by Ferry de Kerckhove
November 24, 2017
While China’s climb towards global superpower status has been underway for decades and is accelerating rapidly, that ascent is now being helped enormously by the crisis of American leadership exemplified by President Donald Trump.
This should be a major source of concern for the United States and the rest of the world if no effort is made to assess its consequences and adjust policies accordingly. Trump’s presidency is thwarting these efforts.
Trump’s speech before the UN in September basically asserts that ‘what is good for America may not be good for the world … but who cares?’ — a complete reversal of President Woodrow Wilson’s 14 points. Trump’s statements and behaviour affect the credibility of an international system which is already in a weakened state.
For many countries, Trump’s administration strengthens their hand in their neighbourhoods and facilitates their rejection of political globalism and, to a great extent, economic globalization. There are serious concerns about the sustainability of international law under a Trump administration, as evidenced by his executive orders on immigration. But for illiberal, undemocratic, authoritarian, dictatorial countries, this is all good news.
We may be entering a new era, driven by the spectacle of an American president trampling the Western democratic model his predecessors swore to defend and promote.
Trump’s ‘America First’ mantra has rekindled the old geopolitical concept of ‘spheres of influence’. There are now new or reinforced power blocs building in other parts of the world — which Trump continues to ignore at his country’s peril.
In Asia, the rivalry between China and India is as much a matter of military prowess as it is of diplomacy and trade. The 2008 economic crisis destroyed the confidence of non-Western nations in the supremacy of the democratically-underpinned free market economy. Now, as intimated by Xi Jinping himself, China represents a model of illiberal capitalism many hope to emulate to bring their people out of poverty. But it’s the ‘illiberal’ part that many of these countries find so attractive — particularly those Asian governments facing stiff internal opposition.
Today, China is the primary economic partner of all the countries in the region, including India. A sense of ‘common destiny’ is confirmed by a growing academic, business and political community. The autocratic tendencies in the region are consonant with China’s evolution, now that Xi Jinping has emerged as the incarnation of Chinese power and a powerful alternative to the West — particularly to Trump’s evanescent representation of that West.
As a result, the old model whereby democratic political reform went hand in hand with economic progress no longer holds firm. On a broader scale, the concept of a community of destiny underpinned by China has been reinforced beyond Asia by the One Belt One Road initiative.
One would think that the current political scenery in Europe makes it part and parcel of the Trumpian world view. But even here, America is losing ground fast; Trump’s lack of anything like a coherent security and foreign policy framework makes him oblivious to the critical question of the future relationship between China and Russia — and incapable of exerting any influence on its outcome.
There are few signs that the Trump administration has developed a strategy to manage these complex relationships. It’s certain that Trump himself hasn’t. These are the issues on which the president should be engaging with the United States’ traditional allies — instead of spewing tweets ridiculing Kim Jong Un with childish cracks about his weight. The U.S. under Trump has left a foreign policy vacuum. Much of the world is searching for a new paradigm, a new order, a new source of stability to fill the gap.
Meanwhile, the Chinese empire moves on. It has taken over the number one rank as a donor or investing country in Africa and expects to invest half a trillion dollars in Latin America. Undeniably, the U.S. continues to exercise considerable influence over events — leading the fight against terrorism, brokering negotiations between foes, dominating a large chunk of the world economy. It remains the world’s preeminent military power.
But under Trump, confidence in the United States has been crumbled. Uncertainty prevails.