In the last four years, President Donald Trump has reviewed and, many argue, irretrievably weakened the international commitments of the United States. Under the circumstances, should the American elections matter to the world, when the US itself seems to be turning inwards?
In many ways, the US elections matter much more than perhaps at any time since World War II. With just over two weeks to go, and with the most rancorous campaign in contemporary history, the elections are gripping global attention. We could, as a consequence of the result, see a gradual renewal of the American global imprimatur, or a speedy erasure of Washington’s international footprint.
The “promise” of four more years of Trump is one of the US retreating into an isolationist shell, and becoming even less engaged internationally. The US could also become more protectionist, opportunistic, and unilateralist in the advancement of its narrow self-interest. Not surprisingly, Trump’s leadership invites very low levels of global support. The irony is that this would happen at a time when the world needs a more globally engaged America.
Isolationism is not a new tendency in itself — the narrative of isolationism is part of any 101 course on American history; from the farewell address by George Washington, in September 1976 (“It is our true policy to steer clear of permanent alliance with any portion of the foreign world.”) to the 7th President Andrew Jackson (let the world be, but respond with overwhelming force to a threat), there is a mixed legacy of quarantining the US from the outside world.
It was this strand of thinking that prevented Woodrow Wilson’s internationalism from sustaining itself, and America’s failure to join the League of Nations after World War I. Trump has, of course, customised isolationism in his own image: a combination of victimhood, exceptionalism and entitlement; blaming the outside world for all the ills of the unique United States; and his slogan of America First — and often alone — aimed at providing a quick unilateral fix to deep and complex problems that need considered global solutions.
The last four years have, for instance, witnessed an American unilateral withdrawal from the Paris climate accord, Iran nuclear deal, Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty, UNESCO, UN Human Rights Council, World Health Organization (WHO), Open Skies Treaty, and Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP), and a weakening of many multilateral institutions and relationships with long-standing allies, including those in Europe.
All of this has happened at a time when the world needs much greater global robustness from a calmer United States, and indeed many more multilateral arrangements (which are backed by Washington’s long-term commitment) on a range of critical issues from climate change to arms control, to trade negotiations to the fight against Covid-19. With Joe Biden, were he to be elected, we could see a slow return of the US to its more engaged, multilateral posture, but it would take a full term (and more) before we could expect a return to status quo ante, after the inscrutable ferocity of the Trump years.
Are we on the cusp of a new cold war, and could we witness a strategic decoupling between China and the US? How would a Trump or a Biden administration respond to a more belligerent Beijing?
The American financier and advisor to several Presidents, Bernard Baruch, coined the term “cold war” to describe the tensions between the United States and Soviet Union after World War II. But the present-day international system hardly mimics that period; even the most parsimonious analysis would reveal the complex levels of interdependence that continue to exist between China and the US. But while the Soviet Union and the US never used force against each other directly, on present evidence there is a real possibility of a clash between Beijing and Washington in the Indo-Pacific — today, the centre of economic gravity as well as the cradle of primordial instincts.
What is clear is that American domination is being seriously challenged, for the first time since 1990, by another state, China. This is firmly and finally the end of the “End of History” thesis. And China’s assertion is one issue on which Biden and Trump are closer in their views than is often recognised. While Trump has publicly berated Beijing, Biden’s aide Anthony Blinken has explicitly stated: “China poses a growing challenge. It’s arguably the biggest challenge we face from another nation state.”
Source: The Indian Express
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