February 26, 2018

Donald Trump’s “Illiberal Hegemony”



Barry Posen, a political scientist at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and one of the leading scholars of American grand strategy, has a fascinating essay in the latest issue of Foreign Affairs. I want to write more later about some areas where I disagree with Posen’s argument (some of which I articulated in the paper I wrote last year on libertarian foreign policy). However, I want to highlight here an aspect of Posen’s argument that I think is spot on.

Since he first articulated his “America First” foreign policy agenda during the 2016 campaign, critics have argued that Donald Trump wanted to end American hegemony. Posen argues that, as president Trump, has not actually tried to end American leadership of the international system. If anything, he has accelerated. However, Posen claims that Trump has also transformed America’s strategy of “liberal hegemony” into an “illiberal hegemony.” He writes,

Although he has indeed laced his speeches with skepticism about Washington’s global role, worries that Trump is an isolationist are out of place against the backdrop of the administration’s accelerating drumbeat for war with North Korea, its growing confrontation with Iran, and its uptick in combat operations worldwide. Indeed, across the portfolio of hard power, the Trump administration’s policies seem, if anything, more ambitious than those of Barack Obama.

Yet Trump has deviated from traditional U.S. grand strategy in one important respect. Since at least the end of the Cold War, Democratic and Republican administrations alike have pursued a grand strategy that scholars have called “liberal hegemony.” It was hegemonic in that the United States aimed to be the most powerful state in the world by a wide margin, and it was liberal in that the United States sought to transform the international system into a rules based order regulated by multilateral institutions and transform other states into market-oriented democracies freely trading with one another. Breaking with his predecessors, Trump has taken much of the “liberal” out of “liberal hegemony.”

He still seeks to retain the United States’ superior economic and military capability and role as security arbiter for most regions of the world, but he has chosen to forgo the export of democracy and abstain from many multilateral trade agreements. In other words, Trump has ushered in an entirely new U.S. grand strategy: illiberal hegemony.

I think this is exactly right. Trump was never the “isolationist” that some claimed. I was always more convinced by Stephen Wertheim, a fellow at King’s College in London, who argued early in the Trump presidency that the term “militarist” was a better description—with the forty-fifth president’s first year in office lending a great deal of support to his argument. Trump never really suggested he would give up American leadership. Instead, he would make it more transactional. His frequent calls for American allies to “pay their bills” suggested American security guarantees were more akin to a protection racket than the underpinning of mutually beneficial security institutions.

The question for me has always been whether President Trump’s transformation of American hegemony will lead to the end of American leadership, not whether he intended to give it up. A number of writers assessing the first year of the Trump presidency have concluded that that is the effect, even if not the intention. Posen disagrees, arguing that America’s allies will prioritize the free security the United States provides over the multilateral trade agreements the Trump administration will discard—though he believes the president is wrong to continue offering those security guarantees. I’m less sanguine than Posen, but I hope to spell that out in a longer post later.