Written by Sandeep Bhardwaj.
US President Donald Trump’s first year in office has witnessed a general America withdrawal from management of the world order. He has recused the US from international accords such as the Trans-Pacific Partnership and the Paris Agreement; threatened an open trade war; weakened the American commitment to its allies; and appointed officials in his administration who are hostile to liberal international institutions.
As Beijing lays claim to greater status, these tensions are likely to feed into a continent-wide instability.
These moves have threatened global stability, particularly in Asia, where China’s unique position as hegemon-in-waiting has potential to create a truly explosive situation. The Trumpian isolationism threatens to plunge the continent into a long period of volatility; however, some of its effects may be abated should Trump decide to replace the current international order with an alternative vision rather than leaving a vacuum behind. To do so, Trump must look towards his ideological forbearers, especially the inter-war American isolationists.
Trump’s critique of the current international order is radically different from the previous Republican administrations of the last few decades. Those Republicans, like the neoconservatives of the Bush administration, criticized the order because of the power it gave to supra-national entities like the UN (a similar argument was made by Brexiters against the EU). Trump’s reasoning is much simpler- the cost to the US of maintaining the world order singlehandedly has become uneconomical. Too often, Washington is forced to sacrifice its self-interest to support the global order through “terrible deals”.
From a certain standpoint, his argument is valid. In the last seventy years, the US has benefited enormously from the liberal international order, but it has also paid dearly to maintain it. Other nations, while benefitting, have not contributed nearly as much.
However, Trump’s haphazard withdrawal is leaving behind a vacuum which is likely to prove dangerous for the world and the US as well. The risks for Asia are considerably higher because of China. The vacuum at the top of the order has left the door wide open for Beijing to claim the mantle. It has long entertained hegemonic ambitions, but American withdrawal has added urgency to this quest. Not only does Beijing now have the opportunity but it also faces added pressure to rescue the order, an order which has been enormously beneficially in providing security and prosperity to China for the last three decades. Unsurprisingly, the last couple of years have witnessed forceful Chinese efforts to prop up the global order – such as the passionate defence of globalization that Xi Jinping delivered in Davos in 2017 – and to expand Beijing’s role in that order – like the multi-trillion-dollar Belt & Road Initiative.
Unfortunately, today’s China is nowhere close to the position that the US had enjoyed in the immediate post-war era when it took upon the task of global governance. There was innumerable material, geographical and historical advantages that the 1945-US had over contemporary China. But even putting them aside, Washington exuded an image of a benign, democratic, altruistic nation. It was enormous normative power which allowed it to gain acceptance throughout the world in a way that China can never hope to replicate. At the end of the Second World War, Pope Pius XII said, “Into the hands of America, God has placed the destiny of an afflicted mankind”. Few are likely to express similar sentiments for China today.
Consequently, any Chinese efforts to prop up the global order or assume its leadership are likely to provoke stiff resistance from other Asian powers. There are already early warning signs as relations between the Middle Kingdom and its neighbours like India and Japan seem to be on a downward slope. As Beijing lays claim to greater status, these tensions are likely to feed into a continent-wide instability. However, some of these trends can be arrested to a certain degree if Trump chooses to replace the vacuum in the global order with an alternative idea.
If Trump must execute his plan of American withdrawal, he should learn from his “America First” predecessors such as US President Warren Harding. Coming to power in 1921, Harding is today best remembered for pulling the US out of the League of Nations and destroying the hope of an international liberal order in the inter-war period. He was particularly apprehensive of multilateral organizations and regimes such as the ones which populate the world order today. This was in tune with his isolationist tendencies and disdain for attempts to create a “world super-government”. However, this did not mean that the US should simply turn its back on the world. Instead, Harding offered an alternative vision of the global order, one based on bilateral arrangements, indirect compellence, disarmament and mutual deterrence.
Harding preferred light-weight solutions for maintaining stability which did not cost the US much or force it to sacrifice its self-interest. Perhaps the best example is the Washington Conference (the Pacific counterpart to the Europe-facing League). Rather than creating an enormous international institution, the Washington Conference sought to quell an arms race by establishing strict limits to the size of the navies each Pacific power – US, UK and Japan – could possess. The treaty did not have any enforcement mechanism save mutual deterrence. Harding adopted a similar approach when dealing with international trade or other economic issues, solutions which did not rely on international institutions or elaborate legal frameworks but on simple realignment of incentives for the participants.
This approach, while carrying risks of its own, is certainly a superior alternative to the vacuum that Trump seems to be leaving behind today. Washington already appears to be toying with some rudimentary version of this approach as evident in the recent changes in Chinese economic policy that Washington won by threatening tariffs. However, if Trump wishes to go down this path, he must develop a far more robust and deeply-thought out vision of an alternative global order. Considering a disarmament treaty with China may be a good first step.
Sandeep Bhardwaj is a researcher at the Centre for Policy Research, New Delhi, specializing in South Asian geopolitics. He writes on South Asian history at revisitingindia.com. Image Credit: CC by White House/Flickr.