Donald Trump is probably the first US president since World War II without a war agenda. He is trying to draw down US troop deployment from Afghanistan, negotiate a settlement for the North Korean nuclear program, disengage from the Syrian civil war, and increase non-military pressure on Iran. Trump’s use of non-war pressure tactics has enemies in the media, academia, and among military-industrial complex lobbyists and politicians. To his detractors, Trump is the scapegoat for a litany of shortcomings faced by the US including the domestic economy, trade, and global policing, none of which are of his making.
Joseph Nye’s recent article “Power and interdependence in Trump era” is an example of how shortsighted people have become in diagnosing the problems the US currently struggles to deal with. Nye squarely blames the Trump administration for not being able to uphold the “legitimacy” of the US to frame global rules, responsibility for which is bequeathed upon the US because of its exceptionalism. The author’s core argument was that the “legitimacy” of the US needs to be protected at any cost because any erosion to it is detrimental to global needs.
However, it is in the assertion of legitimacy that the problems begin.
US history vividly documents the disproportionate use of force upon other countries to maintain the appearance of its legitimacy to frame global rules. It is little wonder that the US derives legitimacy through the deployment of military and non-military tools that have operated in unison since the end of World War II. The rest of the world accepts the weaponization of foreign policy and the control over complex networks that control the flow of global commerce by the US as a fait accompli.
In recent years, several factors have combined to create a state of flux in the global balance of power. Primary among these factors has been the rise of multi-polarity, of different ways in which to assess national power. The US is no longer at the world’s forefront in the fields of science, technology, civic amenities and lifestyle.
Nye’s argument that overuse of tariffs as trade weapons dilutes their efficacy and forces countries and companies to diversify their supply chains is half right. Only those countries or companies enjoying core competitive advantages have emerged, their competitiveness intact, after being hit with higher tariffs by the US. On the other hand, the imposition of tariffs is imperative for the US to buy time for its industry to become competitive with overseas competitors.
For example, because China was fully aware of the perils of relying on US-sourced integrated circuits (ICs) as early as the 1990s, it started a self-sufficiency drive. Thanks to this, Chinese companies, primarily those involved in the manufacture of ICs for mobile devices, achieved a substantial breakthrough long before early 2019, when the US announced sanctions on the supply of high tech parts to Huawei. The rapid progress recorded in the Chinese high technology industrial sector is due to concentrated, coordinated public and private sector investment, unlike in the US.
Even in the sphere of so-called process innovation, much to the chagrin of US companies, Baidu, Alibaba and Tencent (BAT) combined have demonstrated that non-US tech companies are equally capable of innovating business models. China also revolutionized digital financing years before American companies caught on to its importance.
The sharp contrast in investment in science and technology in Asia compared to that of successive administrations in the US is eroding America’s supremacy. According to some observers, even the much-vaunted Silicon Valley has stopped innovating, and now leading major technological breakthroughs are much more likely to come from Asia. Currently, the most significant US tech company is Apple, which is not in the business of overcoming perplexing fundamental STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) problems, but is instead primarily a supplier of lifestyle products.
Nye argues that the frequent use of the complex web of the networks the US has developed forces countries to look for an alternative. The argument is again half right. The countries look for other options to the existing global networks – such as the SWIFT payment system – if they are capable enough and perceive an existential threat from over-reliance on such systems.
The Japanese never thought they needed to replace the SWIFT interbank payment system, despite having the technical and financial resources needed to do so. However, despite the fact that the North Koreans would like to have their own payment system, they have done nothing about it. This is because reliance on the SWIFT system does not represent an existential threat to Japan, but it does to impoverished North Korea, which lacks the money to create an alternative. In stark contrast to this, over-reliance on SWIFT is a threat to China, and the Chinese could easily devise their own cross-border payment system.
If Trump’s style were not so abrasive and eccentric, perhaps his lack of a war agenda would draw praise, if not admiration from around the world. Trade wars are not nearly so damaging as military conflicts, and they offer opportunities for behind-the-scenes negotiations from which opposing parties can emerge, both claiming “victory.”
Trump – or any future US president for that matter – has to come to terms with the changing balance of global power and the United States’ relative decline. The dilemma presented by trying to put a brave face on things while urgently addressing the ongoing decline of US supremacy is a delicate dance that all future US presidents will face.