Friday, January 19, 2018

Trump foreign policy and the strategic position of the US

Alfred McCoy takes a snapshot of US foreign policy after a year of Donald Trump as President with a Secretary of State committed to a systematic dismantling of his own department in The World According to Trump TomDispatch 01/16/2018:
... American leaders have been on top of the world for so long that they no longer remember how they got there. Few among Washington’s foreign policy elite seem to fully grasp the complex system that made U.S. global power what it now is, particularly its all-important geopolitical foundations. As Trump travels the globe, tweeting and trashing away, he’s inadvertently showing us the essential structure of that power, the same way a devastating wildfire leaves the steel beams of a ruined building standing starkly above the smoking rubble.

The architecture of the world order that Washington built after World War II was not only formidable but, as Trump is teaching us almost daily, surprisingly fragile. At its core, that global system rested upon a delicate duality: an idealistic community of sovereign nations equal under the rule of international law joined tensely, even tenuously, to an American imperium grounded in the realpolitik of its military and economic power.
And he suggests that we could "think of this duality as the State Department versus the Pentagon."

In a real sense, US power has been on the decline since the end of the Second World War. The US ended the war in overall great shape, militarily and economically, despite the large number of American lives lost in the war. The USSR was also victorious and constituted a major opposing pole of political orientation and a fundamentally different economic system. But it has also been devastated in the war.

And the "bipolar" confrontation between the two systems continued to reduce the relative strength of the United States, especially after the victory of the Chinese Revolution in 1949.

Adherents of the "realist" perspective in foreign policy argue that among nations there is a continuing shifting in balances of power, with each nation calculating its moves based on its own national self-interest. Self-interest isn't a constant factor, nor a simple one, nor one that is independent of the judgments and ideologies of the decision-makers. But some things, like an adversary power building up military bases on the border, are elements that any decision-maker about foreign policy in a country would regard as a potentially threatening factor that had to be taken into full account.

The end of the Cold War and the collapse of the Soviet Union increased the relative strength of the US in the world system, because its largest competitor for world power had exited the historical stage. This gave rise to a triumphal attitude by American policymakers and politicians and, in the tendency that the realists recognized, led to arrogant and incautious actions. Prior to his death in 2005, the leading realist thinker, George Kennan, was warning that expanding NATO closer and closer to Russian borders would lead to offsetting reactions by Russia.

Ebbs and flows of influence will continue. But the longterm trend of US power and influence has been in decline since the end of World War II. That's not good or bad in itself. The British Empire fell apart after the Second World War, but Britain itself has remained one of the richest countries in the world and has basically only been involved in wars by its own choice, e.g., the Iraq War, the Libyan intervention. There are costs of various kinds to trying to maintain overwhelming military dominance in all parts of the world. Not least of which is the damage to democratic institutions and personal freedoms in the United States that comes from a condition of permanent war.

But it's one thing to pull back from overly costly or excessively risky commitments in other countries, military and otherwise. It's another to just blunder along without coherent or sensible political leadership McCoy:
If all great empires require skilled leadership at their epicenter to maintain what is always a fragile global equilibrium, then the Trump administration has failed spectacularly. As the State Department is eviscerated and Secretary of State Rex Tillerson discredited, Trump has -- uniquely for an American president -- taken sole control of foreign policy (with the generals he appointed to key civilian posts in tow).
McCoy gives this impressive list of examples of shifts occurring due to Trump's nationalistic "American First" policies:
All you have to do is note headlines in the daily media over the past year to grasp that Washington’s world dominion is crumbling, thanks to the sorts of cascading setbacks that often accompany imperial decline. Consider the first seven days of December, when the New York Times reported (without connecting the dots) that nation after nation was pulling away from Washington. First, there was Egypt, a country which had received $70 billion in U.S. aid over the previous 40 years and was now opening its military bases to Russian jet fighters; then, despite President Obama’s assiduous courtship of the country, Myanmar was evidently moving ever closer to Beijing; meanwhile, Australia, America’s stalwart ally for the last 100 years, was reported to be adapting its diplomacy, however reluctantly, to accommodate China’s increasingly dominant power in Asia; and finally, there was the foreign minister of Germany, that American bastion in Europe since 1945, pointing oh-so-publicly to a widening divide with Washington on key policy issues and insisting that clashes will be inevitable and relations “will never be the same.”

And that’s just to scratch the surface of one week’s news without even touching on the kinds of ruptures with allies regularly being ignited or emphasized by the president’s daily tweets. Just three examples from many will do: President Peña Nieto’s cancelation of a state visit after a tweet that Mexico had to pay for Trump’s prospective “big, fat, beautiful wall” on the border between the two countries; outrage from British leaders sparked by the president’s retweet of racist anti-Muslim videos posted on a Twitter account by the deputy leader of a neo-Nazi political group in that country, followed by his rebuke of British Prime Minister Theresa May for criticizing him over it; or his New Year’s Day blast accusing Pakistan of “nothing but lies & deceit” as a prelude to cutting off U.S. aid to that country. Considering all the diplomatic damage, you could say that Trump is tweeting while Rome burns.
Like many accounts of Trump's diplomacy, McCoy also points to the pullback from trade treaties like TPP also represents a ceding of diplomatic and strategic advantage to others, especially China in the case of TPP.

You don't have to think that TPP style "trade" treaties, which are primarily corporate deregulation treaties that have become an important tool to lock in Herbert Hooverish neoliberal economic policies, are good in themselves to also recognize that Trump's approach has been a one-sided yielding of diplmatic and strategic power. A more progressive approach to trade treaties would have the potential to restore some of that influence but on a basis that would benefit ordinary people more substantially. Obviously, that's not the approach Trump is taking.

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