Donald Trump’s apparent willingness to bust up NATO and the European Union, together with his penchant for starting trade wars and his repeatedly expressed affinity with autocratic strongmen, have led a lot of commentators to bemoan the threat he poses to the liberal international order that the United States has led since World War II. Not a few pundits have remarked that his behavior seems remarkably in line with the geopolitical interests of one Vladimir Putin, with whom our president seems to have some kind of special relationship.
The NY Times’s Brett Stephens thinks Trump’s behavior isn’t just a reflection of his defective personality; it’s willful ideology. Trump knows what he’s doing—he’s seeking
….the substitution of a liberal order with an illiberal one, based on conceits about sovereignty, nationality, religion and ethnicity. These are the same conceits that Vladimir Putin has long made his own….”
Stephens may well be right, but I have my doubts. I doubt that Trump is capable of caring about, much less strategizing against, anything so abstract as a “liberal international order.” I think most of his behavior could well be explained by his personal convictions (yes, he does have some), his domestic political interests, and his disordered personality.
Trump has few political convictions not subject to revision for political expediency, but his crude hyper-nationalism is genuine. His behavior is consistent with his long-held belief that an over-generous United States is exploited relentlessly by its allies and trading partners. He’s also playing to his base, who want to MAGA and are happy to see their impolitic leader telling it like it is it to phony friends who have diminished America’s greatness. Anyway, it all comes very naturally to Trump, a true sociopathic narcissist whose lifelong constant is his drive for self-aggrandizement and domination over others, no matter the consequences.
It could be, as Jonathan Chait suggests, that Trump is a willing Russian asset. And/or, as Stephens argues, that Trump is consciously engaged in unmaking the existing international order. But we can’t know for sure, and there is a simple alternative explanation for his obnoxious and destructive behavior: it’s just Trump being Trump.