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24 May, 2018 00:00 00 AM

America’s future as the lone super power

America under two very different presidents has sent the message that it has lost the appetite for flexing its military and trade muscle
David Rothkopf
America’s future as the lone super power

Last week I exchanged emails with an old friend who works in a US government agency. I noticed that his title referred to regions he covered and one of them was “the former Soviet Union”. I couldn’t help but ask: “How long does a country have to be defunct before we stop defining the nation that succeeded it in terms of a past reality?”

Of course, there are many examples of this. Another related example is our tendency to categorise all events that have taken place since 1991 as being part of the post-Cold War era, even though much of what has happened since then has little connection to that period of superpower rivalry.

Perhaps an even more striking example is the fact that we often still define everything take place since 1945 as the post-war era. A closer examination suggests that term in particular is ready to be filed away as obsolete. We have recently, unquestionably, entered the post-post-war era.

The defining characteristics of the period following the Second World War were, in addition to the Cold War and the existence of the Soviet Union, both of which have passed into the pages of history, the following: the ascension of the US as the dominant power of the “free world” and the beginning of the Pax Americana, the importance given to the US and other victorious powers in building an international system of institutions and laws to avoid or mitigate future wars and calamities; the leadership within those institutions a handful of designated “great powers”; the building of a system of global alliances, led by the US, of which Nato was the most important; the foundation of the actions of the US, the United Nations and international institutions and the alliances to protect that system in agreed-upon values, such as those of the international declaration of human rights. rump’s foreign policy has been less awful than he promised. Granted, he has pulled America out of the Paris accord, making it harder to curb climate change, and abandoned the Trans-Pacific Partnership, a big trade deal. However, he has not retreated pell-mell into isolationism. He has not quit NATO; indeed, some of America’s eastern European allies prefer his tough-talk to the cool detachment of Barack Obama. He has not started any wars. He has stepped up America’s defence of Afghanistan’s beleaguered government, and helped Iraq recapture cities from IS. In the parts of the world to which he pays little attention, such as Africa, an understaffed version of the previous administration’s policy continues on autopilot. As  Trump makes a 12-day visit to Asia, it is hard to dismiss him as a man wholly disengaged from the world. e has not started a needless row with China over Taiwan’s ambiguous status, as he once threatened to do. Congress and the election-hacking scandal prevented him from pursuing a grand bargain with Vladimir Putin that might have left Russia’s neighbours at the Kremlin’s mercy. And he has apparently coaxed China to exert a little more pressure on North Korea to stop expanding its nuclear arsenal.

However, he has made some serious errors, too, such as undermining the deal with Iran that curbs its ability to make nuclear bombs. And his instincts are atrocious. He imagines he has nothing to learn from history. He warms to strongmen, such as  Putin and Xi Jinping. His love of generals is matched by a disdain for diplomats—he has gutted the State Department, losing busloads of experienced ambassadors. His tweeting is no joke: he undermines and contradicts his officials without warning, and makes reckless threats against Kim Jong Un, whose paranoia needs no stoking. Furthermore,  Trump has yet to be tested by a crisis. Level-headed generals may advise him, but he is the commander-in-chief, with a temperament that alarms friend and foe alike.

On trade, he remains wedded to a zero-sum view of the world, in which exporters “win” and importers “lose”. (Are the buyers of Ivanka Trump-branded clothes and handbags, which are made in Asia, losers?)  Trump has made clear that he favours bilateral deals over multilateral ones, because that way a big country like America can bully small ones into making concessions. The trouble with this approach is twofold. First, it is deeply unappealing to small countries, which by the way also have protectionist lobbies to overcome. Second, it would reproduce the insanely complicated mishmash of rules that the multilateral trade system was created to simplify and trim. The Trump team probably will not make a big push to disrupt global trade until tax reform has passed through Congress. But when and if that happens, all bets are off—NAFTA is still in grave peril.

Even as you read through that list, I am sure you cannot help but agree, the news of recent days and weeks demonstrates that we have recently watched the last gasps of this era. Hold a mirror over its mouth. It’s dead.

Nowhere is the end of the Pax Americana clearer than in the Middle East. America overreached during the Bush years and before. Now, in the wake of that overreach and the huge unpopularity of “risky overseas adventures” among Americans, the US under two very different presidents has sent the message that it has lost the appetite for flexing its muscle militarily as in the past. America is withdrawing not just its troops from the Middle East; it is withdrawing its influence.

Pulling out of the Iran deal is one example of that. But the retreat is clear in many other areas: the pull-out from the Paris climate accord, the pull-out from the Trans-Pacific Partnership and the potential pull-out from the North American Free Trade Agreement as well as looming trade wars are other prime examples.

Further, by abrogating agreements, America is also saying it can no longer be trusted, critical for the maintenance of a leadership role. Sabre-rattling or the launching of limited strikes or the deployment of a few special forces here do not diminish this point. Rather, they are the cover the US provides itself to suggest it is what it once was, even though the bulk of the evidence is to the contrary.

The US administration’s very hostile stance toward the UN and the international system is not just manifest in the withdrawal from multilateral deals. It is noted in the president’s express contempt for that system and deals of that sort as well as that of his national security adviser, John Bolton. Decisions to not pay the dues owed UN agencies is another sign of this.

The P5, made up of China, Russia, France, the UK and US, is clearly obsolete and might have been dealt a death blow with the US withdrawal from the Iran deal (as Iran now deals with the P4+1).

England and France have long since lost the position they once held among global powers. Frankly, with the exception of its military clout, so too has Russia. Japan, German, and India all have much better claims to such roles. The Iran deal also dealt the latest in a series of blows to Nato and has led European leaders to assert they could no longer depend on the US, the founder of that alliance. Tensions are likely to grow worse as the US attempts to sanction those one-time closest allies and the Europeans create measures to offset that pressure.

The writer is senior fellow at the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies



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Editor : M. Shamsur Rahman
Published by the Editor on behalf of Independent Publications Limited at Media Printers, 446/H, Tejgaon I/A, Dhaka-1215.
Editorial, News & Commercial Offices : Beximco Media Complex, 149-150 Tejgaon I/A, Dhaka-1208, Bangladesh. GPO Box No. 934, Dhaka-1000.

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