An Age of Uncertainty

Prepared for the March 2 – 3, 2017 seminar, Theorizing (Dis)Order: Governing in an Uncertain World, organized by the winners of the 2016 – 2017 WPF Student Seminar Competition. 

It is worthwhile at this juncture to consider the nature of the US presidency and its likely impact on the role of the US in the post-World War II and post-Cold War world order. The issues inherent in the US president’s recent statements and behavior — his fondness for autocrats, dismissal of allies and long-term partnerships, and his embrace of mercantilist approaches to trade —constitute a major break with core bipartisan traditions in US foreign policy.[i] Close advisors to the president articulate broad views of global politics that they define as standing at odds with this tradition.[ii] These developments contribute to a major increase in uncertainty for those who govern amidst disorder.

Given the historic role of the US as a primary architect and enforcer of a particular world order, the threat of change has particular significance for governance in states that are at the bottom of conventional orderings of global power and state capacities to maintain domestic order. International politics affects these states and their citizens in ways that differ significantly from the ways in which it affects people and governments in much more powerful states. This is not only a question of sudden and rapid change in an international order that has “permitted” the survival of very weak states, important though this has been. This question is of special importance to the rulers of the very weakest states, particularly for those rulers who have used formal statehood as a façade behind which to conduct their strategies for personal and regime survival rather than transformational goals, and who rely upon the conduct of foreign relations to assure their own survival.


Steve Bannon, the 45th US president’s assistant and White House chief strategist, is widely quoted as saying in a 2013 encounter with a writer from The Daily Beast, “I’m a Leninist,” he supposedly said, “Lenin wanted to destroy the state, and that’s my goal, too. I want to bring everything crashing down, and destroy all of today’s establishment.”[iii] This domestic project has had major impacts on US foreign policy. Bannon was a main force behind the January 2017 ban on travel from seven predominantly Muslim countries. The Administration’s consideration of designating the Muslim Brotherhood as a terrorist organization also promises to have far-reaching consequences if this measure is implemented. These and other measures signal a determination to break with seven decades of international coordination in immigration, alliances, trade, and international institutions that the US played a major role in creating.

In broader terms, the Administration speaks of economic nationalism and opposition to globalization. The president greets leading figures in the Brexit process and nationalist leaders from Europe who are opposed to the continued membership of their countries in the European Union. Recent developments are not necessarily welcome to even US critics who watch the US domestic scene. A New Yorker writer spoke with Vladimir Yakunin, the former head of Russia’s state railways, and a member of Putin’s inner circle since the 1990s, who told the reporter that the 2016 campaign and election “shows that, in a very serious way, the political establishment in your country no longer understands what’s happening inside its own system”—a development that he considered “very dangerous, seeing as the stability of the global political system largely depends on the stability of the American political system.”[iv] In more immediate terms, the willingness of Congressional Republicans to instrumentalize their relations with a White House that has an agenda that is very different from customary American ideas of conservativism suggests future instability. More plainly, the president’s main advisor states that one of his goals is to destroy the Republican establishment [v]

The Administration also appears set to shed the customary US role more generally as guardian of a liberal world order in trade, the promotion of liberal democratic norms, and as a sort of global sheriff. This may mean that the world moves closer to a spheres of influence system in which major powers have more latitude to act within their regions of influence. Vladimir Putin, for example, would have less worry about US pressure on his policy vis-à-vis Ukraine, and Xi Jinping will encounter fewer obstacles to the deepening of Chinese economic and political influence in the Western Pacific.

These shifts will have systemic implications. The US may find itself operating in a very different, and potentially much more hostile, environment. Competitor states may become less willing to accept US proposals and may be more willing to up the ante. Allies might consider that their security is no longer guaranteed by the US. Western Pacific states such as Thailand, the Philippines and Australia already show signs of hedging their bets. The efforts of some to build up their defenses may result in regional arms races, which raise the probability of miscalculation and conflict. Others may conclude that the longstanding post-World War II prohibition against conquest at the expense of weaker states no longer presents an obstacle to their ambitions.

