President Donald J. Trump has radically disrupted America’s place and role in global politics, accurately fulfilling the compelling characterization by The Economist of the 45th president as an “insurgent” inspired by a “demolition theory of foreign policy.”
Some of the disruption has come from Trump’s bizarre and never-before-seen personal diplomacy. After all, we just don’t expect a president of the United States:
- To yell at another prime minister of a close ally during a phone call and then abruptly hang up;
- to rudely elbow another prime minister out of the way at a summit meeting, and then dismiss him later as a “whiny punk bitch”;
- to mean-tweet that the prime minister of a close ally and trading partner was “very dishonest and weak”;
- to claim to have fallen in love with another world leader whose government openly threatens the United States and American allies;
- to express interest in buying a territory from an ally, and then, when the prime minister of that ally turned him down, to call her “nasty,” and then petulantly cancel a state visit that had been arranged for the following month.
- to write to another president of an ally urging him not to be a “fool.”
And some of the disruption comes from the president’s idiosyncrasies on foreign policy matters: his aggressively proud ignorance about the world; his refusal to read; his casual dismissal of experts; his willingness to take his policy cues and information from Fox News; his tendency to lie about matters both large and small; and yet his overweening Dunning-Kruger confidence in his “gut instincts.”
But most of the disruption in America’s place in the world has come from the consistent and active efforts by Trump to change US policy on a range of issues to fit his long-standing views about America and the world — and in particular how “the world” has been, as he might put it, screwing the United States. When Trump claimed in his inaugural address on 20 January 2017 that “We’ve made other countries rich while the wealth, strength, and confidence of our country has disappeared over the horizon,” he was distilling a set of long-simmering resentments about the international system that have been consistently on display since he announced his bid for the presidency in 2015 (and, it might be noted, well before that). A small sampling would include the following assertions made over the years:
- “We can’t continue to allow China to rape our country, and that’s what they’re doing” (May 2016)
- “The Trans-Pacific Partnership is another disaster done and pushed by special interests who want to rape our country, just a continuing rape of our country… That’s what it is, too. It’s a harsh word: It’s a rape of our country” (June 2016)
- “Our allies have taken advantage of us” (June 2016)
- “The Paris Climate Accord is simply the latest example of Washington entering into an agreement that disadvantages the United States to the exclusive benefit of other countries” (June 2017)
- “Canada’s brutal… for many, many years they’ve been outsmarting us” (March 2018)
- “NAFTA was the worst deal ever made” (October 2018)
It should be noted that Trump’s propensity to characterize this putative exploitation of the United States as “rape” has extended to NATO: as Anonymous, the senior Trump administration official who penned A Warning, noted, Trump repeatedly expressed a desire to leave NATO on the grounds that the United States was “getting raped” by the other countries in the alliance.
Given the consistency of these views, it was little surprise that once in office Trump would move to translate them into US policy. The imposition of tariffs on a range of US trading partners, the withdrawals from multilateral organizations and agreements, and the persistent denigration of American alliances by the president are all part of a consistent piece.
But how should we characterize this shift in American policy being carried out by Trump? Stephen M. Saideman argued in December 2017 that what we were seeing during Trump’s first year in office was the undoing of the main tenets of hegemonic stability theory, the idea in International Relations that a single dominant state, the hegemon, provided the international system with “public goods” such as stability in economic relations. Saideman proposed, his tongue firmly in his cheek, that what we were seeing from the Trump administration is “hegemonic abdication theory” — the process by which a hegemonic actor like the United States stops providing those goods to the world.
But it can be argued that what we are seeing is much more than just a withdrawal of the willingness to help create and maintain stability — financial, geostrategic, and political — to the system.
Rather, what we are seeing is the active ceding of American power and leadership to other states and governments in the international system. Trump’s refusal to criticize the Russian Federation on a range of issues, including the open Russian subversion of Ukraine and unambiguous Russian interference in domestic American politics, has opened opportunities for the government in Moscow to expand Russian power and influence in eastern Europe, in Syria in the Middle East, and in Libya in North Africa. Moreover, the president’s personal support for Vladimir Putin and Russia has been amplified by the president’s Republican enablers in Congress and his supporters on the Fox Broadcasting Company.
Trump’s negative view of American alliances — “I mean, what’s an ally?” he said dismissively to Lesley Stahl on 60 Minutes in October 2018 — when translated into policy, essentially cedes power to others. Moreover, his insistence on seeing America’s alliances as nothing more than the kind of protection rackets that he had known in the property development business (“Nice country you have there, it would be a shame if something happened to it…”) does other powers, notably the Russian Federation in Europe and the People’s Republic of China in the Asia-Pacific, a huge favour by sowing distrust among America’s allies about the commitment of the United States to the maintenance of its leadership role in global politics.
The consistent denigration of NATO has pushed the European allies to openly question the future of the alliance. As early as May 2017, just months after Trump’s inauguration, Angela Merkel observed that “The times in which we can fully count on others are somewhat over… And so all I can say is that we Europeans must really take our destiny into our own hands.”
Likewise, when Trump threatens to withdraw American troops from Japan and the Republic of Korea unless those countries pay 400 per cent more than they do now, as he did in November 2019, all that that does is cede power to Beijing, prompting the governments in Tokyo and Seoul (and other governments in the region too) to adapt to the new geostrategic realities by altering their relations with the PRC.
