Skip to main content

by Dr. Ofer Israeli

After a century of an American world order established by U.S. President Woodrow Wilson at the end of the First World War, we are facing a shift in Washington’s global attitude. President Trump’s approach to world affairs is different. Although Obama, and to some extent Bush before the September 11, 2001 terror attacks, was starting to withdraw from the U.S. historical position of key global superpower, President Trump’s approach to world affairs is a much more drastic acceleration of this move. Continuing in this direction means we may soon face a collapse of America’s century-long preeminence, and the creation of a new world order in which the U.S. is no longer leading the global power, but only first among sovereigns, if at all.

The Century-Long American World Order, 1918-2018

In January 1918, Woodrow Wilson presented principles for peace in his Fourteen Points,[1] establishing an international world order after ‘The Great War’, the First World War, “the war to end all wars”.[2] Until recently, all American presidents followed this order in one way or another.[3]

The devastating results of the First World War activated the United States to lead an overwhelming reform of the international relations system. This was the most significant world order change since the creation of the modern state system in the 1648 Peace of Westphalia conference, following the Thirty Years’ War in Europe.[4]

The supporters of the liberal idealist revision that was established at the end of the First World War generally fell into one of three groups. The first group supported creating international institutions to reshape the international anarchy,[5] seeking to soften the war-prone balance of power with a reliance on collective security,[6] such as the League of Nations,[7] and later on the UN.[8] A second group emphasized the use of legal processes based on mediation and arbitration to settle disputes and avoid armed conflicts, such as the creation in 1921 of the Permanent Court of International Justice. A third group sought disarmament as a means to ending war by securing arms control and disarmament agreements, exemplified by the Washington and London naval conferences.[9]

The American attitude to world order that was established after the First World War continued on the same path after the end of the Second World War, due to the destruction in European and Asian countries. Washington chose to quickly reconstruct Europe’s and Japan’s economies by investing billions of dollars to modernize and rebuild their industries,[10] and at the same time to reconstruct the world order by operating according to liberal worldview attitudes. Relying on the principles of the interdependence economic theory, America reduced trade barriers. Relying on the ideals of the democratic peace theory, the United States hoped to inspire democracy and peace globally.[11] Relying on the values of collective security theory, Washington created NATO to secure Western Europe from the potential aggression of the Soviet Union.[12]

Following the Soviet Union’s demise and the end of the Cold War,[13] American presidents in general have maintained this world order. The NATO alliance, established in the aftermath of the Second World War to balance rising Soviet power, demonstrates this. The collapse of Soviet imperial rule in the late 1980s, however, did not lead to NATO’s end.

At the same time, although the U.S. commitment to NATO was put under question by the end of the Cold War,[14] all American presidents of this period before President Trump – George H.W. Bush and Bill Clinton as well as George W. Bush and Barack Obama – kept Washington’s broad obligation to European security. Under Obama’s presidency, trans-Atlantic relations between America and the EU reached a record high. President Obama’s view of the international reality was very similar to those of the liberal European governments and especially of the most important European state, Germany of Angela Merkel.[15]

President Obama’s global attitude was a kind of a passive strategy,[16] following the deterministic long-cycle theory that was naturally receptive to the historical shift of power between the major states in the system. Two key points demonstrated this. The first and most important one was his acceptance of the rise of China to a position of a leading superpower status, potentially above America at some point in the future. The second was the way he dealt with the nuclear aspirations of Iran.[17] Instead of blocking Tehran’s ambitions to become a nuclear force with military means, President Obama worked to manage it by negotiating the Iran nuclear deal, which only delayed the consequences of a nuclear Iran to the Middle East, especially to America’s two key allies in the region, Saudi Arabia and Israel.

Trump’s American Global Strategy

The election of Donald Trump to the presidency resulted in a big change to the century-long path the U.S. had walked on the international scene. The current administration’s global policy maneuvers between the ‘America first’ approach of focusing at home and ‘Make America great again’ by the restoration of superpower status and U.S. leadership in the world. President Trump’s ‘vision’ may be seen as a focus on home and return to superpower status. These two parts are connected to and encourage each other, on the theory that if one looks to focus at home to bring prosperity to America, this ought to lead to a return of the U.S. to its historical global superpower and leadership status.

