Perhaps one of the most remarkable academic debates of the past four decades is coming to an end, thanks to President Joe Biden and former President Donald Trump. In the midst of the Covid-19 pandemic; increased running difficulties; the Trump-inspired insurgency; the rise of undemocratic populism at the expense of democratic liberalism; and the sudden arrival of Biden, spring weather, and vaccines, it’s not hard to miss the apparent victory of one obscure political science theory over another.
A group of academics argues that individuals not influence large-scale global phenomena, such as wars and other foreign policy outcomes, but other causes do, such as technological change and climate change. While an opposing group of professors postulate that individuals like presidents and prime ministers To do that is, they unilaterally make decisions that affect and modify major geopolitical events and lead to results accumulated over time, such as changes in international power like the rise and fall of the great powers.
In colloquial terms, scholars of international relations call this the “big man theory”. However, the debate is closed. Specialists in the theory of realism like the legendary Kenneth Waltz, Steven Walt and the pugnacious John Mearsheimer got it wrong – by none other than Donald Trump and Joe Biden (unbeknownst to them). Instead, the theory of constructivism is on safe ground (the theory of liberalism minus), because the evidence is there.
President Trump, with nearly everyone working against him early in his tenure, has nonetheless managed to significantly affect foreign policy outcomes in virtually every region of the world. This lone individual leader, through thick and thin and formidable opposition, challenged them all, along with the most widely cited theory of international relations of all, Waltz’s neo-realism.
According to neo-realism, the insecurity of nation-states dictates whether there will be war or peace – the whims of presidents have no consequences. Whereas liberalism predicts that states will tend to cooperate because of previously agreed and widely respected sets of rules: such as peace treaties, trade agreements, and alliance memberships. While constructivism postulates that the beliefs, perceptions and actions of individual leaders determine whether countries will have peaceful or non-cooperative relations.
Barely two years after the start of the Trump presidency, countries and America’s relationship with their leaders have changed dramatically (compared to previous decades and previous presidents of both parties). Israel was standing, the Palestinians were below; Saudi Arabia was up, Iran was down; Russia was up, China was down; populist leaders everywhere were on the rise and defenders of the rules-based international order were on the decline. In the end, Russian President Vladimir Putin, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban, North Korean Supreme Leader Kim Jong-un and Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte were with Trump; German Chancellor Angela Merkel, former British Prime Minister Theresa May, French President Emmanuel Macron, Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and Chinese President Xi Jinping were not. Alliances, trade relations, environmental agreements, etc. were significantly affected in the process, with the acceleration of the decline of the United States and the acceleration of the rise of China and the resistance of Russia.
However, providing further evidence to deny neo-realism was none other than the election of Joe Biden. Even before he took office in January 2021, the aforementioned phenomena were again modified, by the simple waiting for Biden to become president. If Trump provided a good-sized cake of evidence, Biden was the icing on the cake that fed a flock of neo-realism opponents in political science departments around the world.
Some of these changes have been remarkable, not only for the speed of their alteration, but also for the magnitude of several of the more important changes. For example, even before January 20, President Erdogan began to reach out with a newly tempered approach to European Union (EU) leaders on issues of refugees, alliances and Islam – even a resumption long dormant peace talks in Cyprus negotiated by the UN Secretary General.
Against all the odds and the expectations of diplomats and academics, secret talks have started between Iran and Saudi Arabia on the one hand, and India and Pakistan on the other (two groups of bitterly sworn enemies if any). Populism is now seen as at a standstill, with democracy fighting successful rearguard action and the rules-based order more intact than many imagined.
Significant progress has also been made on strengthening the West’s transatlantic and transpacific alliances (NATO and EU, as well as the Quad); relations and climate agreements have regained a new impetus (with even China and the United States agreeing); Libya is on the brink of peace for once; there is a momentum for peace in Yemen; new attention is paid to Syria; and Afghanistan will not be left behind. Russia and China have few true friends, not even each other. Vaccines are more widely distributed through COVAX, in a context of increased sharing of patents and vaccine stocks.
Average people around the world are more confident about the future because of these changes, but quietly in academia, a theoretical seismic debate has been won. While neo-realism (power matters) has been knocked out, liberalism (rules matters) is staggering, but the fist of constructivism (beliefs matters) is raised. It further suggests that the above changes are not temporary, perhaps less fleeting and more permanent than vast continents of citizens had dared to hope.
Dr. Jeffrey A. Stacey is a former State Department official in the Obama administration and a senior consultant to the United Nations. Stacey is the author of Integrate Europe and the next one Joe Biden and the Struggle for Global Democracy.