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US Election: Isolationism and Global Power

10 Oct 2016
By Nathan Watson
Trump tower. Photo credit: Giuseppe Milo (Flickr) Creative Commons

Both US presidential candidates have been affected by multiple scandals—and the latest has seen the Trump campaign begin to unravel this week. So how did we get here? What are the factors that led to the rise of the improbable Republican candidate? And why do both Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton seem intent on reining in US global power?

If there is one major lesson to be learned from 2016 so far it is that the foundations of the current international order are shifting. In the United States, Donald Trump’s improbable run for president seemingly represents the rise of a new global counter movement, defined by its anti-immigration, anti-free trade and pro-nationalist ideology.

This movement has also manifested elsewhere in the form of the Brexit vote in the UK, far-right political parties in the EU and even the return of Pauline Hanson to Australian politics. For Australians, all of these developments are significant, but perhaps none more so than the outcome of the upcoming US election.

Australian security policy relies primarily on a stable and internationally engaged US—a reliance that the Trump campaign throws into sharp relief. There is a growing sentiment in the United States and around the world that the post-1945 liberal international order, defined by a global network of US security commitments and open economic relationships, has run its course.

Whether Trump becomes the next US president or not, current trends within the US suggest a possible shift in the willingness and ability of the US to support the current international order—including Australia’s bedrock security alliance ANZUS—in the future. There are two main reasons why this is the case.

Firstly, there is a pervasive notion that the US is in decline. This—a direct response to the war in Iraq, the Global Financial Crisis and the rise of China amongst other things—undermines the hegemonic identity on which the US-led international order relies. It is an identity defined by the willingness of the US to lead internationally and the willingness of its partners and allies to accept and legitimise that leadership.

If Trump wins, the Australian government and other US allies would be forced to assess the reliability and suitability of a US-centric foreign policy if its key ally is led by someone who campaigned on an ‘America First’ platform, someone also with little apparent interest in maintaining US alliance arrangements. Domestic public opinion hints at the potential dilemma of this scenario with an April poll by the Lowy Institute showing 45 per cent of Australians would want to distance the country from the US if Trump is elected.

Despite Hillary Clinton’s seemingly more conventional approach, she has also hinted she may respond to domestic pressure for less international engagement if elected. For example, Clinton no longer supports the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP). This is the trade agreement she helped craft with the specific purpose of further entrenching the current international order in the Asia-Pacific region.

Secondly, globalisation and the internet have dramatically changed the nature of social relations at the domestic and international level. These changes make it increasingly difficult for states to generate popular support for the policies that produce this hegemonic identity.

The social upheaval unleashed by 30-plus years of globalisation and information technology innovation has aptly been named the “global political awakening” by Zbigniew Brzezinski, former national security adviser to US President Jimmy Carter.

Brzezinski argues that for the first time in human history almost all of humanity is politically conscious and politically activated. This unprecedented ‘awakening’ has been in large part thanks to the increase in speed and quantity of information flows across state lines to all corners of the globe. Where access to information used to be limited by an individual’s local situation, individuals with nothing more than a smartphone and an internet connection can now access an almost unlimited supply of information on any topic of interest, especially politics.

This has dramatic consequences not only for social relations between an individual and their government but also the international system. Political ideologies and actors that previously could be easily marginalised or excluded by the state and civil society are now able to compete on a relatively equal footing with the dominant discourses of Western liberal democracy or US hegemony in an open marketplace of ideas.

The ability of individuals to gravitate towards self-selected sources of information that reinforce their particular world view is especially dangerous during a period where a significant portion of the US public have a pessimistic view about the future. A July 2016 Gallup poll of the US public showed that 82 per cent of Americans were dissatisfied with the direction the country was going in.

That this pessimism is manifesting in a new isolationism is unsurprising. A 2016 Pew Research Poll found 57 per cent of Americans felt that US allies should be willing to deal with their own problems without US support. For countries like Russia and China, who may see benefit in fomenting the ongoing sense of US decline, they have never been more able to inject anti-US discourse into the public consciousness than at present. State-run media outlets such as Russia Today operate actively in the US, a consequence of open societies and a free press.

For many, the assertion that the US may choose to retreat from its international role in the world is unthinkable. But that line of thinking arguably ignores the already growing evidence that the move in that direction is well underway. President Barack Obama is already disparagingly known by many in foreign policy circles as the ‘retrenchment president’—too willing to exercise strategic restraint.

But if the 2016 US election is anything to go by, the worst may be still to come. One hopes that behind closed doors, Australian policymakers are seriously considering what these global trends mean for Australia. If they aren’t, there could be important and unpalatable consequences for all Australians.

Nathan Watson is a PhD candidate at the University of Western Australia in the School of Political Science and International Relations. Twitter: @Nath_W_

This article is published under a Creative Commons Licence and may be republished with attribution.