To achieve these two great challenges, President Trump concluded that he should chose a totally different path to that of his predecessor, and adopt a new approach that is presented in his speeches and by his actions on the global stage. In many aspects, President Trump’s attitude followed the hegemonic stability theory, a body of theory that maintains that the establishment of hegemony for global dominance by a single great power is a necessary condition for global order in commercial transactions and international military security.[18]

Contrary to President Obama, who some leading scholars argue followed an inactive strategy that constituted a “managed decline” of the U.S. as a world power,[19] President Trump and his administration embarked on what can be called a “transformative presidency” that undertakes an aggressive and proactive strategy of rebuilding America’s status as a leading world power. Even though he rejected President Truman’s famous statement “the buck stops here”,[20] Trump has not hesitated to confront the key challenges the U.S. is facing today in the international arena, especially the rising global power of China, the threat of a future nuclear armed Iran, and a defiant nuclear North Korea.

Based on his world view, Trump separates the world into three key camps. The first and favored group includes players such as Prime Minister Netanyahu’s Israel. In President Trump’s eyes, the favored group also includes President Putin’s Russia, in opposition to the view of many high-ranking American military and officials past and present.[21]

The second and the dangerous group includes “America’s foes” with a special focus on two rivals. First, the global economic and strategic adversary, China. Second, the global ideological and moral challenger, radical Islam, which includes the Islamic State (ISIS), the Islamic Republic of Iran, and surprisingly also Erdogan’s Turkey, a key NATO member.

The third group includes what may be called the “can-be-used-allies” that are almost totally dependent on America for their security and therefore can be used by Washington to achieve the President’s key goals. First, the Western allies, including the UK, Germany, as well as the Eastern European members of NATO and the EU, all of whose security, according to the President’s view, are mostly dependent on America against the historic enemy Russia, the successor of the Soviet Union of the Cold War period. Second, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, which rely on the U.S. presence in the Middle East region, and Washington’s active posture against their old enemy, Shia Iran. Third, South Korea and Japan, reliant as they are on America’s nuclear umbrella and other security guarantees to deter the unpredictable enemy, North Korea.

Thus, while during the Cold War era Secretary of State Henry Kissinger’s efforts were aimed at bringing China in for the purpose of isolating the Soviet Union, President Trump’s vision is different – drawing closer to Moscow while trying to isolate Beijing. This effort is mixed with the trade war President Trump is waging against China by imposing tariffs on billions of dollars of Chinese goods. He is also abandoning the traditional global trade agreements that his predecessors created. By getting close to Moscow, President Trump also hopes to achieve another goal of causing the NATO allies in Europe to invest more money in their own security. Among other reasons, this goal would help Washington save the funds vital for achieving President Trump’s vision at home of making the American economy more prosperous.

Israel is important to President Trump for two key reasons. The first reason, and perhaps the more important one, is the fact that President Trump’s strongest supporters, the evangelicals, consider Judaism, and the Jewish State of Israel, as the main basis for the very existence of what they call the Judeo-Christian civilization. Following on that, President Trump kept his election campaign promise to recognize Jerusalem as the capital of Israel, moving the U.S. embassy to Jerusalem. The second reason is Israel’s regional importance in President Trump’s vision. Trump considers the fight against ISIS, a continuation of the Obama strategy in this regard, nearly completed.[22] The campaign against Iran is underway after abandonment of the JCPOA, and as sanctions are being imposed on the Ayatollah regime of Tehran. In President Trump’s eyes, Israel plays a key role in this mission.[23]

The Possible Dire Consequences of Trump’s Policy

American Presidents come and go every four or eight years. It is quite possible that in the years 2020 or 2024 the elected president will push a different policy for global order. However, at the moment, President Trump is taking steps that could change the world order created by President Woodrow Wilson and maintained by all American presidents since then.

While President Trump is perhaps trying to renew America’s unipolar moment and its global preeminence, he appears in many cases to be doing the opposite, which ultimately may lead to America’s demise as the world leading power. A few key points can be presented to support this argument. First, trying to get the Europeans to pay for defense instead of cooperating with them to contain Russia’s influence in Europe has increased Moscow’s influence instead of decreasing it. Second, pulling forces from Syria and Afghanistan instead of increasing U.S. involvement in this key region helps both Russia and the rising global power China, as well as the local powers Iran and Turkey, to replace America’s historical key position in the Middle East. Third, criticizing U.S. senior military officers for their global U.S. leadership approach has weakened morale and blocked them from maintaining American leadership. Fourth, withdrawing from its position as the world’s business leader could cause very bad consequences to the U.S. economy in the long run, helping China become a world ranked superpower challenging the U.S. Consequently, it looks as though President Trump is unintentionally leading in the opposite direction than what he has planned. President Trump has made it possible for other states to gain a competitive advantage over the U.S. that may result in making America first among sovereigns rather that maintaining global supremacy.

