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The Sky Fell

By Jonathan Cristol

The American election is over. So is the American era. Donald J. Trump’s inauguration this January will mark the beginning of the end of the post-World War II American order, and the U.S.—and the world—will bear the costs. His policies will disrupt or destroy the global trade regime and the free movement of goods, the U.S.-led alliance system, the disarmament (and security) of Japan and Germany, and the norms of non-aggression and non-proliferation. Domestically, they lead to more terrorism and economic disaster. Internationally, they lead to increased risk of major wars and humanitarian catastrophe. The world won’t simply wake up on Jan. 21 to the dystopian hellscape that Trump already described; it will be a gradual process and each change to the status quo will be normalized along the way, but the end result is a more dangerous world for everyone.

President-elect Trump has already spoken to South Korean president-for-now Park Geun-hye, assuring her that the U.S. remains committed to South Korea. But can President Park take the word of a know-nothing pathological liar, endorsed by Kim Jong Un, who has repeatedly questioned America’s commitment to South Korea and virtually every other U.S. ally? Even if there is only a 5 percent chance Trump would withdraw the U.S. security guarantee to South Korea, that may be too great a chance to take. The same situation applies to Japan. Both states must consider withdrawing from the Non-Proliferation Treaty and developing their own nuclear deterrent, and Japan should amend its constitution to allow for greater offensive military capabilities.

The Non-Proliferation Treaty had a good run—46 years—but the age of non-proliferation may be over. The possibility of American withdrawal and isolationism—combined with the possibility of American expansionism, aggression, and wars of conquest—will lead states with fewer safeguards on nuclear materials than Japan and South Korea, like Saudi Arabia, to develop their own nuclear deterrent as well. 

The international norm of non-aggression and non-territorial aggrandizement was dealt a knockout blow when Russia invaded Ukraine and annexed Crimea. Trump will finally kill it by recognizing that annexation, lifting sanctions on Russia, and questioning the U.S. commitment to NATO. The Baltic states’ situation is perhaps the most tragic of the coming Trumpocolypse. If Trump withdraws from NATO and Russia invades, there will be little the Baltics can do except fight the guerilla war for which they have been training. A U.S. withdrawal from NATO or failure to aid a NATO ally in the event of invasion would end the alliance altogether. NATO not only provides protection from Russian aggression, but also binds Germany to Europe and to the United States. If Angela Merkel loses in the 2017 German elections, we may find ourselves with a re-armed Germany, unmoored from European and American-led institutions and controlled by a far-right, anti-immigrant party. Future German aggression is unthinkable right now only because the Western institutions that Trump denigrates have worked so well.

America’s inward turn will force states on the periphery of the American alliance system, particularly in Asia, to decide whether or not they might be better off bandwagoning with America’s rivals than by counting on a United States that might not be there for them at all.

The global movement of goods and services is also threatened by the anti-free trade Trump. Trump will kill the Trans-Pacific Partnership and he has said that NAFTA is “the single worst trade deal ever signed,” threatening to “renegotiate or pull out.” Trump’s anti-free trade position was rooted in the assumption that Americans have lost jobs to citizens of other countries, and he has offered a comprehensive plan to fix this problem by “bringing those jobs back.” The reality is more complicated. Many jobs have been lost to automation and many have relocated from Midwestern states with strong union protections to Southern states without them. Free trade also creates jobs by opening new export markets and lowering the cost of American goods abroad, and it lowers prices on imports for the American consumer.

Trump has threatened to institute a 45 percent tariff on Chinese goods. This would not only not bring back American jobs, but would actually result in increased unemployment in the U.S.  Companies would not relocate their factories to the U.S., but would move to other low-cost countries in Asia. Since such a tariff would violate World Trade Organization rules, China would be able to retaliate against American firms by raising tariffs on American goods—and China is the United States’ fifth largest export market.

Trump’s policies will not only hit the American economy, but American homeland security as well. There is a reason why a spokesperson for the so-called Islamic State said that we should “ask Allah to deliver America to Trump.” The election of an illiberal, openly Islamophobic demagogue plays into the preferred Islamist narrative of a war between Islam and the West. It will not increase attacks originating from outside the U.S.—the Islamic State and al-Qaida have never stopped trying to harm America. However, the potential—or even likely—mass surveillance and harassment of Muslim individuals and mosques by the government and by emboldened neo-Nazis inside the U.S may create radicalization where it now does not exist. 

None of these problems exist in isolation. They require deft handling by an experienced team of thoughtful, intelligent, pragmatic individuals, with the knowledge that increasing international (and homeland) security and economic opportunity makes the world safer and that international affairs is not a series of binary, zero-sum games. America did not elect such a team, and we are not the only ones who will pay the price.

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Jonathan Cristol is a fellow at the World Policy Institute and a senior fellow at the Center for Civic Engagement at Bard College.  Follow him on Twitter at @jonathancristol. He reports from the United Nations on international security and UN reform.

[Photo Courtesy of Gage Skidmore]

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