized his support base by pursuing foreign policies that are both in line with Republican beliefs—such as better trade negotiations—and counter to Republican beliefs—such as restrictions on imports and comments that indicate support for authoritarian regimes. Considering Trump’s inconsistent behaviors, Rathbun speculates that it will be difficult for him to impose significant, long-lasting changes to liberal internationalist foreign policy.

As these diverse interpretations indicate, the future of liberal internationalism in U.S. foreign policy is uncertain. However, most of the authors agree that President Trump may not have the ability to make practical or significant changes to the well-founded stronghold of liberal internationalism. In any case, what the authors can affirm without question is that liberal internationalism in America has never been more unpredictable—and therefore, it has never been more important.

Article source: Jervis, Robert, Joshua Busby, Jonathan Monten, Stephen Chaudoin, Helen Milner, Dustin Tingley, Brian Rathbun, and Robert Shapiro. “Is Liberal Internationalism Still Alive?H-Diplo/ISSF Policy Roundtable 1-6 (2017): 1-80.

Featured photo: cc/(KCHL, photo ID: 578811080, from iStock by Getty Images)

Changwook Ju
Changwook Ju (MPP’18) is a staff writer for International Affairs at the Chicago Policy Review. He is interested in alliance politics, the causes of war, crisis bargaining, domestic politics and foreign policy, non-democracy, nuclear strategy, and the political economy of conflict. He spent two years in the Republic of Korea Marine Corps as a sergeant, and holds dual undergraduate degrees in Public Policy and Political Science from Sungkyunkwan University in Seoul, South Korea.

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