Has the US called it a day on its ambition to rule the waves or has the world decided that it is no longer impressed with what America has to offer? Even if that was not a tough conundrum, the remarkable foreign policy perceptions of President Trump must have set off serious worries. Whilst the allies in Europe are shown the back seat, Russia and China are preferred interlocutors, not to mention North Korea. Iraq and Afghanistan are no longer front lines to defend for the President and the Senate will not entertain a newfound friend’s war in Yemen.
Inconsistency and unreliability loom large looking across the Pacific and Atlantic. And as though there is a surfeit of allies the President misses no occasion to make Prime Minister Trudeau of Canada feel unwanted. US neighbour to the South, Mexico finds itself with its back to the Wall for friendly relations!
The only saving grace seems to be the realignment of the AfPak policy, particularly the traditional State Department tilt towards Pakistan. There has been some tough talking to Pakistan but little evidence of putting the money where the mouth is. Terrorism deserves to be targeted wherever it can be found. But we all know that much of it in Pakistan has support of the army and Prime Minister Imran Khan is yet to sever his umbilical cord with his military benefactors.
US may have found a fresh understanding with China and Russia but does not seem to have influenced the former to steer clear of Pakistan or to have persuaded the latter to stay clear of President Assad in Syria. President Trump gets on with the Crown Prince of Saudi but the US is still engaged with Qatar which is on the black list of Saudi. Qatar’s outreach to the Taliban is consistent with the wishes of UK and USA. Why then was everybody fighting the Taliban all along? Now even as the US withdraws from the Iraq-Afghanistan region, people want to know if the presence in West Asia will also be reduced, forcing the Arabs to find their own strategic resources or else turn to China, the only country that can replace the US.
The USA under President Obama was beginning to get a bit restless with UN because despite having shouldered the huge expense of the world body, it found that it got less and less leeway in getting its priorities approved. So, they looked for alternative arrangements including the coalition of the willing.
Thus, peace keeping morphed into peace-making, way beyond the contours of the UN, raising questions about the efficacy of the organisation. What was apparent was that the American public opinion was unwilling to accept body bags even as the administrations continued to exert pressure at different vulnerable points in the world. Traditional allies went along and reduced the exposure of the US but the hope that new friends like India would join in remained a fond hope.
Indian foreign policy adjustments in response to US cooperation on the civil nuclear agreement did not lead to their expectations being fulfilled on putting Indian boots on the ground in Afghanistan. The potential for conflict on the Iran front (as indeed for defence purchases from Russia) has very sensibly been averted by deft exemptions.
But the convoluted and incomprehensible postures of the US government will pose challenges repeatedly. India has a different path in the region, including for neighbours and the Indian Ocean. Despite Modi government’s obvious inclination to move closer to the US and President Trump’s sporadic statements of appreciation for India, internal compulsions do not allow the US to oblige India on trade and H1B visas critical for Indian industry.
Other than military power, pax-Americana rested on US participation in world trade and the structures that had been carefully built over the decades. The present administration’s insular and America First policy has inevitably led them to question regional trade agreements
The land of opportunity has turned to opportunism as President Trump eyes another term on the backs of the American midwest who have no time for intellectuals of the Ivy League.
It is not that US dominance meant there was nothing wrong with the world. Iraq’s protracted war against Iran in the 1980s with credible evidence of use of chemical weapons; a decade later the macabre civil war in Bosnia, Rwanda, and Somalia; the regime change exercise in Afghanistan and Iraq; Sri Lanka’s final solution of the Tamil insurgency; and the collapse of Gaddafi’s Libya and South Sudan may have happened certainly despite US, perhaps even because of it. Still, for better and for worse, U.S. hegemony and alliances inherited from WWII for years helped shape international affairs, drew global red lines, and guaranteed regional balances. As the West’s influence declines, accelerated by US President Donald Trump’s disdain for traditional allies like NATO and as Europe struggles with Brexit, Governments are probing to test the waters of political ambition.
Suddenly an increasing number of leaders across the globe are emerging as votaries of a new brand of nationalism and authoritarianism. Once again voices are heard against an unjust global order, but they are now no longer rooted in international solidarity and cooperation but, chiefly in an inward-looking populism that feeds on narrow social and political identity, undermining of minorities and migrants, and elevates national sovereignty above all else.
Trump can hardly be expected to react because that is the theme he has chosen to build a second term and a legacy beyond. A democracy deficit at home makes the US an unlikely candidate to lead the world.
If we look at the state of play in the world, one might wonder if US will not or cannot intervene. Myanmar military launched a murderous attack leading to 700,000 Rohingya refugees fleeing their homes and country, the Syrian regime has survived a popular uprising with brutal means, the Venezuelan government’s ruthless economic suppression of its own people, and the silencing of dissent in Turkey, Egypt, and elsewhere have happened without a whisper from the US.
Having annexed parts of Georgia and Crimea with impunity and stoked separatist violence in Ukraine’s Donbass region, Russia is now busy fishing in the troubled waters of the sea of Azov, even blatantly poisoning targets in the UK, and under President Trump’s watch manipulating Western democracies through cyberspace. China talks to the US but obstructs freedom of navigation in the South China Sea and arbitrarily detains Canadian citizens—including the International Crisis Group’s Michael Kovrig. Saudi Arabia wins accolades with reform in municipal matters only to get approval for the war in Yemen, and the gruesome murder of dissident journalist Jamal Khashoggi in its consulate in Istanbul. Israel feels no constraints to relentlessly undermine a possible two-state solution.
Other than military power, pax-Americana rested on US participation in world trade and the structures that had been carefully built over the decades. The present administration’s insular and America First policy has inevitably led them to question regional trade agreements.
During his election campaign, Trump advocated the policy of Protectionism and ‘Making America Great Again.’ His economic policies are based on high tariffs to reduce imports and thus create more jobs for Americans, reduce immigration and substantially increase exports. Therefore, trade protectionism with instruments of tariff barriers will reverse the gains for world trade made through monumental steps like WT0.
But in the ultimate analysis it will reduce USA’s influence in the world even further. The soldier and the trader take a back seat, the intellectual might be next. But the universities might not surrender easily.