In the end, Trump and his administration may be successful in reasserting America’s world leadership position and keeping America’s domination, however unenthusiastic U.S. allies and partners may be to support this path. Or, the current administration will fail to overcome the monumental obstacles to realizing this vision, and in the process will break quite a few plates in the store. While it is still impossible to predict the outcome, it is clear that President Trump is making key changes in the world order that will shape global trends for years to come.End.


[1] President Woodrow Wilson’s Fourteen Points, January 8, 2018.

[2] There are literally thousands of books about the First World War. For an excellent analytical overview of the origins of the war see William Mulligan, The Origins of the First World War (Cambridge, MA: Cambridge University Press, 2010).

[3] For the superpowers’ wars and key disputes in the world scene during the years 1816-2016 see Ofer Israeli, International Relations Theory of War (Santa Barbara, CA: Praeger, 2019).

[4] The Westphalia Peace of 1648 is a series of treaties that collectively ended hostilities in the Thirty Years War of 1618-1648. It is commonly said to mark the beginning of the modern system of international relations. Stephen D. Krasner, “Westphalia and All That,” in Judith Goldstein and Robert O. Keohane, eds., Ideas and Foreign Policy: Beliefs, Institutions, and Political Change (New York: Cornell University Press, 1993), chapter 9, pp. 235-264.

[5] The state of anarchy, which denies the existence of a supra-sovereign or worldwide government with authority over states, is exemplified in the international system. The state of anarchy in international politics is widely accepted among many schools of thought in international relations, but with varying characteristics associated with it. Kenneth N. Waltz, Theory of International Politics (Reading, MA: Addison-Wesley, 1979); John J. Mearsheimer, The Tragedy of Great Power Politics (New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 2001); Hedley Bull, The Anarchical Society: A Study of Order in World Politics, 3rd ed. (New York: Columbia University Press, 2002); Helen Milner, “The Assumption of Anarchy in International Relations Theory: A Critique,” Review of International Studies, Vol. 17, No. 1 (January 1991), pp. 67-85. For a constructivist approach that widely criticizes the realist view concerning international anarchy see Alexander Wendt, “Anarchy is What States Make of it: The Social Construction of Power Politics,” International Organization, Vol. 46, No. 2 (Spring 1992), pp. 391-425. For a study that explores how cooperation can emerge in a world of self-seeking egoists when there is no central authority see Robert M. Axelrod, The Evolution of Cooperation (New York: Basic Books, 1984).

[6] Charles A. Kupchan and Clifford A. Kupchan, “Concerts, Collective Security, and the Future of Europe,” International Security, Vol. 16, No. 1 (Summer 1991), pp. 114-161.

[7] On the League of Nations see George J. Gill, The League of Nations, 1929-1946 (Garden City Park, NY: Avery Publication Group, 1996); Donald S. Birn, The League of Nations Union, 1918-1945 (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1981).

[8] On the UN see Stanley Meisler, United Nations: The First Fifty Years (New York: Atlantic Monthly Press, 2007).

[9] Charles W. Kegley, Jr. and Eugene R. Wittkopf, World Politics: Trend and Transformation, 9th ed. (New York: Thomson Wadsworth, 2006), pp. 31-32.

[10] The Marshall Plan was central to preventing renewed humiliation of Germany, with a key goal of rebuilding the West European economy to meet the Soviet threat. The Marshall Plan, or European Recovery Program, that was declared on June 1947, takes its name from the U.S. Secretary of State, George C. Marshall, who proposed that the U.S. establish a program of economic assistance to help European governments and peoples rebuild their economies that had been shattered as a result of the Second World War.

