NEW YORK – It is increasingly clear that US President Donald Trump represents a departure when it comes to America’s global outlook and behavior. As a result, the United States will no longer play the leading international role that has defined its foreign policy for three quarters of a century, under Democratic and Republican presidents alike.
We have already seen many examples of this change. The traditional US commitment to global organizations has been superseded by the idea of “America first.” Alliances and security guarantees once regarded as a given are increasingly conditioned on how much allies spend on defense and whether they are seen to derive unfair advantage from trade with the US.
More broadly, foreign trade is viewed with suspicion – supposedly a source of job loss rather than an engine of investment, job creation, growth, and stability. Immigration and refugee policies have become more restrictive. Less emphasis is being placed on promoting democracy and human rights. More dollars are going to defense, but fewer resources are being devoted to supporting global health or development.
This is not to be confused with isolationism. Even Trump’s America will continue to play a meaningful role in the world. It is using military force in the Middle East and Afghanistan, increasing diplomatic pressure on North Korea to rein in its nuclear and missile programs, and renegotiating the North American Free Trade Agreement with Canada and Mexico. And the policies of states, cities, and companies will translate into an American commitment to climate change, despite Trump’s decision to abandon the Paris agreement.
Still, a shift away from a US-dominated world of structured relationships and standing institutions and toward something else is under way. What this alternative will be, however, remains largely unknowable. What we do know is that there is no alternative great power willing and able to step in and assume what had been the US role.
China is a frequently mentioned candidate, but its leadership is focused mostly on consolidating domestic order and maintaining artificially high economic-growth rates to stave off popular unrest. China’s interest in regional and global institutions seems designed mostly to bolster its economy and geopolitical influence, rather than to help set rules and create broadly beneficial arrangements.
Likewise, Russia is a country with a narrowly-based economy led by a government focused on retaining power at home and re-establishing Russian influence in the Middle East and Europe. India is preoccupied with the challenge of economic development and is tied down by its problematic relationship with Pakistan. Japan is held back by its declining population, domestic political and economic constraints, and its neighbors’ suspicions.
Europe, for its part, is distracted by questions surrounding the relationship between member states and the European Union. As a result, the whole of the continent is less than the sum of its parts – none of which is large enough to succeed America on the world stage.
But the absence of a single successor to the US does not mean that what awaits is chaos. At least in principle, the world’s most powerful countries could come together to fill America’s shoes. In practice, though, this will not happen, as these countries lack the capabilities, experience, and, above all, a consensus on what needs doing and who needs to do it.
A more likely development is the emergence of a mix of order and disorder at both the regional and global level. China will promote various trade, infrastructure, and security mechanisms in Asia. The 11 remaining members of the Trans-Pacific Partnership may launch their trade pact without the US.
Less clear is whether China is prepared to use its influence to restrain North Korea, how India and Pakistan will avoid conflict, and the resolution of Asia’s many territorial disputes. It is all too easy to imagine an Asian and Pacific future characterized by higher spending on arms of all types – and thus more susceptible to violent conflict.
The Middle East is already suffering unprecedented instability, the result of local rivalries and realities, and of 15 years during which the US arguably first did too much and then too little to shape the region’s future. The immediate danger is not just further deterioration in failed states such as Yemen, Syria, and Libya, but also direct conflict between Saudi Arabia and Iran.
Europe may be something of an exception to such trends, as the election of President Emmanuel Macron in France has given rise to a government that is committed to reforming the EU. But the EU itself faces an uncertain future, given Brexit and slow-motion crises in Italy and Greece, not to mention the potential for additional Russian mischief or worse.
To all of this, one could add the meltdown in Venezuela and the all-too-familiar horrors in South Sudan and the Democratic Republic of the Congo. And then there is the growing gap between global challenges such as how to govern cyberspace, and the willingness of governments to work together to address them.
There is no little irony in this global turn of events. For decades, many countries criticized US policy, both for what it was and what it was not. These same countries now face the prospect of a world in which American leadership is likely to be less of a factor. It is far from clear that they are prepared for such a world, or that they will find themselves better off in it.