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Politics & Law Series: Research Spotlight

‘Elite knowledge networks’ are preventing Donald Trump from disrupting the liberal world order

The US President’s rhetoric undermines allies’ confidence and can even appear to threaten the established world order. But new research by a City, University of London professor indicates that alliance-building ‘ultraimperialists’ on both sides of US politics and beyond are likely to ensure the status quo of American dominance is maintained, despite domestic and global challenges

by Chris Lines (Senior Communications Officer)

Powerful economies continue to emerge in developing countries across the globe – not least in the ‘BRIC’ economies of Brazil, Russia, India and China. This leads journalists and commentators to pose the question: is America’s leading role in world affairs under threat?

The political, economic and military predominance – or ‘hegemony’ – of the US over all other nations has been a constant in global politics for many decades.

But, as developing economies grow stronger and more eager for increased global influence and power, the 2016 election of the most unpredictable US President in history lends his country’s hegemony an air of volatility.

But while Donald Trump has raised eyebrows in befriending the leaders of Russia and North Korea, and raised temperatures with some of his incendiary comments about other nations, new research from City, University of London suggests that, despite turbulent rhetoric, not a lot will change.

Professor Inderjeet Parmar, Professor of International Politics in City’s Department of International Politics, is the author of a new paper for the Security Studies journal, assessing the powerful ‘elite knowledge networks’ that spread knowledge, influence and wealth on a global basis with the aim of preserving the liberal international order.

‘Elite knowledge networks’ refers to a system of flows – of people, money and ideas – between spaces that house critical masses of thinkers and activists: influential think tanks, leading universities, global media outlets and vastly wealthy corporate-philanthropic foundations.

Professor Parmar argues that liberal internationalist theory (which underpins the way the liberal international order of today’s global politics is understood) is flawed because it is class-based and elitist, with significant racial and colonial assumptions. And the networks play a significant role in the spread, and defence, of this theory.

Professor Inderjeet Parmar

“This is not socialisation,” says Professor Parmar, “but elite alliance-building and incorporation into the dominant model of order, fostering deep inequalities within emerging states.”

“It is really, in a word, ultraimperialism.”

He continues:

“The elite knowledge network is the American elites’ essential power technology, without which it would be more difficult to employ trained experts to produce useful knowledge that constructs ideology, institutions and policy.

“When ideas embed in networks that socialise young scholars, practitioners and leaders, they become hardwired thought patterns that define normality.”

Professor Parmar’s research takes a two-strand approach to assessing these elite networks and the way they establish influence.

He looks at how, during the 1970s, the networks strategically co-opted and derailed or domesticated the demand for a New International Economic Order (NIEO) by postcolonial states – and, in particular, how they managed and channelled the rise of China.

The paper then addresses the ways in which foreign policy elite knowledge networks have mobilised to contain, channel or reverse the Trump administration’s ‘America First’ policies.

Professor Parmar argues that elite knowledge networks have deep roots in Western states and civil societies.

Symbiotic with NATO, European unity and the special relationship between the US and the UK, such networks provide an ‘international umbrella’ that is rooted in the liberal international order.

So entrenched are these networks, that their umbrella can even protect from the wishes and whims of a US President.

Some of the many instances of elite knowledge network influence in the paper include:

  • The Trilateral Commission, a key organisation conceived by David Rockefeller in the early 1970s, positioning itself at the heart of the American establishment’s coordinated campaign against the NIEO, along with think tanks such as the Heritage Foundation
  • The World Bank undercutting efforts to create a NIEO by co-opting developing nations via loans
  • The Ford Foundation’s special role in transforming and managing China as it was gradually incorporated into the US-led system, notably at the 1985 Bashan conference, one of the most significant turning points in the development of state-market relations in China
  • US foundations investing over $400 million since 2002 in civil society building programmes in China – state-linked organisations known as Government-Organised Non-Governmental Organisations (GONGOs)
  • The Council of Foreign Relations (CFR) – a think tank under-represented in Trump circles – was the best-represented among signatories of a letter in August 2016 from 86 bipartisan former national security officials declaring Trump unfit for office
  • The CFR is “heavily interlocked” with other elite groupings, including the corporate media, e.g., several Washington Post board members are CFR members
  • The sheer number of senior Trump appointees from the world of international finance, especially from Goldman Sachs, mean that the likely policy effects will recalibrate international relationships rather than overturn the post-1945 order
  • Despite Trump’s courting of Vladimir Putin, his appointees (including Rex Tillerson, Jim Mattis and, more recently, Mike Pompeo and the now departed John Bolton) have condemned Russia, with official sanctions remaining in place.

Professor Parmar says:

“Despite crises and challenges that include the disruptive effects of Donald Trump’s presidential campaign and subsequent Twitter-disseminated rhetoric, these elite knowledge networks continue to successfully manage, channel or block threats to American hegemony.”

The emergence, since publication of this article, of the ultra-right Charles Koch and liberal internationalist George Soros-funded Quincy Institute for Responsible Statecraft suggests that the underlying complaints of Trump about the liberal international order are being given serious consideration but will probably amount to a recalibration of US hegemonic strategies rather than their repudiation.

Elite networks are managing US hegemony in turbulent times.


Professor Parmar’s paper, published in Volume 28 Issue 3 of Security Studies, is titled ‘Transnational Elite Knowledge Networks: Managing American Hegemony in Turbulent Times’.

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