Política Internacional

Why is the world a more dangerous place? Two hypotheses on Trump’s foreign policy, by Cristine Zanella and Edson Neves Jr.

Among a myriad of gifs, jokes, and doubts about the implementation of electoral campaign promises, the more-than-ten executive orders signed by Donald Trump in his first days as president of the United States allow some conjectures about the future of the international system. This text presents two hypotheses aimed at implying that the world can potentially become a more dangerous place with Trump in power. Both assumptions are not formulated on the premise that the new president of the United States would be an irrational individual, but that it is possible to educe, from the profile of his “America First” policy already in place, that his specific foreign policy may to contribute to a world of greater political volatility and, therefore, more insecure.

In this article, the main stance defends that a government more prone to military conflicts is a more dangerous one. The first hypothesis considers that such conflicts are more likely to take place as a result of the competition that may emerge from trade protectionism triggered by Trump. The second hypothesis deems military conflicts as an alternative to directly foster industrial activity and the US labor market. These assumptions are based on Trump’s early moves and suggest such a significant shift in US foreign policy that it would be far more pronounced than that of his predecessor, Barack Obama.

First hypothesis

For the first hypothesis (that a military conflict becomes more likely with the United States under Trump’s mandate because of the reaction that his protectionist economic measures may prompt), we find evidence to support it in these early days of Government: the withdrawal of the United States from the Transpacific Partnership (TPP) and the announcement of the intentions to renegotiate the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) (BAKER, 2017). Both stances would be replaced by bilateral agreements to be, therefore, individually negotiated with each of the countries involved. Trump has also threatened automakers companies with increased customs taxes if they produce abroad, prompting Ford to cancel its plans to open a new car plant in Mexico, in turn opting for the expansion of an existing plant in the United States (WOODAL, SHEPARSON, 2017). Finally, Trump announced the intention to raise border taxes for Mexican products entering the United States by 20%, as a way to make that country pay for the promised separation wall in the US Southern border. (MEMOLI, 2017).

If the measures announced or signaled in the first days of the new government come to follow this trend, great are the chances of a protectionist intensification. And even if “America first” policy is not primarily isolationist, it still embodies the potential to this outcome. There are already signs of the influence of a country’s actions provoking similar responses in the economic field. In this sense, the UK’s decision to withdraw from the European Union (Brexit) and Marine Le Pen’s statements signaling the French abandon of the euro as part of the campaign plan for the May elections in France (which has Been called “Frexit”) (BBC, 2016). In the financial, sector there are also examples: Germany has already announced that it will be able to reduce the corporate income tax rate in, response to similar movements in the United Kingdom and the United States (BENOIT; TROIANOVSKI, 2017). Signs of action and reaction from governments leading to the growth of economic walls around the world recall the winds of the third decade of the 20th century. At that time, such stances led to one of the worst global conflicts ever.

Protectionist measures can radicalize political relations and eventually deepen a scenario of military tensions already in place in some current key regions. In accordance with Aron (2010), more comprehensive theoretical approaches – regardless of them being under the perspectives of Institutionalism, Realism or Constructivism – state that, in an even closed world, the following events are prone to happen: the interdependence among transnational agents may be reduced; and cooperation, even at pragmatic and circumstantial levels, may be obstructed. Finally, such a restraining world may still contribute to build up identities inspired by self-worship, hatred of the others, self-interest, and all sorts of Manichaeism. The reversion of initiatives connected with globalization greatly impact the perception of a more integrated international order, and not only in the economic sphere. The radicalization of nationalisms also weakens International and Non-Governmental Organizations. Trump’s criticisms toward the inefficiency and threats to reduce US funding for the United Nations – UN (WAGNER, 2016), the Brexit and a possible Frexit are examples of this trend and reflect a setback in global governance.

Second hypothesis

The second hypothesis (that industrial boost, jobs and income creation in the short run could take place by the outbreak of military conflicts), connects two complementary logics: the ideational bases on which this violent action rests and practical initiatives connected to a war economy.

