WPTPN: The Legitimacy of American Hegemony in the Age of Trump

3 December 2016, 0900 EST

This World Politics in a Time of Populist Nationalism (WPTPN) guest post is written by Daniel Braaten, Assistant Professor of Political Science at Texas Lutheran University.  His main research interests are in the areas of global governance, human rights, and U.S. foreign policy.  His research has been published in the Review of International Studies, Journal of Peace Research, Journal of Human Rights, and Human Rights Review.

What effect will a Donald Trump presidency have on American hegemonic legitimacy? My purpose here is not to wade into debates about whether U.S. hegemony is benign, here to stay, already gone, or more like an empire. My use of the term hegemony is only to acknowledge the role the U.S. has taken to build, maintain, and benefit from the post-World War II global order and how Trump’s foreign policy may impact America’s role in maintaining this system going forward. Already commentators are arguing that a Trump Presidency (coupled with the Brexit vote and a global surge in nationalism) spells the end of this system. So how might a Trump presidency undermine the legitimacy that underlies America’s hegemonic position and the post-World War II system of international institutions, embedded liberalism, and democracy?

Legitimacy is rightful authority and is essential for the effectiveness of any political order whether domestic or international. Hegemonic legitimacy then is the rightful authority accrued to the most powerful state in the international system. A hegemonic state cannot exercise effective leadership if its actions are viewed as illegitimate, and one might go so far as to say a powerful state cannot become a hegemonic state without legitimacy. A powerful state without legitimacy is just that – a powerful state, which may be able to influence political outcomes to a certain degree through coercion and the application of material power, but will never be able to order international politics because it lacks the legitimacy of consent from the follower states. In previous academic work, my coauthor David Rapkin and I argued that America’s hegemonic legitimacy is based on four factors: shared values, open accessible decision-making procedures, strategic restraint, and the provision of global public goods. Based on these four factors how might American legitimacy fare under a Trump Presidency?

Before we can answer that question we need a rough idea of what a Trump foreign policy might look like. During the presidential campaign Donald Trump made many erratic and contradictory promises for what he would do when he was President. Despite the many contradictions of the Trump campaign, as the journalist Evan Osnos shows, he has been consistent on three main issues:

One of them is his belief that the United States is fundamentally being damaged by immigration. Number two is his belief that trade deals have done more damage to the United States than they have helped. And number three is his belief that the United States does too much for the world. As he said in 2015, ‘I want to take back everything that the United States has given the world’.

Needless to say, this “America First” foreign policy represents a radical departure from the liberal internationalism of Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama and even the Neo-conservatism of George W. Bush in each of the four areas that undergird US hegemonic legitimacy.

Shared Values: As Michael Barnett points out, “Trump’s vision of America in the world is all power and no purpose.” His foreign policy does not even make a rhetorical gesture to support for human rights, democracy, the rule of law, or support for global economic prosperity. In fact he has explicitly endorsed and advocated for extreme violations of human rights and has open disdain for international humanitarian law not to mention what impact the American economic nationalism advocated for by Trump will have on the rest of the world. None of this is to say that U.S. foreign policy has always been conducted with support for democracy, human rights, and global economic prosperity at the forefront. The U.S. is certainly guilty of violating many of these values over the past decades but the U.S. has also made a rhetorical commitment to these values a part of its foreign policy along with actual support for these values in the context of supporting its own national security and domestic economic prosperity.  What is unprecedented is the open disdain by Trump for many of the values that underlie the current system and his desire to radically alter them.

Open accessible decision-making procedures: Robert Tucker and David Hendrickson argue that one of the pillars of American legitimacy in the post-World War II international order was/is its commitment consensual modes of decision-making.   This was reflected in the decision-making structures of international institutions such as the UN and World Bank. Of course the U.S. still has decision-making advantages in these institutions and others but their overall structure allows for meaningful input from participating countries. Diplomacy is another key factor in allowing allies access to decision-making procedures and providing a mechanism to let them know their concerns are being heard. Trump’s general “America first” approach to U.S. foreign policy indicates that he will have little time for maintaining a commitment to international institutions and will probably be openly hostile to institutions such as the WTO. Trump’s appointment of South Carolina Governor Nikki Haley as U.S. Ambassador to the U.N. indicates some willingness to work with the institution but the fact that the Secretary of State appointment has been so fraught does not bode well for traditional American diplomacy. This, as Elizabeth Saunders and James Lebovic remind us, is not “splashy” and therefore doesn’t seem to interest the President elect but it is vital for maintaining America’s legitimacy. The only international diplomacy Trump does seem interested in is that which will benefit him personally.

Strategic Restraint: The concept of strategic restraint is most closely related with John Ikenberry’s argument that the U.S. bound itself to international institutions post-World War II in order to limit some of its own autonomy as a means of inducing follower states to join the order without fear of being dominated. At its most basic level, strategic restraint requires adhering to international law and maintaining treaty obligations. As part of his first 100 day plan, President-elect Trump promises to re-negotiate or withdraw from NAFTA and effectively withdraw American support for the Paris Climate Accord. Of course, Trump also made provocative statements throughout the campaign questioning the importance of NATO and America’s commitment to it although there are now some signs that Trump may be softening his opposition. Overall, Trump has expressed disdain for international law especially in terms of trade agreements and has spoken widely about abandoning many American treaty commitments.

Providing Global Public Goods: Joseph Nye argues that the U.S. should provide global public goods because not only does the U.S. reap benefits from such goods but also that they “legitimize our power in the eyes of others.” Global public goods produced by a hegemonic state can be both diffused- such as promoting peace and stability and more concrete and specific- such as effective military engagement or serving as an engine for global economic prosperity. It can be argued as to how effective the U.S. is currently in providing global public goods, but Trumps position that the U.S. “does too much for the world” indicates a greater retrenchment for the U.S. in the future and much less of a willingness to even attempt providing global public goods.

Trump’s “America first” foreign policy does not bode well for American hegemonic legitimacy. Assuming he is able to accomplish what he proposes, a Trump Presidency would likely spell a significant reduction in U.S. engagement with the world coupled with flagrant violations of international law and its treaty obligation when it does engage. Declining American legitimacy will make it more difficult for the U.S. to achieve its foreign policy goals as states will be less accommodating and less likely to support U.S. actions if they view these actions as coming from an unrestrained superpower rather than a legitimate political actor that takes their interests (at least to a certain degree) into consideration when taking action. This post is not meant as a blind defense of the status quo as there are many inadequacies with the current international order and there are many possible reforms that can and should be made to make it more fair and equitable. However, nothing Donald Trump offers in the way of temperament, leadership, ideology, or policy portends any positive reform of the system but rather an unraveling which opens up the possibility for a much more dangerous world.

The Duck of Minerva’s WPTPN series is still seeking guest contributions. If you are interested in writing a post and have research expertise in international relations, international political economy, foreign policy, comparative politics, or cognate fields please see this post for more information.