What If the US Left the World Scene?

by Gordon Adams

A summit between Donald Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong Un is on, off, then on again. There is a pattern here, perhaps the only certain pattern in the eccentric Trump tenure at the White House. The idiosyncrasies of the US-North Korea summit and Trump’s negative comments about NATO as well as his administration’s withdrawal from the Paris Climate agreement, the Trans-Pacific Partnership, the Trans-Atlantic Trade and Investment Partnership, and the Iran nuclear deal all point in one direction.

Let’s call it a “Trump doctrine,” amounting to US withdrawal from its self-appointed status as the “exceptional” and “indispensable” nation, the global “leader,” the country that sets the moral tone, the shining democratic city on the hill, the country that guarantees global security and the stability of the international “order” established more than 70 years ago.

Never mind that this description of US foreign policy has always been something of a mirage, given the violent regime changes the US promoted in Iran, Guatemala, Chile, the Dominican Republic, and the Congo, not to mention the deadly violence of the Vietnam War and the destabilizing invasion of Iraq.

The previously prevailing myth has nonetheless been hardy: nothing happens unless the US sets the agenda and leads the process. According to the last president:

If we don’t set the agenda, it doesn’t happen…The fact is, there is not a summit I’ve attended since I’ve been president where we are not setting the agenda, where we are not responsible for the key results. That’s true whether you’re talking about nuclear security, whether you’re talking about saving the world financial system, whether you’re talking about climate.

So let’s try a thought experiment. Suppose that the reality of “America First” upsets the applecart and incentivizes other nations to lead or to pursue their own interests without checking with Uncle Sam? “Burden assuming,” rather than “burden-sharing.

The guardians of the myth will argue that America must lead, or chaos will result. As columnist Bret Stephens put it: “Americans seeking a return to an isolationist garden of Eden—alone and undisturbed in the world, knowing neither good nor evil—will soon find themselves living within shooting range of global pandemonium.”

But really, what might others do without the US? And is chaos the ultimate result of the Trump doctrine? How might the global agenda be handled without the presumed agenda-setter and leader playing a key role? Is stability, global order, and conflict resolution possible without the US in the driver’s seat?

Climate Change

There is no question that the US is the leading producer of harmful emissions, per capita, and therefore a big part of the problem. Imagine a world where everyone but the US agrees on setting lower emission standards, something entirely possible given the overwhelmingly global participation in the Paris agreement.

No, global emission targets would not be reached. But as the rest of the world (and even the US, in the private sector) moves toward renewable energy sources, real progress will happen anyway, even if Uncle Sam sits in a corner by himself and Scott Pruitt continues to bust up the regulatory regime established in the US over the past 50 years. What’s more, US global firms would find themselves continually constrained to conform to non-US standards, increasing the pressure on DC for policy change at some point down the road.

Global Trade

The US is the largest global economy and market for the world’s goods and the dollar is the primary global reserve currency, so US trade and monetary policies matters to everyone. But that economic reality is changing rapidly, as the Chinese and other economies grow. The reality of a globally integrated economy is that the actions of any one major player can damage its own interests as quickly as they harm the interests of any other nation, as the Trump trade policy-makers are discovering. The US is enmeshed in this economic reality, not in a hermetically sealed economic box.

The signs of a changing economic power balance are already evident. Latin American nations are at work on their own free trading arrangements, without the US, including direct negotiations with an increasingly active China. The Trans-Pacific Partnership countries went ahead without the US. China is asserting its own economic plans and agenda, independently of what the US wishes—the Belt and Road Initiative—actively sponsoring projects in dozens of countries around the world. Imagine other countries bringing a growing number of cases to the World Trade Organization, asserting that US tariff and trade policies are in violation of our own commitments. Somebody else is already beginning to write the trade rules. Chaos is not the ultimate result.

Asian Security

The US has the largest fleet in the Pacific, lots of allies, forward bases, and a clearly important military presence. But Chinese assertion of what it defines as its rights in the South China Sea proceed apace; the growing Chinese military presence in the Western Pacific is unavoidable. Imagine other countries in the region gradually acceding to this changing balance through mutual exercises with China’s navy and a more neutral stance toward the interests the US advances in the region. Is a long-sought security arrangement in the Asia/Pacific region, one in which the US is not a participant, imaginable?