War – whether as an undesired outcome of a policy or as a necessary instrument for implementing a policy – is only possible when the political culture of a society is prepared to accept it. Hence the importance of evoking xenophobic, nationalist, among other harmful elements, in order to identify scapegoats that may justify the use of extreme violence. And it has never been hard to find enemies. Nowadays, the rhetoric of Trump’s campaign reveals a society poised to point individuals on whom all guilt can fall in order to sustain a nationalist resentment that justifies the war route. Trump’s initiatives reinforce the rhetoric of fighting enemies – Muslims, immigrants, etc., he openly admires authoritarian leaders and he already revealed sympathy to the use of torture (BBC, 2017).

Our second hypothesis, therefore, holds that an environment leading to military conflict can appropriately connect itself to Trump government’s needs if mid-term protectionist and industrial measures do not yield economic growth and job creation. The question raised here is the dangerous temptation to obtain economic results through war. It is, in other words, the induction of the war economy. One of the fastest instruments for boosting economy is military operations, as long as the country has the economic conditions to maintain such an effort. If protectionist and targeted-at-job-generation initiatives are not successful, a war can artificially push the country’s economy. This practice is not recent for the United States. It has its origins in the World War II, with the government triggering its industrial base to act on the Atlantic and Pacific fronts (KENNEDY, 2013), which was kept throughout the Cold War (JOHNSON, 2007).

Trump’s statements in favor of the Russian government do indicate a possible alliance in critical themes of international security, especially in the territories where the Islamic State operates; additionally, they also suggest to the Europeans that a NATO defensive action against Russian incursions into Ukraine or into other East European countries would not be an immediate option. The consequences of such a reversal in the working logic of the remaining military alliances of the past century would be drastic for Europeans and would still lead to a critical scenario requiring a mass defense in a region that has systematically demilitarized and dismantled its military industrial park since the 1990s. These countries’ hope was that, in an extreme situation, they could rely on the protection provided by NATO since 1949 (STRACHAN, 2014). In any case, the war option, though undefined as to its location or dimensions, would be the fastest alternative if other initiatives did not meet Trump’s campaign promises.

There are some facts that seemingly try to push international affairs to navigate on less turbulent waters. China, in spite of its own limits as a market economy, claimed for the openness of national economies and defended the stance of not blaming neighbors for a country’s own economic difficulties: “No one will emerge as a winner in a trade war”, said Xi Jinping in the Davos’ forum early this year (DEAN, 2017).  Nevertheless, as Ian Bremmer and Cliff Kupchan emphasized, Xi Jinping faces a period of consolidation in power. In 2017 he can guarantee a second mandate and he will therefore be more sensitive to any domestic or international issue potentially weakening for him as a leader (EURASIA GROUP, 2017). This context may bring more volatility to international affairs than the Chinese would like, and also represents a  factor of instability and risk for all countries dependent on Chinese growth, especially in Eurasia. This perspective again leads us to an increase in global instability.

In this text, we presented two hypotheses indicating the potential unfolding of a more dangerous world with Donald Trump in the US presidency. In the second part of this text, we will attempt to present three scenarios that may emerge from this context of a more threatening international order.


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About the Authors

 Cristine Koehler Zanella. Lecturer in International Relations at Federal University of Uberlândia (UFU/Brazil). Doctor of Political Sciences (UGent/Belgium) and Doctor in “Estudos Estratégicos Internacionais” (UFRGS/Brazil).  (cristine.zanella@ufrgs.br)

Edson José Neves Júnior. Lecturer in International Relations at Vila Velha University (UVV/Brazil). Doctor in “Estudos Estratégicos Internacionais” (UFRGS/Brazil).  (edson.neves@uvv.br)


How to cite this article

. “”. Mundorama – Revista de Divulgação Científica em Relações Internacionais,. [Acessado em 25/02/2017]. Disponível em: <>.

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