Trump’s Long Shadow and the End of American Credibility
In the first lecture of any introduction to international relations class, students are typically warned of the pitiless consequences of anarchy. World politics, they are informed, is a self-help system: in the absence of a global authority to enforce rules, there are no guarantees that the behavior of others—at times, dangerous and malevolent others—will be restrained. With their very survival on the line, countries must anticipate the worst about the world and plan and behave accordingly.
Like most abstractions, IR 101’s depiction of the consequences of anarchy is a radical oversimplification, useful as an informal modeling device, as far as it goes. In the real world—that is, for most states, most of the time—survival is not actually at stake when they are deciding which among various possible foreign policies to adopt. And countries rarely retreat into a defensive crouch, unwilling to trust any others, paralyzed by the fear that today’s apparent friend will become tomorrow’s mortal foe.
Still, also like most abstractions, there is an inviolable kernel of truth to the anarchy fable. Ultimately, the world of states is indeed a self-help system, and so countries must necessarily make guesses about the anticipated future behavior of others—about what seems likely and the range of the possible and the plausible.