I published Rising Powers and Global Governance in 2017. The book has 14 chapters, eight of which discussed the world’s major powers — the United States, China, India and Russia — and some of the troubled areas such as Afghanistan, the Middle East and Europe. I would like to quote at some length from the concluding paragraph of the chapter on the United States titled ‘A Receding America?’ I wrote: “In 2015-16, America stands at a threshold; how it crosses it will determine the role it will play in the world. There are a number of issues to be resolved. Once the dust thrown up by the elections of November 2016 settles, as a new president moves into the White House, America will have to decide what kind of space it wishes to occupy in a world that is going through unprecedented change. Withdrawing behind its borders is not an option. It is too large a country with too many strengths to contemplate such a move. Aggressively confronting China, a country that has made enormous and unprecedented progress, should not be regarded as an option either.”
I got three things wrong in that brief paragraph written in late 2015. The dust thrown up by the presidential contest of November 2016 did not settle down. With the unexpected election of Donald J Trump as president, the dust still hangs in the air two years after the new president took office. With the adoption of ‘America First’ as the guiding principle of foreign policy making, President Trump has pulled his country behind a wall of isolation. And, he has begun to aggressively challenge China on several fronts, attacking what is now the world’s second-largest economy.
The United States was changing even before Donald J Trump became president on January 20, 2017. There were reasons for change. The process that came to be called ‘globalisation’ had brought about significant changes in the system of production. Demographic developments had made the country more diverse, ethnically as well as in terms of religion.
Donald Trump’s ‘Make America Great Again’ and ‘America First’ campaign were unmistakable attempts at preserving the hold of the white population — in particular white men — over the country’s political and economic systems. But this was a losing battle; nothing proved that to be the case as much as the results of the November 2018 mid-term elections. They yielded the House of Representatives that was much more diverse in terms of race as well as religion than ever. As one analyst noted, “The new members include several firsts for Congress — the first Muslim women, the first Native American women and the first African American women from several states.” But there is a complete split between the country’s two political parties: the Republicans and the Democrats. The nonpartisan Cook Political Report calculated after most results from the mid-term elections had been declared that the percentage of white men as a share of House Democrats is set to decline from 41% to 38% as a result of the 2018 election. Meanwhile, the percentage of white men as a share of House Republicans is set to rise from 86% to 90%.
There are several ways in which President Trump has upended the global economic and political order he inherited. He has adopted a strong anti-immigration stance, speaking openly about not wanting to bring into his country people of colour and those who follow the Muslim faith. He has begun to call himself a nationalist as opposed to a globalist, setting into motion a trend that has caught on in several European countries. By moving in that direction he has developed a wide gulf between the United States and more liberal parts of Western Europe.
He has lost the position the United States had occupied as an arbitrator in the Middle East, hoping to bring peace to this long-troubled region. In the process, he has openly sided with the Jewish state of Israel and against the Palestinians. By moving in this direction, he has encouraged the Middle Eastern monarchies in the Sunni part of the Arab world to ruthlessly suppress any moves to take these nations towards a democratic political order. The United States-Israeli-Sunni Arab alliance is also directed at pushing Iran in the hope of bringing about a change in the regime in that country. By forcing the Shiite clerics to give up political power in that country, this combination of forces will clear the space in which they could operate openly and without any constraint.
The moves against China now cover a large area. The effort is to throw obstacles in the way of China, preventing it from making further economic advance at a rate that would make it the world’s largest economy. It is set to overtake the United States in a decade or so. One part of the effort to constrain China is to form a new alliance with some of the major powers in Asia. This alliance is built on the idea of the ‘quad’ promoted some time ago by Japan. This would involve in addition to Japan, the United States, Australia and India. The Trump administration is calling it the Indo-Pacific Alliance. Whereas the quad was to focus on economic cooperation, the Trump administration is more focused on its military aspects. One consequence of this move is to bring India out as a counter-weight to China. For the first time in history, India is siding with one great power to work against another great power.
There were a lot of moves within a short period of less than two years during which Donald Trump has been America’s president. Almost all of them are negative resulting in the creation not of a new world order but the founding of global disorder. Trump has managed to reduce the scope of multilateralism, favouring instead the bilateral approach to the making of foreign policy. He has abandoned the effort to advance liberal democracy in the Muslim world. And he has pushed China towards seeking its own way in the world rather follow the global path. Policymakers in Pakistan have to keep all this in their sight as they plan to reposition their country on the world stage.
Published in The Express Tribune, November 19th, 2018.