US President Donald Trump’s inability to think strategically is undermining long-standing relationships, upending the global order, and accelerating the decline of his country’s global influence – or so the increasingly popular wisdom goes. But this assessment is not nearly as obvious as its proponents – especially political adversaries and critics in the mainstream US media – claim.
America’s relative decline was a hot topic long before Trump took office. The process began when the United States, emboldened by its emergence from the Cold War as the world’s sole superpower, started to overextend itself significantly by enlarging its military footprint and ramping up its global economic and security commitments.
America’s “imperial overreach” was first identified during president Ronald Reagan’s administration, which oversaw a frenetic expansion of military spending. It reached crisis levels with the 2003 US-led invasion and subsequent occupation of Iraq under president George W Bush – a watershed moment that caused irreparable damage to America’s international standing.
America’s ‘imperial overreach’ was first identified during president Ronald Reagan’s administration, which oversaw a frenetic expansion of military spending. It reached crisis levels with the 2003 US-led invasion and subsequent occupation of Iraq under president George W Bush
On Barack Obama’s watch, China rapidly expanded its global influence, including by forcibly changing the status quo in the South China Sea (without incurring any international costs). By that point, it was unmistakable: The era of US hegemony was over.
It is not just that Trump cannot be blamed for America’s relative decline; he may actually be set to arrest it. As unpredictable as Trump can be, several of his key foreign-policy moves suggest that his administration is pursuing a grand strategy aimed at reviving America’s global power.
For starters, the Trump administration seems eager to roll back America’s imperial overreach, including by avoiding intervention in faraway wars and demanding that allies pay their fair share for defense. The fact is that many members of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization do not fulfill their spending commitments, in effect leaving American taxpayers to subsidize their security.
These are not new ideas. Before Trump even decided to run for office, pundits were arguing that the US needed to pursue a policy of retrenchment, drastically reducing its international commitments and transferring more of its defense burden on to its allies. But it was not until Trump, who views running a country much like running a business, that the US had a leader who was willing to pursue that path, even if it undermined the values that have long underpinned US foreign policy.
Trump’s focus on containing China – which Federal Bureau of Investigation Director Christopher Wray recently labeled a far bigger challenge than Russia, even in the area of espionage – fits nicely into this strategy. Successive US presidents, from Richard Nixon to Obama, aided China’s economic rise. Trump, however, regards China not as America’s economic partner, but as “a foe economically” and even, as the official mouthpiece China Daily recently put it, America’s “main strategic rival.”
In general, Trump’s tariffs aim to put the US back in control of its economic relationships by constraining its ballooning trade deficits, with both friends and foes, and bringing economic activity (and the accompanying jobs) back home. But it is no secret that, above all, Trump’s tariffs target China – a country that has long defied international trade rules and engaged in predatory practices.
Meanwhile, Trump is also working to ensure that China does not catch up with the US technologically. In particular, his administration seeks to thwart China’s “Made in China 2025” program, the blueprint unveiled by the Chinese government in 2015 for securing global dominance over 10 strategic high-tech industries, from robotics to alternative-energy vehicles.
Trump’s diplomatic activities seem intended to advance this larger strategic vision of reversing America’s relative decline. He has tried to sweet-talk autocratic leaders, from North Korea’s Kim Jong-un to Russia’s Vladimir Putin, into making concessions – an approach that has garnered its share of criticism. But Trump’s compliments have not translated into kowtowing.
For example, despite all the controversy over Russia’s alleged interference in the 2016 presidential election, the fact is that, since Trump took office, the US has expelled Russian diplomats, closed a Russian consulate, and imposed three rounds of sanctions on the country. His administration is now threatening to apply extraterritorial sanctions to stop other countries from making “significant” defense deals with Russia, a leading arms exporter.
Trump has not flattered any foreign leader more than Chinese President Xi Jinping, whom he called “terrific” and “a great gentleman.” Yet, again, when Xi refused to yield to Trump’s demands, the US president did not hesitate to hit back “using Chinese tactics,” including suddenly changing negotiating positions and unpredictably escalating trade tensions.
Even Trump’s direct approach with North Korea undermines China’s position by bypassing it. Trump is right that transforming the US-North Korea relationship matters more than securing complete denuclearization. If he can co-opt North Korea, China’s only formal military ally, northeast Asian geopolitics will be reshaped and China’s lonely rise will be more apparent than ever.
There are plenty of problems with Trump’s methods. His brassy, theatrical, and unpredictable negotiating style, together with his China-like disregard for international norms, are destabilizing international relations. Domestic troubles like political polarization and legislative gridlock – both of which Trump has actively exacerbated – also weaken America’s hand internationally.
But there is no denying that Trump’s muscular “America First” approach – which includes one of the most significant military buildups since World War II – reflects a strategic vision that is focused squarely on ensuring that the US remains more powerful than any rival in the foreseeable future.
Perhaps more important, the transactional approach to international relations on which Trump’s strategy relies is likely to persist long after he leaves office. Friends and foes alike must get used to a more self-seeking America doing everything in its power, no matter the cost, to forestall its precipitous decline.
Copyright: Project Syndicate, 2018.
Mr. Chellany. The problem with America is not China or Russia. It is illiteracy and lack of education.
US schools have become killing fields that now output youth who can neither read nor count. A professor colleague in NY State teaching STEM lamented to me recently that they are starting "remedial reading" for Master’s students!!!
When asked how come they got their Bachelor’s? "Pushed through" he told. America is now giving out degrees without imparting knowledge. No wonder they cannot compete with China.
Mr. Chellany should next worry about India. There are upwards of 140,000 Indians getting their education in the US. They will go back and do to India what American graduates are doing to America. No wonder India that now beds with America has no future, falling behind more and more against China.
I have long ignore this guy’s crap on ATOL. But today, out of curiousity, I just barely skimmed thru this piece of the "same-old-same-old" and I have not been disappointed to its stench.
He is a perfect explanation as to why a few hundred british officers were enough to subdue 400 million indians for more than 300 years. When their white masters said "shit" is nice, this guy and his ilk will gorge on it with no questions asked.
US is still a global power. Other powers are catching up. It’s hard to be the No. 1 all the time. Sooner or later the cost of imperial overreach will catch up. That is what is happening to US. It may win in military conflicts but at a huge cost. Britain experienced it and have to give up the crown to the US for financial assistance. So it will be with the US. Already it could not enforce its writs around the world. It could not win a war against a rag tag armed group. It’s policy is disoriented. It’s Government is in disarray. It’s debt is shooting through the roof. The world is united against its trade policy. What do you call that type of Power?
The fact is that many members of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization do not fulfill their spending commitments, in effect leaving American taxpayers to subsidize their security.
A hoary old furphy. The US allocates defense expenditure to NATO in accordance with its interests and for no other reason. America pressures NATO allies to spend more on defense for two main reasons: to encourage them to buy more US-made armaments, thus helping America’s chronic trade deficit, and to improve their ability to help America in its endless military adventures in the Middle East.
The EU countries could double their defense spending tomorrow and America wouldn’t reduce its own by one cent.
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