The early trends of this foreign policy point in the direction of competitive multi-polarity. The Obama administration’s disregard for the Syrian government’s chemical weapons attacks on its own citizens, Chinese island-building, and Russian annexation of Crimea indicate that this trend already was underway. In any event, the acceleration of this trend will be unsettling for herbivorous actors that are not good at hard power, like the European Union, as they face more active carnivores like China, the US and Russia. Such a world poses special challenges to the world’s weakest states that are very much produces of the old US-dominated international system.

The Consequences for Weak States

The structure of the international system matters a great deal for its weakest members. Historians of imperial rule associate competition among great powers with efforts of the strong to restrict the latitude of the weak in an effort to balance rivals.[vi] Hegemonic dominance is associated with an “imperialism of free trade,” in which a single great power prefers that all follow common rules in place of formal imperial control.[vii] Such is the system that has overseen the expansion of the ranks of sovereign states from the 51 charter members in 1945 to the 193 current member states.

Hegemonic dominance tends to advantage the weakest states, such as when post-World War II norms of sovereignty made room for new states that lacked conventional criteria for statehood such as an effective domestic government. While newly independent states were forced to define their territory in exactly the same way as their colonizers, juridical definitions of statehood ensured that even the weakest governments did not invite conquest from stronger neighbors. Their sovereignty could not be extinguished.[viii] The absence of an effective government in Somalia for more than a quarter of a century illustrates the extent of this protection. State failure did not threaten Somalia’s membership in the United Nations or any number of other international organizations, for example.

Local regimes, even in very weak states, have proved adept at restricting the reach of hegemonic power; in effect, reaping the benefits of hegemonic order while reducing associated costs. Even though the poor and militarily weak had little to no influence over how international institutions were created, some have wielded considerable influence over great powers and international organizations through the manipulation of global norms. A number of factors combine to make this possible, but ultimately they are rooted in a commitment by weak and powerful alike to maintain the illusion of the state as the “natural” governing unit worldwide.[ix]

The new US president boasts about his easy victories, like ending trade pacts. He points to these actions as evidence of the wisdom of his aggressive stance. But if the US demands that others follow its lead, the response will expose the fact that few will follow the lead of the US. This is true not only for China, Russia, Iran and North Korea. It is increasingly true of Japan, South Korea, Saudi Arabia, Turkey, and even erstwhile close allies like Canada, Mexico and Germany.

This structural shift, accelerated by the current US Administration, might seem like a sort of liberation for the world’s weakest states. The Administration’s consideration of whether to withdraw from the UN Human Rights Council, for example, might seem to offer weaker states license to ignore basic human rights norms.[x] This would considerably widen their governments’ latitude in how they could use violence against their own populations to maintain order and suppress domestic challengers. But on balance, with withdraw from global norms is likely to have significant negative impacts for the world’s weakest states.

A more uncertain world will expose the weak to the raw elements of power politics. Prior to the Russian invasion of Ukraine, global condemnation, but more significantly, US influence and in some cases its military power, reversed acts of conquest after 1945. The Iraqi regime’s invasion and annexation of Kuwait in 1990 was met with a multinational invasion of Iraq and more than a decade of harsh UN sanctions. Indonesia could not sustain the annexation of East Timor in 1974 in the face of international pressure. Israeli seizure of lands in the 1967 War fits a classic historical pattern of a strong state administratively and socially assimilating conquered lands, but even this instance of conquest has faced considerable international resistance. The recent advent of Russian humanitarian corridors and “volunteer” battalions to counter alleged incidences of “ethnic cleansing” show how a stronger state can create a fait accompli on the ground in a weaker adjacent state with help from local collaborators fighting on their home turf.

It is not hard to imagine the world’s weakest states being exposed to predatory designs of neighbors. Global tolerance of conquest makes it easier for governments in places like Chad, for example, to contemplate informal influence in the neighboring states in which it has deployed Chad’s armed forces. Buffer zones would become easier for Sudan’s government to justify in Southern Sudan, even if this is seen as a bid to take more direct control over resources. Ethiopia already operates more or less permanent buffer zones in Somalia, albeit with no suggestion that these places should become part of Ethiopia. Such instances should be expected to become more common in Africa with this global systemic shift, particularly as the domestic administrative and military capabilities of Africa’s states continue to diverge. In sum, the hard power elements of states will become more versatile tools for regime protection, both domestically and regionally. Correspondingly, there will be an erosion of the tendency for formal sovereignty to act as a shield for the weakest states.

