The rise of Donald Trump in the hierarchy of the conservative Republican Party and then winning the presidential election was a victory of populism over the establishment. He sold the American people dream of ‘making America great again. He targeting his allies and rivals in similar fashion for undermining US national interests. He alleged the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) members were following the policy of free riders. He said Chinese, Indians and Mexicans are taking jobs for American. However, what he acknowledged was that the US is no longer a superpower and his predecessors have failed to fix it. But it is not the good or bad intention of the leaders that determine the course of international politics rather it is the international structure.
As Fareed Zakaria noted in 1992 that it is was not good and bad intentions of Nazi Germany and fascist Japan that determined the faith of international politics, but it was systematic forces that determined the faith of their policies. Trump’s nationalist vision of foreign policy has come to dominate the US foreign policy when the world has already witnessed geoeconomic shift. Fareed Zakeria (2008) in his book Post-American World announced the coming of post-American world order on the eve of the Euro-Atlantic financial crisis.
The US military budget in the post-1990s was greater than combined next 10 powers and as of 2016, it was three times greater than China. It still retains an edge over other great powers in military expenditure, innovation and standard of life. It leads world’s most powerful military alliance of NATO and has military bases more than 800 around the world that provide US capabilities to project its military power.
Yet, in the twenty-first century the new geo-economic realities are redefining geopolitics of Asia. The rise of BRICS and G20 groups as the new informal global multilateral forums is the reflections of this shift. The establishment of BRICS Bank and Asian Investment Bank has confirmed that rising powers are now committed to play a major role in shaping norms and rules of international trade.
Further, the choices are relative. States choose one decision at the cost of other. The geopolitical challenge for US hegemony in the post-Cold War was identified would come from Asia-Pacific region yet US priority became the Middle East. The ‘Asia pivot policy’ was announced in 2008. The part of this strategy was engaging in low cost balancing policy by forging strategic military and trade relationship with India and Japan. The growing trilateral cooperation of US with the two Asian democracies in Asia-Pacific region has much do with protecting multiparty in Asia. In this way, China’s Silk Road diplomacy and Malabar Naval Exercises are an unfolding of the new geopolitical changes.
The Obama Administration’s decision in 2011 to withdraw troops from Iraq was an indication that the US had come to realize the Middle Eastern Wars were the strategic fault. The region has not only consumed US manpower, money and time but also when the US military left Iraq, it was overtaken by the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS).
The Middle Eastern crisis provided an opportunity for Russia to demonstrate its military capabilities. It aligned with Iran to restore order in Syria and defeat the ISIS. In the changing regional status quo, the US allies are perceived themselves on the losing end. Both Israel and Saudi Arabia were opposite to US decision to withdraw troops from Iraq. Moreover, the Obama Administration went one step further and joined P5+1 (US, UK, Russia, China, France and Germany) negotiation process with Iran on the nuclear deal. The Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) was signed in 2015 which was hailed by the world powers as a triumph of diplomacy.
The deal has protected Israel’s nuclear hegemony in the region and cut the element of deterrence in the Iran-US relations. There is still disagreement between on the future of the Middle East between Iran and US. Iran has witnessed its geopolitical expansion without nuclear weapons also. China and Russia have called the nuclear deal as the victory of their support for Iran. The European Union has also welcomed the nuclear deal and returning of Iran to the international market. India also used this opportunity and signed an agreement to invest US$ 500 million on development of Iran’s Chabahar port situated on the Arabian Ocean.
In the US there was a strong criticism from pro-Zionists to administration for joining Iran nuclear deal. However, the Obama Administration defends the decision that the deal would cut Iranian capacity to enrich the uranium to the weapon-grade level for at least 20 years, which is best for Israeli strategic interests. As Obama replied, his critics in the US Congress that, “can a better deal be found, as opponents claim? Is war the only alternative to the Iran nuclear agreement?”
Another challenge before the US Administration was Korean Peninsula crisis to status The threat of taking strong action by the US did not stop North Korea from becoming a nuclear state. The Six-Party Talks initiated to find the diplomatic solution by China, Japan, North Korea, Russia, South Korea, and US in 2003 failed. N. Korea conducts an underground nuclear test in 2006 and declared nuclear power state. The N. Korea’s Foreign Ministry stated that its “nuclear test was entirely attributable to the US nuclear threat, sanctions and pressure.” Since 2009, Pyongyang has stated it would never return to the talks and is no longer bound by any agreement. It has stated if nuclear disarmament should be carried, it must be reciprocally between North and South Korea and there must be no US nuclear weapons in the region. In the wake of crisis and stalemate, N. Korea continued its nuclear and ballistic missile program. The US has also increased its active military engagement with S. Korea and Japan.
In Europe, Russian President Putin had warned US and EU that Georgia and Ukraine were the red line. During the crisis in Georgia, Russia mobilized its army and established direct contacts with separatists of South Ossetia and Abkhazia in support of their independence. Russia officially recognized both South Ossetia and Abkhazia as independent states on 26 August 2008. In Ukraine when pro-EU group began to pressure the government, Russia offered US$ 15 billion of loan to the Ukrainian government, but when soft diplomacy did not work, it annexed Crimea in 2014 and supported the rebels in eastern Ukraine. The political reconciliation between East and West Ukraine has been a big regional challenge in Europe.
