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Trumphalia & U.S. Foreign Policy

In 1648, the Peace of Westphalia put an end to a devastating European conflict, the greatest before the twentieth century, according to British historian J.K. Elliott. The end of the Thirty Years War with the treaties of Osnabrück and Münster gave rise to the expectation of greater stability. The recognition of new political and religious realities, the importance of securing the monopoly of force in the state and the reshaping of power in Europe were subsequently reflected in the fields of law and international relations. The process of secularization, the invention of the principle of territorial sovereignty, the pursuit of the balance of power, the relevance of legal equality between states and the value of diplomacy were the legacies of Westphalia. In short, a new order began to emerge gradually in Europe and then, later, on a worldwide scale.

Today, after 369 years, we may be witnessing an opposite trend with the “War of Trumphalia” possibly symbolizing the emergence of multiple conflicts of devastating potential at the global level. The United States, under the mandate of Donald Trump, could become the greatest promoter of global instability.

The significant geopolitical transformations after the end of the Cold War and the gradual changes in the international redistribution of power have had a paradoxical effect: despite being the major architect and beneficiary of the liberal order forged after World War II and notwithstanding being the primus inter pares in the international system, Washington, under Trump and his advisors, increasingly appears to have become a dissatisfied, revisionist power. In effect, the strategy of primacy, which was outlined in 1991-92, was definitively embodied in US foreign and defense policy since September 11, 2001.

According to this strategy, the United States does not tolerate, and thus acts to prevent, the emergence of any peer competitor, whether an old enemy with aiming to challenge US hegemony (Russia), an emerging power with global aspirations (China) or even a traditional ally (the European Union). George W. Bush deployed this strategy aggressively, Barack Obama tried to calibrate and modulate the strategy while Trump seems determined to implement primacy in a particularly arrogant and obtuse fashion. The United States under Trump is not isolationist; it should be isolated to avoid major, uncontrolled crises worldwide.

Trumphalia can thus be interpreted as expressing a distorted and regressive version of Westphalia. Instead of vindicating the secular, it reaffirms the clash of religions and civilizations. It rejects the notion of relative sovereignty and advocates an absolutist and obsolete approach to sovereignty. It decries the merits of balance of power and instead seeks a costly and dangerous imbalance of power in favor of the United States alone, even while undermining the power and interests of the West as a whole. It rejects formal equality between states and prefers bullying both friends and foes. Finally, Trumphalia devalues diplomacy in favor of exhibiting coercive and military muscle.

From the presidential campaign up to his inauguration and the first days in office, Donald Trump’s assertions and decisions have been eloquent and consistent: total war on terrorism; all-out struggle against Islam internationally as well as within the United States itself; selective undiplomatic pronouncements and policy actions against Muslim-majority countries; provocation to the Arab world by announcing the possible transfer of US Embassy in Israel from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem; an intention to impose new and unilateral sanctions against Iran even though it is complying with the nuclear agreement reached in 2015 between the P5+1 countries and Tehran; open hostility toward Mexico, a neighbor that has never been a threat to Washington; proclamation of a potential trade war against China; complete disdain toward multilateral institutions and agreements; apparent readiness to escalate a nuclear arms race vis-à-vis Moscow; detachment towards traditional allies such as the European Union which has been crucial for international peace since the end of the Second World War; among many other threatening policies.

Meanwhile, many Democrats and Republicans want to “do something”– perhaps including the use force abroad—against a resurgent and emboldened Russia; against Iran before it becomes a significant regional power; against North Korea due the expansion of its nuclear program; and against China because of its ongoing economic rise and military build-up, among other perceived threats to US primacy.

In short, the United States–comparatively the most influential country in the world as far as military power and still the strongest economy among the Western powers–seems immersed in a maelstrom of insecurity, exasperation and arrogance to such an extent that it is willing to engage in a dangerous cowboy politics against adversaries, allies and partners alike. This is the essence of Trumphalia.

Not surprisingly, in response to the threat of destabilization represented, among others, by Trump’s coming to power, the well-respected Bulletin of Atomic Scientists has recently reset the so-called “Doomsday Clock.” For the first time since 1953 the clock now reads 2 minutes and 30 seconds to midnight: the deadly hour.