America finds itself in a geopolitical quagmire

John West
Chaos has trumped method in US foreign policy over the past four years, and the next president, whoever he is, will have his task cut out
Executive director of the Asian Century Institute

This is the second part of an essay on US foreign policy that argues that the American dream of liberal hegemony is just that. Part I of the essay looks at post-Cold War developments and can be read here.

Powerful forces of nationalism and realism mean that most countries do not welcome the idea of being told how to do their politics and undertake social engineering to fashion them into liberal  democracies at the end of a rifle barrel. Nations place enormous importance on sovereignty or self-determination, and foreign interference is resisted. 

Moreover, liberal democracy can also be a hard sell. The average Russian’s experience with democracy was a period of instability in the 1990s under Boris Yeltsin. The soft authoritarianism and stability of Vladimir Putin can seem preferable, despite all its shortcomings. For their part, many Chinese elites are happy with the prosperity generated by the Chinese Communist Party, and do not wish to see lower class workers and peasants having the right to vote. 

Second, China has become a great power that wants to dominate Asia and push the Americans out of Asia, and is increasingly assertive. And we have seen the resurrection of Russian power, even if it is much weaker than China’s. 

And the third reason is the ascent of Donald Trump to the US presidency. His argument that liberal hegemony had been a failure resonated with the American people, and highlighted the disconnect between the elite and the American people. Further, he seems to loathe multilateralism of all forms and shapes, be it trade pacts or international organisations. He has no interest in spreading democracy; indeed, it seems he doesn’t mind cosying up to autocrats.

It is primarily for these reasons that the American dream of liberal hegemony in a unipolar world is now in the ash heap of history.

Chaos trumps logic in US foreign policy

Framing and analysing US foreign policy under President Trump is particularly difficult. Sometimes he shows good instincts, a willingness to try new initiatives and wrongfoot other countries by his unconventional actions. At other times, his actions are contrary to US national interests, and seem to reflect personal grudges and quirks. Moreover, he seems unable—or unwilling— to follow through on a strategy with any consistency.

But, as Robert Blackwill has argued, “President Donald J. Trump’s actions have often been rash, ignorant, and chaotic. He seems sometimes to imagine that he can withdraw from the world and sometimes to think he can dominate it. Yet some of his individual foreign policies are substantially better than his opponents assert.”

But many are questionable.

A lack of coherence

President Trump has been right in pushing allies, especially European NATO members, to raise their often very low military expenditure. At the same time, he is often awfully rude and disrespectful to the same allies, including close neighbours Canada and Mexico. Both these countries have been friends of the US for at least 70 years.

Similarly, his decision to meet North Korea’s Kim Jong-un showed a refreshingly daring side of his diplomacy. Yet, these meetings were ultimately more about showmanship, with no concrete results being achieved. Indeed, by suspending US-South Korean wargames without gaining any concession in return, the US was arguably a loser from the meetings.

The past couple of years of the Trump administration have marked a turning point in Sino-US relations. The former strategy of strategic engagement has been replaced by the recognition that China and the US are locked in great power competition.

He has invested efforts in fostering relations with India, Japan and Australia – countries that are seen as effective counterweights to China. At the same time, he has cosied up to unsavoury autocrats like Jair Bolsonaro of Brazil, Viktor Orban of Hungary, Mohammed bin Salman of Saudi Arabia, Recep Tayyip Erdogan of Turkey and others. 

The President’s instinct to reach out to Russia’s President Vladimir Putin also had much potential to reverse the downward slide in US-Russia relations, arguably provoked by NATO’s enlargement. And yet he never demonstrated the capacity to negotiate a comprehensive new deal with Russia that would take into account the full range of complex issues like NATO, Syria and Russia’s alleged interference in the US elections.

The past couple of years of this administration have marked a turning point in Sino-US relations. The former strategy of strategic engagement has been replaced by the recognition that China and the US are locked in great power competition. President Trump decided to stand up to China, especially with respect to trade. But after two years of battling with China, it is arguable whether he has achieved anything in terms of changing China’s protectionist and mercantilist trade policies. In fact, his latest manoeuvres with respect to Huawei and TikTok are only likely to invite retaliation from the Chinese government and even more protectionist tech policies.

Perhaps most regrettably, President Trump has shown no interest in global leadership (or indeed, national leadership) in the face of the COVID-19 pandemic, a natural role for the US which would allow it to demonstrate that it can be an indispensable nation.

By insisting on playing a blame-game against China and castigating the WHO, the current US administration has come across as petty and small-minded, something which has only been confirmed by its appalling domestic mismanagement of COVID-19.

A need for a reset

President Trump often seems more interested in repudiating the achievements of the Obama administration—such as the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP), the Iran nuclear deal, the Paris climate change agreement and improved relations with Cuba—than with building on the difficult achievements of his predecessor.

None of these deals might have been perfect, but they were certainly of value and in the US’ national interest. Now the US needs a different kind of a reset.

Looking ahead, the next US president, whoever he is, desperately needs a reset in foreign policy strategy to get out of this geopolitical quagmire the US finds itself in.

This implies focus on several areas. The US must develop and implement a sound and coherent strategy for its strategic competition with China. It must envisage a comprehensive new deal with Russia that embraces the current complexities, including NATO, Syria, relations with China and domestic political interference.   

Additionally, rather than belittle multilateral organisations, the US must revitalise them. Many of President Trump’s concerns about international organisations such as NATO, the WTO and the WHO have some merit. But these concerns are better addressed by reforms within them, rather than by withdrawing from them and hurling hostile criticisms.

Looking ahead, the next US president, whoever he is, desperately needs a reset in foreign policy strategy to get out of this geopolitical quagmire the US finds itself in.

Most importantly, the US must rebuild its relations with allies, many of whom Trump has disparaged time and again. Allies are not a burden, but an asset that can be leveraged in many contexts. Strategic allies like Japan, Korea, Australia as well as NATO give the US additional military clout. Furthermore, most European countries share Trump’s concerns about China’s closed markets and growing assertiveness. They should be mobilised in support of the US’ strategic competition with China.

Part I of this essay can be read here.

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Executive director of the Asian Century Institute

John West is author of the recent book, “Asian Century … on a Knife-edge,” and executive director of the Asian Century Institute. He is also adjunct professor at Tokyo’s Sophia University and contributing editor at FDI-Intelligence, a Financial Times magazine. These positions follow a long career in international economics and relations, with major stints at the Australian Treasury where he was director of balance of payments, OECD (head of public affairs and director OECD Forum) and Asian Development Bank Institute (senior consultant for capacity building and training).

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