Far from a fantasist, Trump is a realist who accepts the world order is changing
Donald Trump’s mining and blasting of institutions continues. The US president was swift to pull out of the Trans-Pacific Partnership and the Paris Climate Accord. He has threatened the future of the North American Free Trade Agreement. He almost reduced the G7 to the G6 just over a week ago. He seems to have surprised everyone, from the Pentagon to the government of South Korea, with his promise to end the “war games” on the peninsula after his meeting with the North’s Kim Jong-un.
Now many expect Nato, due to hold a major summit in less than a month, to be the next target of a Trumpian fusillade. In fact, the latter would be quite justified, given the large number of members who still fail to match the two percent of GDP spend on defence – but we can be certain that the current occupant of the White House will point this out with greater vigour than his more diplomatic predecessors.
This American withdrawal, this hauling up of the metaphorical drawbridges, is not something completely new. There was a palpable diminishment in US global power during the Obama presidency, not least due to the then president’s habitual caution – whether one regarded that as commendable or excessive. Mr Trump has sped up the process and from his perceived downgrading of US security guarantees around the world, to his brusque treatment of close allies, his manner has caused visceral shock.
His disdain for the idea that America should be a global policeman is, however, what countless leftists and anti-colonialists have long argued for. His words at the Riyadh summit in April last year – “We are not here to lecture. We are not here to tell other people how to live, what to do, who to be, or how to worship” – should have been welcomed by those irritated by American exceptionalism. For this he seems to have been given little credit so far. More western commentators have echoed the Financial Times’s Philip Stephens in deeming Mr Trump’s “retreat” to be “the greatest threat to global security”.
Leave aside the fact that it is not just people on the left. There have long been prominent voices on the right, such as the US paleo-conservative and former congressman Ron Paul, who have advocated for Washington to take a lesser role on the world stage. There is also more sense to Mr Trump’s foreign policy than is commonly allowed.
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Have most other members of Nato been free-riding on the US? They certainly have. True, none can match America for size or wealth. But they have not had to bother with the hard choices they would have to make in order to pull their weight properly. It has been far too convenient to shelter under the American umbrella. And if Europe is not ready to act as a global power to fill the vacuum (and not just in matters of defence), as some have urged, who is to blame for that but the Europeans?
Further, Mr Trump is only hastening – albeit in a somewhat brutal fashion – a process that is ongoing and undeniable: America’s relative decline and the rise of other powers, most notably China. Some seem to labour under the misapprehension that this is reversible, or that moaning about it at length might be able to stall it. All the evidence suggests this is wishful thinking. As Eurasia Group’s Ian Bremmer concluded in an essay last November: “If you had to bet on one country that is best positioned to extend its influence with partners and rivals alike, you wouldn’t bet on the US. The smart money would probably be on China.”
If Mr Trump’s unusual presidency means that we all have to confront the new emerging world order just a bit sooner, that might not be a bad thing. Reality has to be faced. And instead of burying heads in the sand, the best course is to embrace it positively, make the best of it – and help shape it, too.
That means recalibrating what appears to be, in the West at least, a consistently negative and fearful attitude towards China. Trust must be built and gains from mutual developments carefully assessed, for sure. But if we want the future to be characterised by “win-win cooperation”, it would help if other countries look as though they actually want to co-operate.
Currently too many give the impression of thinking that China is an actor in bad faith, and that because it is neither a democracy nor signed up to western notions of human rights it must therefore be some kind of "evil empire" out to impose its will on others. Few put themselves in others' shoes. After all, if you were Chinese and knew well of the "century of humiliation" your country had endured, wouldn't you be ready for China to "take centre stage in the world," as President Xi Jinping put it last October?
In this context Mr Trump's cold-eyed appreciation of stark power and his keenness to form strong personal bonds with other leaders such as Mr Xi could be helpful. His fondness for trade wars, not so much. But his antics and his tweets should not obscure the fact that some of his instincts are correct. The G7 is smaller without a Russia it must learn to deal with. International treaties are sometimes unfair and need to be renegotiated so that one generation does not bind successors in perpetuity. Nato members do need to start paying their fair share. At the same time, the age of Pax Americana is coming to an end.
Critics like to paint Mr Trump as a narcissistic fantasist. The irony is that in some respects he may be more realistic than they about the world that is coming. Just because he points it out does not make it any less true.
Sholto Byrnes is a senior fellow at the Institute of Strategic and International Studies Malaysia
Updated: June 18, 2018 08:15 PM