Speaking at the German Marshall Fund (GMF) in Brussels on the 4th December, the American Secretary of State Michael Pompeo gave a speech titled ‘Restoring the Role of the Nation-State in the Liberal International Order’. His statements did not sit well with many world leaders such as the EU’s High Representative Federica Mogherini who conveyed her fears that “the rule of the jungle [might be] replacing the rule of law”. Geng Shuang, China’s Foreign Ministry spokesman, deplored the “America First” policy advanced by President Donald Trump and Secretary Pompeo, a policy he deems to be overly unilateral and protectionist.

In spite of the widespread opposition from many world powers to the “America First” policy, and the many apparent contradictions in Pompeo’s speech, it is clear that the emerging “Trump Doctrine” seeks to tackle issues that the Liberal International Order (LIO) brought into being or never managed to solve. From the failure of UN Peacekeeping missions to the counterproductive austerity measures imposed by multinational development banks, without forgetting the ineffectiveness of bureaucracies within supranational entities like the European Union, the Organisation of American States and the African Union, Pompeo drew a negative picture of the current LIO. According to him, the latter does not serve the people anymore, and is too often trampled by states with rogue tendencies such as China, Iran and Russia.

What is the LIO?

The LIO is the distinct period following World War II until now. The system behind the LIO has chiefly been underwritten by the US as a guarantor. It is popularly known for its focus on opening and internationalising economies, adopting rules and institutions for multilateral cooperation and a having preference for liberal democracy. The focus on liberal economics and multilateral cooperation has meant that the majority of states have gained stakes in the continuation of the LIO, with China being the best example. Although the country pursues a policy of creating Sino-centric institutions such as the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank (AIIB), China has been an important contributor to multilateralism, global economic development and an international rules based order.

However, as Secretary Pompeo argued, this system is in a deep crisis and needs reforming. China’s aforementioned successful integration in the LIO is perceived by Washington as a result of American retreat, which also allows states like Iran and Russia to violate the ‘Western values” of freedom and international cooperation. To be clear, Pompeo’s speech at the GMF was filled with contradictions and inaccuracies, like his calling Iran’s missile test a violation of UNSCR 2231 or even worse, his view that the LIO was allowed to corrode after the Cold War. In fact, the contrary is true: never has the LIO been so powerful than after the end of the Cold War, when America’s global supremacy was unchallenged.

Yet, the fact remains that both LIO sceptics and supporters believe that the system is in crisis and needs rebooting. While the former desire a step backward toward a more national environment, the latter believe that more of the same will usher in the LIO’s salvation. Indeed, many welcome a more multidimensional geopolitical approach, with a pluralisation of diplomacy and actors in the international system. This LIO 2.0 would be more hybrid and specifically crafted in a way to answer the urgency of sustainability and equal development in emerging markets, and the newfound task of making democracy work again in developed economies. Although this might be a high-minded proposition, it seems that what Pompeo offers the world is closer to the LIO sceptics viewpoint.

What is the “Trump Doctrine”?

In Brussels, Pompeo gave a rough outline of Trump’s doctrine: the US desire to reshape the post World War II system on the basis of sovereign states, not multilateral institutions. The goal is therefore to build “a new liberal order” by rallying “the noble nations” as such, in order to prevent war and achieve greater prosperity. For these goals to be achieved, Pompeo does not give much importance to multilateralism. Rather, he believes that not all multilateralism is by itself desirable and that international agreements must serve the interest of nations and not vice versa. Indeed, the Secretary of State and the President of the US tend to believe that multilateral institutions bring with them a caste of self-serving bureaucrats, whose commitment to citizens is rather doubtful. This is a recurrent sentiment among the populist right, and it is visible in conflicts between Brexiteers and Brussels’ bureaucrats or the “Gilets Jaunes” against the Parisian political elite. To justify his claims, Pompeo quoted the person who could be seen as the father of the post-War Transatlantic alliance -and therefore the LIO-, George Marshall, whose plan economically salvaged Western Europe and drew it closer to the US. In 1948, the former Secretary of State addressed the General Assembly at the UN and warned that national and personal effort, individual imagination and self-help could never be replaced by international organisations and actions.

As an alternative to multilateralism, President Trump has already professed his “put your country first” policy at the UN General Assembly in September 2018. For him, the central role played by the US in the LIO has seldom served its national interests. According to Professor Barry Posen, the US has pursued a globally expansive grand strategy over the past decades, which is “unnecessary, counterproductive, costly and wasteful”. Against this “liberal hegemony”, Posen advances a model of restraint, which calls upon America to forgo any ambition that is not directly related to immediate national interests. It is exactly this model that President Trump seems to apply by putting economic interests first, preferring culture over values, nations over institutions and not minding the formation of spheres of interests.

