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85 MIN READ TIME

Intellectuals Against Noticing

AFTER TWO YEARS of President Donald Trump, critics and commentators are still struggling to make sense of his foreign policy. Despite some hopes that he might mature into the role of commander in chief, he has continued to thumb his nose at most mainstream academic frameworks for analyzing and conducting foreign policy. Indeed, what makes Trump’s interactions with the rest of the world so confusing is the way he flirts with, and then departs from, the script. He may issue policies and give speeches that include words such as “sovereignty,” “principled realism,” and “peace through strength,” but they frequently appear cheek by jowl with racist rants, crass opportunism, nationalist tirades, and unrestrained militarism.

It is this uncomfortable mixture of familiar and jarring that has proven disconcerting for many mainstream international relations scholars, particularly those “intellectual middlemen” who straddle the realms of academia, policy think tanks, and major news outlets. Yet rather than ask how U.S. foreign policy might have contributed to the global environment that made Trump’s election possible, most haveresponded to the inconsistencies of Trump’s world vision by emphasizing its departure from everything that came before and demanding a return to more familiar times. International relations experts thus express nostalgia for either the “U.S.-led liberal order” or the Cold War while, in outlets such as Foreign Affairs and the New York Times, they offer selective retellings of the country’s past foreign policies that make them look both shinier and clearer than they were. These responses do not offer much insight into Trump himself, but they do have much to tell us about the discourse of international relations in the United States today and the way its mainstream public analysts—liberals and realists alike—continue to disavow U.S. imperialism.

For example, liberal internationalists such as John Ikenberry argue that Trump is guilty of endangering the U.S.-led global order. That system, according to Ikenberry and Daniel Deudney, emerged after World War II, when the liberal democracies of the world “joined together to create an international order that reflected their shared interests,” while simultaneously agreeing, as Ikenberry once put it, to transfer “the reins of power to Washington, just as Hobbes’s individuals … voluntarily construct and hand over power to the Leviathan.” The vision of cooperating nation-states may have originated in values that first “emerged in the West,” they argue, but these values have since “become universal.” In this accounting, Trump threatens the stability of U.S. liberal hegemony in two ways: by retreating from multilateral agreements such as the Iran nuclear deal, and by refusing to participate in the narrative of enlightened U.S. leadership. Future great threats to global stability, Ikenberry grumbled, were supposed to come from “hostile revisionist powers seeking to overturn the postwar order.” Now a hostile revisionist power “sits in the Oval Office.”

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About Boston Review

Paperback, 128 pages “All history,” writes Maximillian Alvarez in his contribution to this issue, “is the history of empire—a bid for control of that greatest expanse of territory, the past.” Evil Empire confronts these histories head-on, exploring the motivations, consequences, and surprising resiliency of empire and its narratives. Contributors grapple with the economic, technological, racial, and rhetorical elements of U.S. power and show how the effects are far-reaching and, in many ways, self-defeating. Drawing on a range of disciplines—from political science to science fiction—our authors approach the theme with imagination and urgency, animated by the desire to strengthen the fight for a better future. Featuring Nikhil Pal Singh, Arundhati Roy interviewed by Avni Sejpal, Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz, Yuri Herrera translated by Lisa Dillman, Pankaj Mishra interviewed by Wajahat Ali, Frank Pasquale, Adom Getachew, Maximillian Alvarez, Jeanne Morefield, Michael Kimmage, Stuart Schrader, Marisol LeBrón, and Mark Bould.