One of the most noteworthy scholarly debates of the past four decades may be coming to an end, thanks to President Joe Biden and former President Donald Trump. Amid the Covid-19 pandemic; heightened race difficulties; the Trump-inspired insurrection; the advancement of undemocratic populism at the expense of democratic liberalism; and the sudden arrival of Biden, spring weather, and vaccines, it isn’t difficult to miss the apparent victory of one arcane political science theory over another.
One group of scholars argues that individual people do not influence large-scale global phenomena, such as wars and other foreign policy outcomes, but other causes do, like technological change and climate change. Whereas an opposing group of professors posits that individuals like presidents and prime ministers do matter, i.e., they unilaterally make decisions that affect and alter major geopolitical events and result in accumulated outcomes over time, such as shifts in international power like the rise and fall of great powers.
In colloquial terms, international relations scholars refer to this as the “great man theory.” However, the debate is over. Scholars of realism theory like the legendary Kenneth Waltz, Steven Walt, and the pugnacious John Mearsheimer have been proved wrong—by none other than Donald Trump and Joe Biden (unbeknownst to either). Instead, the theory of constructivism is on safe ground (liberalism theory less so), as the evidence is in.
President Trump, with nearly everyone working against him early in his term, nonetheless managed to vastly affect foreign policy outcomes in practically every region of the world. This lone individual leader, against all odds and formidable opposition, defied them all—as well as the most cited international relations theory of them 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 are of no consequence. Whereas liberalism predicts that states will tend to cooperate due to previously agreed and largely abided by sets of rules: like 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 uncooperative relations.
Not even two years into the Trump presidency, countries and American relations with their leaders were vastly changed (compared to earlier decades and previous presidents of both parties). Israel was up, the Palestinians were down; Saudi Arabia was up, Iran was down; Russia was up, China was down; populist leaders everywhere were up, and upholders of the rules-based international order were down. Ultimately Russian president Vladimir Putin, Turkish president Recep Tayyip Erdogan, Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban, North Korean Supreme Leader Kim Jong-un, and Filipino President Rodrigo Duterte were in 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 vastly affected in the process, with the U.S. decline accelerated and China’s rise and Russia’s staying power accelerated.
However, providing additional evidence to negate neo-realism was none other than the election of Joe Biden. Even prior to his taking office in January of 2021, the aforementioned phenomena were altered anew, by the mere anticipation of Biden becoming president. If Trump provided a good-sized cake of evidence, Biden was the icing on the cake that has fed a flock of neo-realism’s opponents in political science departments all over the world.
Some of these shifts have been remarkable, in not only the alacrity of their alteration but also the size of several of the most significant changes. For example, even before January 20, President Erdogan began reaching out with a newly tempered approach to leaders of the European Union (EU) on the issues of refugees, alliances, and Islam—even a revival of Cyprus’ long-dormant peace talks brokered by the UN secretary-general.
Further against the odds and the expectations of diplomats and scholars alike, secret talks kicked off between Iran and Saudi Arabia on the one hand, and India and Pakistan on the other (two sets of bitterly sworn enemies if there ever were any). Populism is now seen to be stalled, with democracy fighting a successful rearguard action and the rules-based order more intact than many had realized.
Major progress has also been made on the strengthening of the West’s Transatlantic and Transpacific alliances (NATO and the EU, as well as the Quad); climate relations and agreements have newfound momentum (with even China and the United States in accord); Libya is on the verge of peace for a change; there is momentum in favor of peace in Yemen; new attention is being paid to Syria; and Afghanistan won’t be left in the lurch. Russia and China have few true friends, not even each other. Vaccines are being more widely distributed via COVAX, amid increased sharing of patents and vaccine stocks.
Average people everywhere are more confident about the future due to these changes, but quietly in the scholarly world, a seismic theoretical debate has been won. Whereas neo-realism (power matters) has been knocked out, liberalism (rules matter) is staggering, but the fist of constructivism (beliefs matter) is raised. This further suggests that the above changes are not temporary, perhaps less fleeting, and more permanent than vast continents of citizens had dared to hope for.
Dr. Jeffrey A. Stacey is a former State Department official in the Obama administration and a lead United Nations consultant. Stacey is author of Integrating Europe and the forthcoming Joe Biden and the Fight for Global Democracy.