Rogue Superpower

Why This Could Be an Illiberal American Century

President Donald Trump came into office promising to overhaul U.S. foreign policy. Since then, he has scorned allies, withdrawn the United States from international agreements, and slapped tariffs on friends and foes alike. Many experts bemoan the damage Trump’s “America first” policy has done to the so-called liberal international order—the set of institutions and norms that have governed world politics since the end of World War II. They hope that once Trump has left the Oval Office, the United States will resume its role as leader of a liberalizing world.

Don’t count on it. The era of liberal U.S. hegemony is an artifact of the Cold War’s immediate afterglow. Trump’s transactional approach to foreign policy, by contrast, has been the norm for most of U.S. history. As a result, Trump’s imprint could endure long after Trump himself is gone.

Trump’s approach already appeals to many Americans today. That appeal will grow even stronger in the years ahead as two global trends—rapid population aging and the rise of automation—accelerate, remaking international power dynamics in ways that favor the United States. By 2040, the United States will be the only country with a large, growing market and the fiscal capacity to sustain a global military presence. Meanwhile, new technologies will reduce U.S. dependence on foreign labor and resources and will equip the U.S. military with new tools to contain the territorial expansion of the country’s great-power rivals. As long as the United States does not squander those advantages, it will remain the world’s dominant economic and military power.

Remaining the most powerful country, however, is not the same thing as remaining the guarantor of a liberal international order. Somewhat paradoxically, the same trends that will reinforce U.S. economic and military might will also make it harder to play that role —and make Trump’s approach more attractive. Since the end of World War II, the United States has seen itself as the chief defender of a democratic capitalist way of life and the champion of a rules-based international system built on liberal values. Washington has provided dozens of countries with military protection, secure shipping routes, and easy access to U.S. dollars and markets. In exchange, those countries have offered their loyalty and, in many cases, have liberalized their own economies and governments.

In the coming decades, however, rapid population aging and the rise of automation will dampen faith in democratic capitalism and fracture the so-called free world at its core. e burdens of caring for older populations and the job losses resulting from new technologies will spur competition for resources and markets. Aging and automation will also lay bare the laws of the international institutions that governments rely on to tackle common problems, and Americans will feel less dependent on foreign partners than they have in generations. In response, the United States might become a rogue superpower. Like the twentieth century, the twenty-rst century will be dominated by the United States. But whereas the previous “American century” was built on a liberal vision of the U.S. role in the world, what we might be witnessing today is the dawn of an illiberal American century.

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