While the Trump administration swaggers, the world gets down to business

The realities and advantages of a multipolar world are becoming clearer by the day

US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo looks on during a discussion on the major foreign policy priorities of the State Department in Washington, DC, on April 29, 2019. US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo on warned that Russia would seek to interfere in elections for decades ahead and vowed that Washington would try to thwart its efforts. / AFP / NICHOLAS KAMM

The US is no longer a global hegemon, both by choice and by circumstance. Solid proof of its changing role in the world came as Secretary of State Mike Pompeo marked his first anniversary in the job.

Three things happened that week. In Beijing, President Xi Jinping had 37 world leaders join him for the second forum on the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), China's plan to build a massive network of ports, roads and railways across 65 countries.

In Vladivostok, Russia's Vladimir Putin met North Korea’s Kim Jong-un for a summit and then a glitzy reception, complete with a Cossack choir, beetroot soup and reindeer dumplings.

And in Washington DC, Mr Pompeo said the Trump administration’s foreign policy had been a huge success – with respect to both North Korea and Iran – and that the State Department would be rolling out “the very beginnings of this understanding that matches swagger, what we’ll call the ethos of the 21st century diplomat”.

Perhaps the word "swagger" gives the game away. Mr Pompeo first used it when he took over as President Trump's second secretary of state. It might have been an attempt to boost the status of the State Department, which had been greatly diminished and demoralised during the tenure of Mr Pompeo's predecessor, Rex Tillerson.

However, even at the time, it seemed a strange choice of word for America’s chief diplomat. “Swagger” means self-importance and arrogance, not self-assurance. It reflects a choice of posture – showy and shallow – rather than considered policy. If Mr Pompeo meant diplomats representing Trump-led America should project confidence and calm competence, swaggering was an inappropriate aspiration. A year on, Mr Pompeo is still talking about American diplomacy in the same terms. What might it mean?

Exactly what he said. There is lots of American swagger even as multi-polarity increases. Mr Trump has instituted multiple tariff wars, withdrawn aid to Central American countries, issued sanctions with abandon and threatened military action in Venezuela. He has withdrawn from several international pacts and ploughed a unilateral course on deeply contested issues, not least the status of Jerusalem, Israel’s occupation of the Golan Heights, empowering the Taliban in opposition to Afghanistan’s elected government, and apparently withdrawing support for the United Nations-backed Government of National Accord in Libya.

Even at the time, 'swagger' seemed a strange choice of word for America's chief diplomat

Meanwhile, China grows bolder in articulating its global ambitions and Russia is increasingly assertive about its right – as a nuclear power with a few hundred more warheads than the US – to be at the table to broker key international issues. What we’re seeing right now is American swagger, even as China stays an expansionist course and Russia strategises.

Consider the effects of the changes under way. While the US remains the world’s leading economic, military and technological power, China’s investments, vast markets and broad reach have generated enormous global interest. Mr Xi has also set a target date for China to cement its dominance of the world order – 2049, the 100th anniversary of the founding of the People’s Republic. However, already, China has a huge influence on disparate countries.

When Paris's medieval Notre-Dame cathedral caught fire, Chinese-manufactured commercial drones equipped with HD cameras helped firefighters position their hoses to contain the blaze. Britain, a member of the "Five Eyes" intelligence-sharing alliance led by the US, recently said it was considering allowing the Chinese telecoms equipment-maker Huawei to build parts of its 5G mobile networks. This would preserve an open system for global commerce, with China clearly a major player. In March, Italy became the first member of the G7 bloc of industrialised democracies to sign on to the BRI. In addition, a recent study by the World Bank concluded that BRI transportation projects could boost global GDP by three per cent. It's clear the world is growing more accustomed to China's footprint on "pretty much every human activity, from space to seabed", in the words of Jonathan Ward, author of China's Vision of Victory.

Then there is Russia. Mr Putin has already shaped the Syrian war and, in concert with China, has so far helped prevent the US from removing Venezuela’s Nicolas Maduro. The Vladivostok summit with Mr Kim ensures that Moscow’s view of the North Korean impasse will prevail. Mr Putin has already assumed the role of spokesperson for Mr Kim. His intervention means it’s all but certain that Pyongyang will not be recognised as a nuclear state, but nor will its regime collapse. It is a pragmatic approach and is blessed by Beijing. Together, the Sino-Russian axis will stay the course, defining the path of Trump-era America’s bluster.

There is good reason to cheer a multipolar world order. Mostly, it means that Mr Trump will swagger, but without substance.