To the extent that more powerful states don’t care whether a weak state’s government even maintains the illusion of adherence to basic norms of governance, the weak state’s government loses considerable leverage. This may seem counterintuitive. But the diminishing value of a government as a signer of agreements and adherent to protocols reduces the capacity of that government to demand a price for compliant behavior. Gone will be the days in which huge teams of negotiators spent months and even years in hotels, collecting per diems to engage in negotiations. Officials of this sort more generally will find that their value as interlocutors will decline.

Powerful states will continue to value weaker states, but for specific reasons. The US Administration’s choice of Peter Pham to serve as the State Department’s Undersecretary for Africa signals a move to impose more stringent performance requirements on recipients of aid. A list of transition questions making the rounds at the State Department and Pentagon included questions such as “With so much corruption in Africa, how much of our funding is stolen? Why should we spend these funds on Africa when we are suffering here in the U.S.?”[xi] This is very bad news for governments in South Sudan and Somalia, which have been subject to scrutiny for epic scales of corruption. Insofar as the distribution of these resources at the personal discretion of the country’s leader is critical for maintaining what stability that exists, a sudden decline in foreign assistance will likely have significant negative consequences for domestic stability.

Exposure to the raw elements of world power will increase the relative value of armed forces in weak states. Narrower US definitions of interests, for example, are not likely to have as significant an impact on Uganda and Burundi, which make their armies available for counterinsurgency operations in Somalia. By contrast, South Sudan and the Central African Republic have no such capabilities to offer to more powerful states. Denied access to resources via this channel, the power differentials between states is likely to widen further.

Strong state interests in global counter-terrorism are not likely to disappear with the decline of US hegemony. But diminished cooperation will change the nature of strong state military engagement in the world’s weakest states. Less interest in hopeless state-building exercises in places like Somalia, South Sudan, Yemen and Libya already translates into fewer inhibitions about selecting non-state actors—local militias, private military contractors and specially trained local forces—that are entirely independent of local government control, and in some instances, are foes of the incumbent government. These choices, quite evident on the ground in Somalia, demonstrate a preference to work with non-sovereign actors in place of and even against the juridical sovereign.

The End of Sovereign Equality

The new US Administration is in the initial stages of transition, so one will have to wait to see if it begins to value existing norms and institutions of cooperation. In any event, the decline of US hegemony has deeper roots. This shift will have significant impacts for the world’s weakest states, most all of which are products of the international system that is now in decline. These states and their governments will confront a world in which raw power and domestic capabilities will be more important factors. In this respect, systemic transition is likely to end an unusual period in world history in which the weak were offered significant resources and protections not normally afforded to them.


[i] Uri Friedman, “The Foreign Policy Establishment Defends Itself from Trump, The Atlantic, 22 Feb 2017,

[ii] Christopher Caldwell, “What Does Steve Bannon Want?” New York Times, 25 Feb 2017,

[iii] Ronald Radosh, “Steve Bannon, Trump’s Top Guy, Told Me He Was ‘A Leninist’ Who Wants To ‘Destroy the State’”, The Daily Beast, 22 Aug 2016,

[iv] Joshua Yaffa, “Is Putin’s Russia Really Ready for Trump’s America?” New Yorker, 14 Nov 2016,

[v] Eliana Johnson & Eli Stokols,“What Steve Bannon Wants You to Read,” Politico, 7 Feb 2017,

[vi] David Abernethy, The Dynamics of Global Dominance: European Overseas Empires1415-1980 (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2000).

[vii] John Gallagher & Ronald Robinson, “The Imperialism of Free Trade,” Economic History Review, 6:1 (1953), 1-15.

[viii] Robert Jackson & Carl Rosberg, “Why Africa’s Weak States Persist: The Empirical and the Juridical in Statehood,” World Politics, 35:1 (Oct 1982), 1-24.

[ix] Valerie Freeland, “Beyond Robert Jackson: Postcolonial realities and the patronage state.” Forthcoming in International Politics, 54: 2, (March 2017).

[x] “US Weighs Withdrawal from UN Human Rights Council: Report,” The Hill, 26 Feb 2017,

[xi] Helene Cooper, “Trump Team’s Queries about Africa Point to Skepticism about Aid,” New York Times, 13 Jan 2017,

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