All in all, the Trump Doctrine is a rather coherent principle that has its precedent in US foreign policy, particularly its Jacksonian school. This does not mean that it is one hundred percent correct. On trade, the economist William Nordhaus has astutely demonstrated how the President’s policies do not take into account gains from trade, the changing nature of international commerce and the normalcy of trade deficits for an economic powerhouse like the US which attracts a lot of foreign capital. Yet this does not prevent the President from being right to reevaluate current international agreements and applying a cost-benefit bilateralism. There are indeed strong traits of isolationism in Trump’s Doctrine, as the latter is rather ambivalent toward the liberal international regimes that his predecessors have brought in place, and which have the potential to restrict America’s freedom of action.

Although the President has rather abided by international security regimes despite his controversial rhetoric, the same thing cannot be said for international economic regimes. Trump’s Doctrine means a rejection of the transformational foreign policy driven by ideals that has been central to America’s global image. In its place, the President adopts a cost-benefit and heavy-handed approach, not shying away from reformulating treaties like NAFTA and continuing trade ties with nations under scrutiny by the House of Representatives for violations of human rights. Although his Secretary still sugarcoats his policies with references to values and a “principled realism”, President Trump seems to rather follow what he deems to be common sense with a dash of fatalism. The President prefers to keep friends and foes alike at an arm’s length and likes to keep things unpredictable through statements like “let’s see what happens”. In other words, there is a heartfelt belief in the White House that America does not owe anything to the world and that the country can become more assertive in foreign policy with the sole objective of serving national interest.

How does the “Trump Doctrine” translate itself in the international sphere?

In reality, Trump’s Doctrine does not seek to reboot the LIO as much as it seeks to tackle the crisis of American leadership in it. Domestically, Trump has gathered 67% of the popular vote by appealing to people’s anxieties concerning economic decline. On the international level, Trump has also depicted America’s state under President Obama as disastrous and deteriorating. This is why his policies showcase a new assertiveness as the new President seeks to enlarge US power instead of adjusting it to decline. Whilst the previous President is deemed to have constantly apologised for America’s behaviour, the current head of state adopts an unapologetic approach which understands very well that the US remain unchallenged in terms of capacity and resources.

The President is correct in this sense. First of all he enjoys domestic economic success which serves as the engine of global growth and has led the famous economist Arthur Laffer to write a book titled “Trumponomics”. Moreover, he governs a nation with an unrivalled military and a large trade deficit which holds important advantages in the international political economy. Tales of American decline have often been exaggerated and the extent of American power overlooked. The current round of US secondary sanctions on Iran are a perfect example. Despite much of the world’s opposition to these sanctions, most international companies have followed the sanctions and deserted Iran. Even the international banking transfer body SWIFT, which stressed its political independence, was forced to disconnect sanctioned Iranian banks from its services. The EU’s ambition to circumvent US sanctions is unlikely to find its equivalent in real terms, and calls to put aside the USD in international transactions are rather ludicrous considering that 88% of all over-the-counter trades in foreign exchange markets are done in this currency, against 4% only for China’s Renminbi. In fact, although the post Cold War unipolar moment gradually fades away, it is highly likely that America’s global preeminence will last into the 21st century.

With his sanctions on Iran, tariffs on China and ambivalent relations to Russia, Donald Trump has directly targeted the symbols of American decline by demonstrating that unconventional and unilateral policies are and will remain at America’s disposition to revise relations and regimes that don’t serve its interests. These policies might not be effective in changing the unequal trading relation with China, bringing down the Islamic Republic or taming Vladimir Putin, but they send strong signals. Partisans of multilateralism might well be right that over the long term, these policies might prove to be counterproductive and accelerating America’s demise. But their outlook spans several decades if not centuries. For now, Trump is content with the idea that he rules over the world’s “indispensable nation” as Secretary of State Madeleine Albright called the US two decades earlier, at the height of the post-Cold War LIO. For the President, the US and its market is so badly needed over the world that a reformulation of treaties in favour of the US is not going to negatively impact the LIO.

