By Abhijnan Rej
Soon after Donald Trump was elected the 45th President of the United States, pundits started speculating on how this highly-improbable event came to be. One theory proffered was that American voters took Trump “seriously” but not “literally,” in distinction to the liberal elite who did the opposite. The unstated hope behind this explanation was that Trump’s extreme rhetoric – flying in the face of 70 years of US policy – was campaign bluster, to be abandoned the moment he would occupy the White House.
At the end of his first week in office, Trump shows no such signs of moderation. As a much-shared tweet put it, Americans are now confronted with the idea that he should be taken seriously as well as literally. Through executive orders (a legislation-by-fiat mechanism that has no equivalent in the Indian constitutional system), Trump has killed the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP), a mega-free-trade agreement which was to be the economic leg of the counter-China ‘pivot to Asia’, and ordered the construction of a border wall between Mexico and the United States.
He has appointed the leader of the ‘alt-right’ propaganda machinery, Steve Bannon, as a principal in the exalted National Security Council (NSC), lodging that controversial businessman at the heart of US foreign-policy apparatus. At the same time, he has downgraded the roles of the Chairman of Joint Chiefs of Staff and the Director of National Intelligence in the NSC, a decision that is likely to seriously impair US strategic decision-making. It is amateur hour in the Trump White House, as some have put it.
But it is Trump’s decision to ban nationals from seven Muslim-majority countries – including ones with permanent-residency visas – from entering the United States that has caused the most bipartisan consternation. It has also resulted in the first legal challenge to his powers, with a Federal judge ruling challenging parts of Trump’s executive order. A legal battle between the Executive and the Judiciary is almost sure to play out in American courtrooms to an uncertain ending. Meanwhile it is important to note that Trump’s doubling down on his campaign shows that, bluster aside, he is no master of realpolitik in the mold of Richard Nixon.
This much is clear: Trump intends to take the sledgehammer to the global open econo-political architecture that the US has put in place since World War Two. This system of norms, rules, and modes of global conduct – maintained and enforced by American guns and ships when necessary – is often called the “liberal global order”. But to call it as such is to miss a larger realist rationale for the same.
The open architecture is an expression of American power channelled towards the ostensible liberal goals that secured Pax Americana by weakening or co-opting its adversaries – the Soviet Union and China, respectively. Successive American administrations have cleverly used the garb of norms to secure desired concessions from the adversaries of the United States and to achieve geopolitical objectives.
A story from the Nixon administration – as told by his National Security Advisor and the dean of realists the world over, Henry Kissinger, in Diplomacy – comes to mind. In 1972, the United States decided to grant the Most-Favoured Nation (MFN) status to the USSR. Despite the high-sounding moniker, what an MFN status does to the awardee is that it allows it to trade with the anointing nation in normal terms of economic give-and-take.
But at the same time, American legislators precluded this possibility by bringing up the Soviet practice of charging an exit emigration tax for its citizens (directed at Jews). The end-state that resulted from this two apparently-conflicting positions of the legislative and executive branches was that the Soviets dropped the exit-tax practice. This is one of many examples through which norms around trade were cleverly deployed alongside other measures to advance American strategic interests. The TPP that Trump killed on his first day in office was supposed to have been one such geoeconomic tool directed at China.
The norms advanced by the United States are, fundamentally, expressions of American power, designed for the most parts to further its national interest, often asymmetrically. But why has the world – by and large – signed up for the American-led open system?
One, many countries free-rode on the American architecture, from the Chinese whose ascendance to great-power status was underwritten by a Made-in-USA globalisation, to European states whose social-democratic largesse was predicated on the United States guaranteeing their security. Two, American hard-power has often been disguised – and American unilateralism often masked – by enduring its soft-power, through brand-building around values. Even when American power unsettled many, it was liberal rhetoric that made American realpolitikal machinations palatable: “Yankee go home – but take me with you,” went that popular wit from the 1970s.
Donald Trump seeks to undo leverage from both. Spooking European and Asian allies –even the ones that have free-ridden the system – will mean that the next time around the United States sets out to dictate rules, Trump will find far few takers. This, in turn, will reduce the clout and influence of friends of the United States, like India, who have on occasion relied on American agenda-setting ability to further their own national interests.
Meanwhile, power abhors a vacuum, as the geostrategist Parag Khanna is fond of saying. American hesitation or inability to shape global narratives will imply that the Chinese will all-too-gladly take on this task. Xi Jinping’s Davos speech a couple of weeks ago gave a hint of what the Chinese may have in mind.
The next time an American diplomat or intelligence officer tries to convince an oil-rich sheikdom in the Middle East how America is a friend of Islam (however insincere or mealy-mouthed that pronouncement may be), she will be reminded of the ban on Muslim migrants Trump has put in place. Closer to home, the pseudo-secular cabal in the Indian opposition will inevitably bring up Trump’s treatment of Muslims the next time the United States and India are about to sign a defence agreement. By doing so, it will try and constrain Modi’s foreign-policy manoeuvring space.
This article was first published in Swarajya.