, Volume 94, Number 1

Carla Norrlof
A pivotal question raised in the 1980s debate over the durability of the United States-led world order still haunts us today. Does the postwar liberal international order, which the US was central in shaping, serve US interests? President Trump’s answer is a resounding no, promising an ambitious redistributive programme to rebalance global wealth and power. Similar to political platforms in other advanced countries, Trump argues for a fundamental revision of the order, proposing a renewal of international principles to foster a global system tailored to US interests. The major theatres where this battle is being fought are the politics of security, trade and money. Prominent academics align on some aspects of this agenda. Instead, I contend that as the primary beneficiary of the liberal international order, the US will be its first casualty. While President Trump is right to identify the potential role redistribution could play in strengthening America’s global leadership, he misidentifies the nature of the distribution problem. Internationally, ‘America First’ is premised on zero-sum logic and poses a risk to the liberal international order, to US security and prosperity. Domestically, ‘white America First’ promises to restore lost greatness to white Americans, aggravating economic and political inequality in the US. Drawing on presidential exit polls, other survey data, real income and income growth nationally and regionally, I explain the 2016 election outcome as a function of education and ethnicity, contextualized by income concerns and racism. Redistributive domestic policies, particularly expanding higher education, are necessary for US support of the liberal international order to endure.

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