Trump withdrew from the Paris Agreement, the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, the Trans-Pacific Partnership and even warns he would do the same with the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty. Yet, all these agreements are not left in the void, at least not in Trump’s mind. Secretary Pompeo assured his audience in Brussels that the President did not want to destroy the LIO, but rather reform it. Until now, he already managed to reformulate NAFTA into the USMCA. Tomorrow, he might be successful in drafting a JCPOA 2.0 or strike a “North-Korea deal” with Vladimir Putin. It is this unpredictability that is the secret weapon of the Trump Doctrine. Using America’s unparalleled force, the President is able to use permanent destabilisation in America’s favour, by showing us how the world really is, and not how the LIO has tried to shape it.

Why Trump might be right?

Donald Trump is rather hermetic to the usual vocabulary used by his predecessors. For him, the concept of international community might seem odd, and he might very well be right about it. Fundamentally, Trump’s Doctrine is a return to realism and sees the world as an arena where nations, non-state actors including companies engage and compete against each other for advantage. Behind this realism is a welcomed development whereby the US gradually abandons its ideologically driven mission to craft the world in its own liberal democratic image. For all his flaws, the President can hardly be coined a hypocrite, especially for his foreign policy. For many, the LIO has solely been viewed as a shorthand term for US global leadership or a largely Western-driven project which never achieved a perfectly global scope.

In the 1990s, political scientists like Francis Fukuyama would have argued that the natural evolution of the LIO would result in the proliferation of supranational entities and the mushrooming of liberal democracies. Now their view has radically changed in order to accommodate recent political developments. Social dislocation due to inequality, demographic change, media polarisation and increasingly automation in the developed world have led to the resurgence of nativism and national identities. Instead of converging toward a pan-European identity, a seizable portion of the continent’s populations want to highlight their national specificities. This is why Trump’s Doctrine might be right, in not only adopting a more sincere and realist foreign policy, but also in surfing the wave of current political developments across the world. The more these developments unfold, the more it is likely to see different versions of the same doctrine around the globe.

It might be wrong to call it the “Trump Doctrine” as the President has nearly added anything to policies and attitudes that are deeply entrenched in American foreign policy and identity. Yet, by advertising it and defining it clearly, Trump and Pompeo point to something larger, which potentially has tremendous support. Increasingly, there seems to be a formation of the Internationale of nationalisms, with leading figures such as Steve Bannon and Marine Le Pen meeting at various consecrated conferences. For them and their electorates, less institution is welcome and more action is needed. To appeal to sentiments, more nation is desired and less internationalism is advocated. Late 20th century thinkers might have augured the end of the Westphalian moment too soon. What they seem to have forgotten too is that Pompeo and Trump are right to apply a particular focus on the nation-state. Contrary to Europe, much of the world is endowed with rather young states, where people are increasingly attached to their nation and wish their country to reach the power status achieved by other countries in the 20th century. It is common knowledge that nation-building and nationalism are emerging. This is particularly visible in regions such as the Gulf, where national days, military service and national sentiment are on the rise.

With a return to its traditional central leadership, the US might be guilty of acting blind in the face of growing multipolarity. Yet, this is the grand strategy that is currently pursued and advocated by its administration. In some way this strategy tackles domestic turmoil by maximising US power and showing a position of strength. On the international side, this strategy adopts a realist viewpoint which embraces global adversity and the rise of nationalism. It remains to be seen whether the global adoption of this strategy as the new LIO will usher in another era of peace and prosperity, or unleash unrestrained competition and warfare.


Department of State, 4 December 2018, “Restoring the Role of the Nation-State in the Liberal International Order”

International Affairs, Doug Stokes, 2018, “Trump, American hegemony and the future of the liberal international order”.

Financial Times, Gideon Rachman, 16 July 2018, “The Trump Doctrine – coherent, radical and wrong”.

Foreign Affairs, Rebecca Friedman Lissner, Mira Rapp-Hooper, 31 July 2018, “The Liberal Order Is More Than a Myth”.

Foreign Affairs, Graham Allison, 31 August 2018, “The Truth About the Liberal Order”

Reuters, Robin Emmott, 4 December 2018, “Trump shaping new ‘liberal’ order to block Russia, China, Iran, says Pompeo”.

The Atlantic, Jeffrey Goldberg, 11 June 2018, “a Senior White House Official Defines the Trump Docrtrine: ‘We’re America, Bitch’”.

Vox, 8 October 2018, William Nordhaus, “The Trump doctrine on international trade: Part One and Two”

The Washington Post, 19 October 2018, “‘It doesn’t matter’. ‘We’ll see’. The Trump Doctrine is sounding more fatalistic every day.”

Wall Street Journal, Walter Russell Mead, 9 July 2018, “How Trump Plans to Change the World”.

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