Russia has expanded its military power across the eastern Mediterranean region by deploying its air force in Syria. Turkey has also joined Russia led Syrian peace process. The improvement in Turkish relations with Russia and Iran has been a valuable geopolitical gain for Russia. The US chose to keep its role limited supporting Syrian Kurds.
On January 2017, Donald Trump entered US President Office. He promised to revisit US policies on trade, immigration, and the Iranian nuclear program in light of US national security and national interests. His cabinet has witnessed many shuffles and finally has brought the men in the administration that support a tough stand against Russia, China and Iran. As expected, Trump-like his predecessors prioritized the Middle East. He appointed his Jewish son in law first White House senior advisor to the president and later the US envoy for Arab-Israel peace process. Trump made his first official destination Saudi Arabia. President Trump made a controversial decision in December 2017 to recognize the East Jerusalem as the capital of Israel. Which international community overwhelmingly rejected in both United Nations and UN Security Council.
In August 2017, Trump signed a new sanctions bill passed by Congress, which was meant to punish Russia for its interference in the US election, its annexation of the Crimea and its involvement in eastern Ukraine crisis. Moscow blasted the bill and then told the US to reduce the size of diplomatic staff in Moscow by 755 members. The US retaliated ordered the closure of Russia San Francisco consulate and annexes in Washington and New York. In addition, US targeted 12 Russian state-owned companies and 17 senior Russian Officials in April 2018.
The US has continued block the UNSC resolution to condemn Israel’s policies on occupied territories. Meanwhile, US has threatened to withdraw from the agreement with Iran and has strengthening non-nuclear related sanctions against Iran. While Pyongyang has continued ballistic missile tests. It conducted intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) test on July 28, 2017, and hydrogen bomb test on September 3, 2017.
The US response was mostly multilevel by calling the UNSC special secessions, demanding China to pressure N. Korea and cooperating with East Asia allies. In his first address to the UN General Assembly on September 19, 2017, Trump threatens to “totally destroy North Korea”, if the US is forced to defend itself or its allies. He added that the “Rocket Man is on a suicide mission for himself and for his regime.” In response, Kim Jong Un called Trump’s behaviour “mentally deranged and asserting that a frightened dog barks louder.” He further stated that Trump’s words “convinced me, rather than frightening or stopping me, that the path I chose is the correct and that one I have to follow to the last.” The US has taken some aggressive measures to address allies’ security challenge which included operational of THAAD missile defence system in South Korea in May 2017 and US BI-B strategic bomber flew near N. Korean cost on September 23, 2017.
In the multilateral forums, except on N. Korean nuclear issue, the Trump Administration was at odds with the international community. On the third days into his administration, Trump withdrew from the negotiation process over the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) and was followed by in June his announcement that US would cease to be part of Paris Climate Change Program. The resort to nationalist language on domestic economic issues has made US reluctant power to continue the leadership role in international trade and services related issues and seems to be fearing that in multilateral negotiations US might receive unfair treatment.
The US administration announced that it was to address the US$ 500 billion deficit in trade and theft of intellectual property right of worth US$ 300 billion. The US hit the first shot of trade war in April 2018 when White House announced a list of 1,333 Chinese imports to be subject to punitive tariffs of 25 percent. In tit for tat, China has implemented tariffs up to 25 percent on US 3 billion food imports. The US believes Beijing is following unfair restricts on US high-tech services trade and is preparing for second round of tariffs.
In defining the trajectory of US foreign policy, the impact of personalities would be modest in relative to the realities of international politics. As Trump was forced by conditions to modify his initial preference towards Russia. His administration has not taken steps so far to reduce US military overseas commitment. White House has passed the military budget of US$ 700 billion which is one of the highest increase in the US history. Yet according to experts, it is not sufficient amount to meet technological and human resource demands. The Heritage Foundation finds in its 2018 Index of US Military Strength that the US military posture is rated ‘marginal’ and is trending toward ‘weak’.
When we look at the US National Security Strategy 2018, which is Trump’s first NSS, was a departure from past- If there was changed, it was explicitly identified of China, Russia and Iran as the revisionist powers. It envisages that the US will return to ‘principled realism’. By which President Trump has argued for putting ‘America first’ while formulating trade and military intervention policies. Nonetheless, the systematic forces have already reached to a level where the unilateral military interventions will be costlier for the US and unilateral protectionists major in trade will hurt the global free trade system which was America’s own making.
Therefore, it is most likely that the Obama Administration’s ‘Asia Pivot’ legacy would be carried forward by the new administration. The will continue economic engagement with Asia-Pacific region. And in the security realm, the traditional NATO alliance and the newly formed Asia-Pacific quadrilateral strategic partnership with India, Japan and Australia would continue to be the two multilateral mechanisms with which the US will work.
*Mumtaz Ahmad Shah, PhD Research Scholar, Indian Institute of Technology Madras, Chennai, India, Department of Humanities and Social Science