[11] Supporters of the democratic peace theory argue that democracies do not fight other democracies and only resort to non-peaceful means when they confront authoritarian countries. For discussion and criticism of the democratic peace theory see Michael E. Brown, Sean M. Lynn-Jones, and Steven E. Miller, eds., Debating the Democratic Peace (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1996); Michael W. Doyle, “Kant, Liberal Legacies, and Foreign Affairs,” Philosophy and Public Affairs, Vol. 12, No. 3 (Summer 1983), pp. 205-235; Michael W. Doyle, “Kant, Liberal Legacies, and Foreign Affairs, Part 2,” Philosophy and Public Affairs, Vol. 12, No. 4 (Autumn 1983), pp. 323-353.

[12] The North Atlantic Alliance Treaty came into being in April 1949; the alliance set up a military and political organization known as the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, or NATO. Moshe Gat, “The Great Powers and the Water Dispute in the Middle East: A Prelude to the Six Day War,” Middle Eastern Studies, Vol. 41, No. 6 (November 2005), pp. 911-935, at p. 911. Also see Robert J. Art, “Why Western Europe Needs the United States and NATO,” Political Science Quarterly, Vol. 111, No. 1 (Spring 1996), pp. 1-39; Gunther Hellmann and Reinhald Wolf, “Neorealism, Neoliberal Institutionalism, and the Future of NATO,” Security Studies, Vol. 3, No. 1 (Autumn 1993), pp. 3-43; and Charles A. Kupchan, “Rethinking Europe,” The National Interest, Vol. 56 (Summer 1999), pp. 73-79.

[13] The Soviet Union’s collapse and the end of the Cold War were not predicted by most of the international relations analysts of the time. Ion Cîndea, “Complex Systems—New Conceptual Tools for International Relations,” Perspective, Vol. 26 (Summer 2006), pp. 46-68, at p. 50.

[14] The main international issue in the post-Second World War period was the Cold War between the two superpowers, the United States and the Soviet Union. The literature concerning the Cold War years is vast. For a recent discussion of the global confrontation that dominated the last half of the twentieth century see John L. Gaddis, The Cold War: A New History (New York: Penguin Press, 2005); and Anne Applebaum, Iron Curtain: The Crushing of Eastern Europe, 1944-1956 (New York: Anchor Books, 2012).

[15] Ben Rhodes, The World As It Is: Inside the Obama White House (New York: Penguin Random House, 2018).

[16] Jeffrey Goldberg, “The Obama Doctrine,” The Atlantic (March 13, 2016), pp. 1-71; Elspeth Reeve, “Obama Foreign Policy: ‘Leading from Behind’,” The Atlantic (April 25, 2011).

[17] In November 2011, a report from the IAEA released a trove of evidence that they said made a ‘credible’ case that “Iran has carried out activities relevant to the development of a nuclear device” and that the project may still be under way. “Introductory Statement to Board of Governors,” International Atomic Energy Agency (November 17, 2011).

[18] According to Hegemonic Stability Theory, peace will prevail when one country establishes supremacy, for a hegemonic country will not have the need to fight whereas other countries will lack the ability to do so. A.F.K. Organski, World Politics (New York: Knopf, 1968); and Robert Gilpin, War and Change in World Politics (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1981).

[19] Gideon Rachman, “America Must Manage its Decline,” Financial Times, October 17, 2011.

[20] Andrew Wyrich, “Trump Slammed for Saying the Buck Stops With ‘Everybody’ Over Shutdown,” The Daily Dot, January 10, 2019.

[21] Trump’s positive view of Russia’s role is in many cases a denial of the negative interactions between Moscow and Washington, including U.S. sanctions currently imposed on Russia, Russia’s aggression in Ukraine, Moscow’s attempt to challenge the U.S. role in the Middle East and in many cases to replace Washington’s position in this key area, and the imbroglio over spies.

[22] Robin Simcox, “Did Trump Really Beat ISIS?” The Heritage Foundation, January 29, 2018.

[23] Dennis Ross, “Israel, Iran, Syria and Trump Strategy: The Best Way Forward,” Daily News, September 27, 2018.


Dr. Ofer Israeli, a geostrategist and international security policy and Middle East expert, is a Lecturer and a Senior Research Fellow at the Institute for Policy and Strategy (IPS) at the Interdisciplinary Center (IDC) Herzliya, Israel ( Dr. Israeli’s second book will be published soon: Ofer Israeli, International Relations Theory of War (Santa Barbara, CA: Praeger, 2019;

Leave a Reply

You must be logged in to post a comment.