Foreign Policy Research Institute A Nation Must Think Before it Acts State of the Union: The Era of the Liberal Leviathan Is Over

State of the Union: The Era of the Liberal Leviathan Is Over

Ethics & International Affairs

Donald Trump delivered his first State of the Union address–and used the rostrum in the House of Representatives to again break with some of the precepts which have defined the so-called “bipartisan American foreign policy consensus,” even though, at the same time, he continues to reframe some of the policies generated under that consensus in terms of a more “America First” approach.

What is clear, however, is the extent to which the President, in his statements, repudiates the idea, implicit in much of U.S. foreign policy action over the last half century, that the United States is prepared to take on more of the costs of providing and sustaining the mechanisms of the international order in order to reap the benefits of global leadership.  There is no embrace of G. John Ikenberry’s arguments that a powerful state transforms its raw force into legitimacy for its leadership by supplying a series of international public goods–in part to avoid generating challengers. While Trump was speaking specifically about trade deals, his rhetoric about such international arrangements draining the vitality and wealth of the country reflected a view that the United States does not, in his opinion, receive an adequate return on its investment to justify the costs. Listening to the speech, I was struck by how much I was reminded of similar themes that were heard in 1990-91 by Russian politicians arguing that the Russian core should emancipate itself from the Soviet Union and its bloc of states–that Russia had been drained in order to support the Soviet global position. (Boris Yeltsin rode to electoral victory, in part, by his advocacy of a “Russia First” policy.) At the same time, the “liberal leviathan” position–that a benevolent hegemon like the United States underwrites the costs of the liberal global order to dis-incentivize challengers to its position–runs up against the President’s embrace of competition: he views the international system as defined by interstate rivalry, and therefore wants to husband American strength to compete more effectively. In part, this also reflects a view that is skeptical of having allies for allies’ sake. Again, we see this assessment that the return on American investment has been insufficient reflected in Trump’s world view.

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