Trump: Architect or Avatar of the post-liberal international order? Roundtable with Dr Gorana Grgic, U.S. Studies Centre

22 Oct 2019
Trump: Architect or Avatar of the post-liberal international order? Roundtable with Dr Gorana Grgic, U.S. Studies Centre
The post-World War II era saw the rise of a global order reflecting the liberal values of its chief architect and patron, the United States. The end of the Cold War seemed to confirm the so-called liberal international order and many scholars presumed this order would remain unchallenged. In the decades since, unprecedented geopolitical shifts prompted scholars and foreign policy commentators to question the liberal international order’s sustainability.

In a roundtable hosted by Perth USAsia Centre on 3 October with Dr Gorana Grgic, a foreign policy expert at the United States Studies Centre (USSC) in Sydney, discussions centred around the question of how the presidency of Donald Trump might contribute to the dismantling of the current order. Even though the 2020 U.S. presidential election might not be won on foreign policy, our participants at the roundtable agreed that the results carry serious implications for international relations.


It is important to define the President’s foreign policy approach in the first instance. It is clear from the actions he has taken in his first term that he is not an isolationist, and his preference for engagement is staunchly unilateralist. Trump prefers to deal with allies and competitors directly rather than through institutions or as part of a multilateral effort. Participants made points about his negotiation style. At best, his style could be described as transactional, reflecting his long career in real estate deal making. At its worst, he can be coercive, applying maximum pressure on a party to get concessions before walking back from the brink.

Recent polls and surveys have revealed that the American people are not exactly aligned with President Trump’s foreign policy approach. Like their president, Americans are not isolationist. In fact, the Chicago Council on Global Affairs finds Americans are supportive of their country’s involvement in international affairs. At near-record high levels, 69% of Americans said it is best for the future of their country if it takes an active role in the world.

When it comes to the international relationships and institutions that Trump vehemently opposes or takes a sceptical approach towards, Americans take a different view to their president. Pew Research Center found that large majorities on both sides of American politics say NATO – which Trump once referred to as “obsolete” – is good for the United States.  The Yale Program on Climate Change Communication found that nearly 70% of registered American voters say the U.S. should participate in the Paris Agreement, from which Trump withdrew the U.S. in 2017. It is unclear whether this misalignment will translate into a swing against Trump on Election Day. Domestic political issues might remain as deciding factors.

Trump’s presidency has highlighted four problems, whether one agrees with the way he has addressed them or not. Whoever wins the election in 2020 will have to manage the fact that:
  1. China has emerged as a problem for globalisation
  2. Burden-sharing in alliance networks has been unequal
  3. The gains from international economic integration have not been distributed fairly
  4. Immigration does bring a set of problems and challenges.
Both sides of the political aisle in the United States come with their own different policy options to manage these problems.

Democratic candidates offer two slightly different directions for American foreign policy and are no less consequential. Former Vice President Joe Biden most clearly reflects the values and the policy thinking that are hallmarks for upholding the original liberal order. Elizabeth Warren and the likes of Bernie Sanders offer a different brand, a kind of “skinny” or “light” liberal-international order. Grounded in their progressive ideals, they see the U.S. drawing back its military might, giving labour leaders a seat at the table when shaping trade architecture, and limiting the influence of multinational corporations.

Bipartisan consensus exists when it comes to the Trump Administration’s approach to China. Both political parties have been supportive of dealing with China more competitively. Democratic Senator Chuck Schumer has been openly supportive of President Trump’s stance on China, taking to the social media platform Twitter to voice his approval for tariff increases against Chinese imports.  

Observers of American foreign policy are also waiting for clarity on the following five questions:
  1. What are the conditions under which the U.S. is willing to use military force?
  2. How will the U.S. go about regulating trade?
  3. What will it do about immigration?
  4. What will it do about climate change?
  5. How will U.S. policy towards China continue to take shape?
The roundtable concluded with an observation that the United States once pursued a values-based foreign policy and that the composition of American society is starting to resemble a cross-section of the world. There was a sense around the table that the changes in American society and its underlying values will likely become a more enduring influence on American foreign policy than the actions of one Presidential Administration.



Kyle Springer
Kyle Springer
Senior Analyst
Kyle Springer is the Senior Analyst at the Perth USAsia Centre. He provides high-level program assistance and develops the think tank and external outreach programs of the Centre. Kyle also directs the Centre's Indonesia programs and convenes policy workshops focussed on Australia-Indonesia relations.
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