President Donald Trump’s emergent foreign policy agenda is a repudiation of the largely bipartisan consensus that has dominated US grand strategy since the end of World War Two: that the US should seek and maintain primacy in international affairs. Even more worrying, Trump’s approach also has the potential to accelerate the end of the ‘American era’ in international affairs.
Primacy, as political scientist Robert Jervis has noted, means more than simply having greater economic and military resources than any other state. Primacy also encompasses the ability to establish and influence ‘the rules of the game’ by which international politics is played, the intellectual framework it employs, and the standards by which behavior is judged to be legitimate.
During the Cold War this required an inherent bargain between realist and liberal approaches to international affairs. The geopolitical containment of the Soviet Union was facilitated by the construction of a system of military and security partnerships, whereby the US guaranteed its allies’ security through US military forces based overseas and an extended nuclear umbrella.
Complementing this was the American underwriting of the post-1945 international order, structured around institutionalized political relations amongst states, and an open international economy. In this manner, as Princeton’s G. John Ikenberry has argued, ‘The US made its power safe for the world, and in return the world agreed to live within the US system’, creating ‘the most stable and prosperous international system in world history’.
But President Trump’s ‘America First’ foreign policy agenda fundamentally calls this into question. ‘For many decades’, he asserted in his inaugural address, ‘we’ve enriched foreign industry at the expense of American industry, subsidized the armies of other countries while allowing for the very sad depletion of our military…We’ve made other countries rich while the wealth, strength, and confidence of our country has dissipated over the horizon’.
Trump’s notion of being ‘ripped off’ on the international stage is embodied in three major propositions that are at the core of the administration’s emergent foreign policy: the United States’ web of alliances has been over-extended; the United States has been disadvantaged by the open global economy; and the United States is no longer respected by either rivals or friends.
The administration’s responses to each of these issues look set to weaken rather than strengthen American primacy.
First, Trump’s repeated questioning of the utility of US alliances, and threats to withdraw American security guarantees if its partners fail to bear a greater proportion of the financial burden are counter-productive. Such posturing arguably weakens American credibility with both friends and rivals, encouraging friends to look toward greater self-reliance—including band-wagoning with other great powers—and providing opportunities for rivals to become more strategically assertive.
Second, the administration’s response to the challenges of the open global economic order, including threats to slap high tariffs on imports and pursue a ‘trade war’ against China, are a throwback to the mercantilist protectionism of the 19th century. The viability of such a retreat behind a ‘tariff wall’ however is not only highly questionable given the nature of the contemporary international economic system but also likely to have adverse geo-strategic consequences.
As President Xi Jinping demonstrated at the recent World Economic Forum summit, the opportunities presented by such an abdication of American global economic leadership is one that is unlikely to be passed up in Beijing. The Trump administration’s withdrawal from the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) provides Beijing with an enormous opportunity to embed itself as the economic linchpin in the Asia-Pacific through its ambitious ‘One Belt, One Road’ (OBOR) strategy. OBOR’s infrastructure-heavy endeavour to enhance Eurasian economic ‘connectivity’ is also to be supported by Beijing-led multilateral institutions such as the Asian Infrastructure and Investment Bank (AIIB) and Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP) which, as Mark Beeson notes, have peaked the interests of ‘many of the US’s most reliable and trusted allies’.
Third, the President’s claim that putting its ‘own interests first’ is critical to the United States winning back the respect of other nations is predicated on a zero-sum view of international politics where there are only winners and losers.
This transactional approach has been apparent in Trump’s utterances on various issues from how to combat Islamic State (‘bomb the shit outta them and take their oil’) to NATO (‘We are paying disproportionately’) to the 2015 Iran nuclear agreement (‘we’re giving them billions of dollars in this deal’).
President Trump has promised the American people that he will make the United States ‘wealthy’, ‘proud’, ‘safe’ and ‘great again’.
Yet it’s difficult to see how a foreign policy such as this will help achieve these goals. Rather, the administration appears to be in the process of abdicating America’s leadership role in international affairs. In its absence, that opens up space for others to rewrite the ‘rules of the game’. They are unlikely to be as favourable to the US or its allies.