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Downfall of the American Order

Updated: Feb 10, 2022

Opinion by Ryan D'Souza.

A spread of blueprints, some rolled up and some laid out, on a tabletop.

In the post-Trump era, many believe that the U.S.-led world order is coming to its end. This decline is often associated with Donald Trump’s election in 2016; however, the problem of American decline is larger than Trump, who may be better understood as an accelerator of this process. In reality, the withering of American power has deeper roots in post-9/11 U.S. foreign policy, which pushed a unilateral approach to international relations that carried into the Trump administration, ultimately giving rise to America’s rival great powers.

The Consequences of American Unilateralism

In the months following the 9/11 attacks, President George W. Bush’s shift toward unilateralism became very apparent as his administration pursued one-sided action without regard for its allies and their reservations. This was a dramatic departure from America’s earlier commitments to a multilateral system prioritizing cooperative action with allies on common interests. The first major example of this shift was seen with the Iraq War and the failure to achieve an international consensus in the United Nations [1]. America's retreat from diplomacy and the subsequent invasion of Iraq by the Coalition of the Willing in March 2003 sparked a transatlantic crisis between America and its European allies [2].

The crisis and continued practice of unilateralism by the Bush Administration reflected a fundamental change in the U.S. foreign policy agenda. However, this change proved to be a serious mistake as it ran against the popular principles of what is often referred to as the liberal international order. Without the support from its network of allies and partners, America was risking their goodwill and global perceptions, which were crucial to its influence. While Bush’s mistakes where mostly addressed under the presidency of Barack Obama—who emphasized multilateralism on trade, climate action, and military interventions (e.g., in Libya)—unilateralism made a strong return under Donald Trump.

Following his election, President Trump aggressively pursued a variety of foreign policy objectives without adequate consideration and consultation with allies, as evidenced by his actions in the American withdrawal from the Iran nuclear deal, the Paris Climate Agreement, and the strike that killed Iranian General Qasem Soleimani. Much like the Bush years, Trump’s unilateralism during his time in office fostered opposition among allies that undermined America’s position in the world [3]. Additionally, American unilateralism during the Trump years proved far more consequential than Bush’s brand because U.S. allies and partners were willing to uphold multilateralism without U.S. presence, as illustrated by the Trans-Pacific Partnership and the Paris Climate Agreement [4]. In the end, America’s unilateral approach led to the country locking itself out of key partnerships while opening vital areas of influence to its rival great powers.

The Rise of China and Russia

The wake of America’s regression from the world stage presented new opportunities for rivals like Russia and China, who used them to undermine the liberal international order that buttressed U.S. power. Russia did so by causing internal contestation within the U.S. while China aimed to expand its influence by building an alternative to the existing global order.

A re-emerging rival of the U.S., Russia’s efforts to disrupt American society are exemplified by its interference in the 2016 presidential election using Russian-linked agencies such as the Internet Research Agency (IRA). The IRA sought to sow discord by using internet accounts and posing as Americans to address divisive issues during the election [5]. Through their campaigns, which targeted rivals like Hillary Clinton and supported the Trump campaign, Russia found a way to cause internal contestation and undermine the international order from within the main superpower’s borders. In doing so, Moscow fuelled the Trump presidency and America's contentious shift toward unilateralism.

America’s other great power rival, China, has pursued a more international strategy to contesting the U.S.-led world order. Compared to Russia, China has sought to build an alternate order through efforts like the Belt and Road Initiative and Asia Infrastructure Investment Bank, providing loans and building critical infrastructure in smaller countries without the conditions of human rights and democratization typically attached to loans from the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund [6]. In doing so, not only does China secure a foothold and create an order that directly challenges the West, but the state also expands its sphere of influence to strategically important countries in order to undermine America’s reach. Unless the U.S. takes on a greater role in preserving the liberal world order and its position in it, the superpower risks losing its critical allies.

Reversing American Decline?

So, how does America reverse this decline? It is inevitable that orders rise and fall, and so too may the liberal international one fall someday. But the decline of this U.S.-led order can be mitigated and avoided if America returns to its policy of multilateralism, which is the source of its power in the world. Thus, any political effort to counter great power rivals requires America to reaffirm its international agreements and partnerships and unify the country. However, as we have seen with the aftermath of the Trump presidency and the incumbent Biden presidency, these things are easier said than done and would require long-term commitments and internal cohesion.



[1] Daalder, Ivo H., and James M. Lindsay. America Unbound the Bush Revolution in Foreign Policy. Washington, D.C.: Brookings Institution, 2003. p. 136.

[2] Triantaphyllou, Dimitrios. “Transatlantic Crisis.” European Union Institute for Security Studies, February 27, 2003.

[3] Haass, Richard. “Present at the Disruption.” Foreign Affairs, September 14, 2021.

[4] Friedman, Lisa, and Somini Sengupta. “The U.S. Left the Paris Climate Pact. Allies and Rivals Are Pressing Ahead.” New York Times, November 4, 2020.

[5] Cooley, Alexander and Daniel Nexon. Exit from Hegemony: The Unraveling of the American Global Order. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2020. p.154.

[6] Ibid, p. 116.

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