Given the upredictability of US policy, imagine a South Korea/China/North Korea/Japan agreement that leads to the denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula, mutual security commitments, greater exchange between the two Koreas, increased economic support for North Korea, and South Korean request for the US to withdraw its troops. The US would be effectively marginalized as the lead agenda setter and implementor of such an agreement.

Middle East

This may be most difficult case to imagine, and yet it is increasingly clear that the US military intrusion of the last 18 years has been destabilizing, not stabilizing. Today, the Trump policy has become so clearly one-sided—whether with Iran or the Palestinian territory—that the US is simply not a valid interlocutor when it comes to seeking the end of conflict. And it may be that such an end is still decades off, given the internal regional tensions.

And yet, imagine that the Saudis and Gulf emirates come to their senses and realize that they will not push Iran into oblivion or overthrow the regime and must cut some kind of deal—and that the Iranians realize that their own interests require some stability, over conflict. Suppose the two adversaries agree to withdraw from Yemen and help install an even semi-legitimate regime both can live with. Suppose, more realistically, that the Syrian regime, Turkey, Russia, Iran, and even Iraq agree that the Syrian bloodletting needs to stop and a ceasefire put in place that leaves Bashar al-Assad in power, a case on the verge of becoming reality. Those countries in particular guarantee some kind of regional security order, all of it without inviting the US.

Is there such an answer for Palestine? It’s doubtful. But the US has swung so firmly behind the Netanyahu regime in Israel that Washington can have no impact today on the outcome, let alone in the future.


The US is manifestly the global intervenor when it comes to fighting terrorist organizations. Special operators are in many countries (estimates run from 50 to well over 100) with counter-terrorism operations as the goal. And yet, imagine that a growing number of countries recognize that the US presence some of them have sought is also a lightening rod for terrorists and destabilizes rather than stabilizes their regimes. Imagine African governments coming together to create their own regional counter-terror forces and asking the US military to leave. Even more realistically, imagine governments like the Philippines and Indonesia urging US forces out as they strengthen indigenous capacity to deal with their internal security.

European Security

This one takes a real act of will, so anxious are some in Congress to interpret the US-Russia relationship as a new global Cold War. Imagine, for a change, that careful reflection on the assertive foreign policy of Putin’s autocratic regime reveals that it is less about confronting the US around the globe (Soviet style) and more about pushing back on US political interference (democracy promotion), competing with the US for influence in Russia’s near abroad and promoting Russian interests where they can be promoted cost-effectively (Syria).

Put another way: suppose Russia is just another power promoting its interests on the world stage and not an arch-enemy. How might unhappy European allies respond, over time? By accommodating security realities close to home? Negotiating some kind of agreement, say, in the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe framework, covering European military relationships and confidence-building measures? By strengthening, for the first real time, their security forces in the European Union, as opposed to the NATO, framework, not so much to meet an artificial NATO spending target but as a hedge against US unpredictability?

Some of these alternatives are harder to imagine than others. But few of them are as implausible today as they might have been 20 years ago. The world is in the midst of a power shift that is resetting roles and relationships in a fundamental way. The impact of the Trump doctrine may be to accelerate these changes, leading to the emergence of new actors, processes and institutions where the US does not lead, and a very different perspective on the US role. Post-Trump, it may be impossible to put the old Humpty-Dumpty “international rules” back together, and a new set of relationships and rules may come into being.


Gordon Adams

Gordon Adams is Professor Emeritus at the School of International Service, American University and, since 2008, a Distinguished Fellow (non-resident) at the Stimson Center both in Washington, DC. He taught at American University and George Washington University from 1999-2015. From 1993-97 he was Associate Director for National Security Programs at the Office of Management and Budget, the senior Clinton White House official for national security and foreign policy budgets. He is the co-editor of Mission Creep: The Militarization of US Foreign Policy (Georgetown, 2014), co-author of Buying National Security: How America Plans and Pays for Its Global Role and Safety at Home (Routledge, 2010), and author of The Iron Triangle: The Politics of Defense Contracting (Transaction Press 1981). He was founder and Director of the Defense Budget Project from 1983-93. He has a Ph.D from Columbia University. He writes frequently on foreign policy and national security issues for a wide variety of publications. He is also a working professional actor.


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