But the “Trump cession” is not only occurring in the geostrategic realm. It is evident across virtually all areas in American foreign policy: in trade policy, with the withdrawal from the Trans-Pacific Partnership and the purposeful hamstringing of the World Trade Organization; in climate change policy, with the announced withdrawal from the Paris climate accords; in human rights policy with Trump’s persistent silences about human rights violations, particularly in the People’s Republic of China; in the area of non-proliferation with the withdrawal from the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action that had limited Iran’s nuclear activities.
In short, the Trump Administration is doing much more than just abdicating America’s global leadership. Trump and his Republican enablers in the United States Congress are actively ceding power to others, forcing America’s friends and allies to grapple with not just the evanescence of American leadership but the dissipation of American power. Moreover, the Trump cession, short in the making, will have long and lingering effects, lasting long after this president departs office.
Based on a presentation entitled “‘I mean, what’s an ally?’ The Trump cession and Canadian foreign policy,” Norman Paterson School of International Affairs, Carleton University, 9 November 2018; updated 27 November 2019
 For an account of the phone call between Trump and Malcolm Turnbull, prime minister of Australia, on 28 January 2017, see Greg Miller and Philip Rucker, “‘This was the worst call by far’: Trump badgered, bragged and abruptly ended phone call with Australian leader,” Washington Post, 2 February 2017, https://www.washingtonpost.com/world/national-security/no-gday-mate-on-call-with-australian-pm-trump-badgers-and-brags/2017/02/01/88a3bfb0-e8bf-11e6-80c2-30e57e57e05d_story.html.
 At his first NATO summit in May 2017, Trump unceremoniously shoved Duško Marković, prime minister of Montenegro, out of the way: Samantha Schmidt, “Breaking down Trump’s ‘shove,’” Washington Post, 26 May 2017, https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/morning-mix/wp/2017/05/26/breaking-down-trumps-shove-the-internet-debates-and-montenegros-leader-shrugs/. When an aide asked him afterwards why he had been so aggressive, Trump replied “Oh, he’s just a whiny punk bitch.” See Omarosa Manigault Newman, Unhinged: An Insider’s Account of the Trump White House (New York: Simon & Schuster, 2018).
 On 9 June 2018, Trump tweeted this about Justin Trudeau, prime minister of Canada: https://twitter.com/realDonaldTrump/status/1005586562959093760.
 At a rally in West Virginian on 29 September 2018, Trump claimed that he and Kim Jong-un, leader of North Korea, had “fallen in love”: https://www.independent.co.uk/news/world/americas/trump-kim-jong-un-love-letters-relationship-denuclearisation-nuclear-weapons-a8561701.html.
 In August 2019, Trump expressed interest in buying Greenland, an autonomous territory of Denmark. When Mette Frederiksen, the Danish prime minister, responded by calling the discussion “absurd,” Trump called her response “nasty,” and cancelled a state visit to Denmark. Martin Selsoe Sorensen and Richard Pérez-Peña, “Denmark’s leader didn’t want a fight with Trump. She got one anyway,” New York Times, 22 August 2019, https://www.nytimes.com/2019/08/22/world/europe/-trump-greenland-denmark-mette-frederiksen.html
 As Trump did in a letter to the president of Turkey, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, in October 2019: Vivian Ho, “Donald Trump’s bizarre, threatening letter to Erdoğan: ‘Don’t be a fool,’” The Guardian, 17 October 2019, https://www.theguardian.com/us-news/2019/oct/16/trump-letter-erdogan-turkey-invasion.
 Sarah Zhang, “Trump’s most trusted adviser is his own gut,” The Atlantic, 13 January 2019, https://www.theatlantic.com/politics/archive/2019/01/trump-follows-his-gut/580084/.
 United States, White House, “Inaugural address,” Washington, DC, 20 January 2017, https://www.whitehouse.gov/briefings-statements/the-inaugural-address/.
 “Over four decades, Trump’s one solid stance: A hard line on trade,” Washington Post, 7 March 2018, https://www.washingtonpost.com/business/over-four-decades-trumps-one-solid-stance-a-hard-line-on-trade/2018/03/07/4b1ed250-2172-11e8-badd-7c9f29a55815_story.html
 Anonymous, A Warning (New York: Grand Central Publishing, 2019), https://books.google.ca/books?id=4gizDwAAQBAJ&printsec=frontcover#v=onepage&q=getting%20raped
 See, for example, Michael C. Webb and Stephen D. Krasner, “Hegemonic stability theory: an empirical assessment,” Review of International Studies 15 (1989): 183–98.
 Stephen M. Saideman, “Hegemonic abdication theory,” Saideman’s Semi-spew, 10 December 2017, http://saideman.blogspot.com/2017/12/hegemonic-abdication-theory.html
 J. Brooks Spector, “Trump to Zelensky on Ukraine: Nice country you have there, it would be a shame if something happened to it,” Daily Maverick, Johannesburg, 26 September 2019, https://www.dailymaverick.co.za/article/2019-09-26-trump-to-zelensky-on-ukraine-nice-country-you-have-there-it-would-be-a-shame-if-something-happened-to-it/.
 Jon Henley, “Angela Merkel: EU cannot completely rely on US and Britain any more,” The Guardian, 28 May 2017, https://www.theguardian.com/world/2017/may/28/merkel-says-eu-cannot-completely-rely-on-us-and-britain-any-more-g7-talks.
 Michael Flynn, Michael Allen, and Carla Martinez Machain, “Trump wants South Korea and Japan to pay more for defense,” Washington Post, 26 November 2019, https://www.washingtonpost.com/politics/2019/11/26/trump-wants-south-korea-japan-pay-more-defense/