Americans believe they built the modern world and raised it to riches. They expected in return the world would recognise its central role as owner and organiser of this system. Instead the world has turned its back on the United States, so now America is turning its back on them.
The G7 meeting begins amidst acrimony. Ahead of the summit, Trump sent out a series of tweets blaming the EU and Canada for unfair trade practices and a balance of trade deficit that, he claims, belittles America. He took specific aim at Canada’s Trudeau, accusing him of being “indignant”. In a volley of exchanges over the social media platform, Macron said if Mr Trump wanted to be isolated, the six other nations would sign their own agreement if need be,
Trump hit back by tweeting,
The meeting comes after the US levied steel and aluminium tariffs on Europe, China, Mexico and Canada on spurious national security grounds; the triggering of WTO dispute mechanism for unfair practices by the EU commission against America; a fraught renegotiation with NAFTA partners Canada and Mexico and an impasse after the latest round of talks with China. The US has threatened to impose 25 percent tariffs on $50 billion a year in Chinese goods, in addition to the tariffs already imposed on $3 billion a year in Chinese steel and aluminium exports.
In addition to the tariff dispute, Chinese officials have expressed deep concern about ZTE, a 70,000-employee telecommunications company that has largely shut down operations in the past month after the Bureau of Industry and Security, ordered United States companies to stop selling crucial microchips and software to ZTE for seven years. Chinese state media have characterised the decision as politically motivated, claiming the Americans were using it as a bargaining chip ahead of trade talks. Although the decision ostensibly cited ZTE failing to comply with sanctions against Iran and North Korea, the timing could not have been more opportune.
The intensity of the past month must be seen in a wider context, the inevitable decline of American power. This decline did not begin with the inauguration of the 45th President, rather Trump is the latest iteration of an operation to recover America’s unassailable post-Cold War position. For two decades, American power has been waning. Its status as the world’s pre-eminent economic and military might, a status that it uniquely acquired after 1991, has done little for it to thwart the rise of global challengers. The world order is rapidly moving away from a unipolar one and America flounders as it attempts to hold on.
In Europe, America’s erstwhile allies have been charting an independent path. It was French President Chirac that surmised in 1978 in his work, (La lueur de l’espérance — réflexion du soir pour le matin) that France needed to lead the resistance against an American ‘hyperpower’. As President he couched opposition to the Iraq war as part of his offensive to create this ‘multipolarity’. More recently, Chancellor Angela Merkel declared in an extraordinary speech after Trump’s belligerent visit to Europe in 2017,
“The times in which we can fully count on others are somewhat over, as I have experienced in the past few days. And so, all I can say is that we Europeans must really take our destiny into our own hands.”
European antipathy towards America has been brewing for some time. However, it is in the East that a greater challenge is looming. Across the Asia pacific region, countries are lining up to hedge between an ailing power and a new behemoth. The rise of China is now a certainty; its regional ambitions and potential global reach has caused consternation in America for over a decade. Under President Xi Jinping the old policy of ‘hide your potential and bide your time’ has been replaced with a far more ambitious world view. At the start of the 19th Party Congress in October 2017 he heralded the advent of a “new era” in Chinese power. it was time for his nation to transform itself into “a mighty force” that could lead the world on political, economic, military and environmental issues.
“This is a new historic juncture in China’s development,” he declared at the conference that would pave the way to anoint him for life, “The Chinese nation … has stood up, grown rich, and become strong — and it now embraces the brilliant prospects of rejuvenation … It will be an era that sees China moving closer to centre stage and making greater contributions to mankind.” Xi warned that achieving what he has hailed the “China Dream” would be “no walk in the park… It will take more than drum beating and gong clanging to get there”.
China’s rise has caused alarm in US political circles. A simmering unease pervades US political opinion. Obama, cognisant of this challenge initiated his ‘pivot to Asia’ strategy, an effort to disengage from the Middle East and focus US power on China’s backyard. Defence Secretary Leon Panetta announced the pivot would lead to the majority of America’s battle naval fleet to be deployed to the Asia Pacific by 2020. The pivot failed to stem China’s rise as previous attempts failed under Bush. Under President Xi, China has taken control over disputed islands on the South China Sea, announcing last month that it had installed heavy military hardware on the territories, that would see China taking control of most of the sea to its south. Defense Secretary James Mattis accused China’s moves as a deliberate attempt towards “intimidation and coercion”. A Chinese Foreign Ministry spokeswoman hit back by saying it was like “A thief crying ‘stop thief!’”.
China’s ambitious One Belt, One Road Initiative has seen remarkable infrastructure building across Asia. The sheer scale of the project has compared it to US Marshall Aid in 1948. Like America’s bid to build a European umbrella by offering economic assistance at the start of the Cold War, China seeks to establish economic control in her region. Asia Pacific countries have adopted a policy of hedging between the two powers, recognising the uncertainties ahead. As China hands out large scale loans and technical assistance across the region, it increases its political leverage. Sri Lanka, after failing to repay Chinese loans, was forced to hand it a 99-year lease on the strategically important port of Hambantota, threatening its sovereignty and raising fears in New Delhi about China’s expansion. Mattis, in a blunt reference to the initiative said,
“I believe there are much larger consequences in the future when nations… believe that piling mountainous debts on their neighbors and somehow removing the freedom of political action is the way to engage with them.”
In Pakistan, China has built the Gwardar Port and highway, a sprawling 2000 mile corridor linking China to the Middle East and Africa and circumventing the Malacca Straights, always seen by China as its Achilles heel in the event of tensions with America. Last Wednesday, Harry Harris, outgoing head of the US Indo-Pacific Command, said China was US’s “biggest long-term challenge”.
Then there is Russia’s attempt at projecting global power. Russia’s regional and global prestige was dented after the Cold War and the 1990’s brought it to heel with humiliating IMF bailouts and social decay. Putin promises to make Russia great again and re-establish its place in the world as a Great Power. Undoubtedly, Russia remains economically vulnerable due to its lack of diversity, however its ambitions grow with domestic weakness. The United States has flirted with the idea of feeding this desire and coordinated with it in Syria, to achieve mutual goals. There has even been talk of a new ‘triangulation’, Kissinger’s feted strategy to balance against the Soviet Union with China in the 1970’s, but this time using Russia against China. This policy however is fraught with difficulties and is built on an assumption that Putin would be a willing accessory in America’s China containment. For Putin, a multipolar world is a necessity, it untangles the western alliance in its ‘near neighbourhood’, once again allowing it to build strategic strength in Eastern Europe.
This growing multipolarity has not just emerged because of Trump’s bellicosity. Rather, Trump is a response to deal with the challenge in a more direct fashion. The realisation that China is making a bid for global power is one thing, but the American’s see the Europeans as duplicitous; egging on China in this contest and catalysing the fusion of global power. The Europeans enjoy US free trade, in 2016 America’s goods trade deficit with Germany was $65 billion. They benefit from security guarantees yet they criticise the United States and fail to reciprocate, by acknowledging the USA’s centrality in preserving the international system. The American’s see this as a one-sided relationship. Trump tweeted in May 2017,
As one German official candidly put it,
“this is real. And still many people haven’t come to grips with the idea that Trump is not considering us an ally and as a son but maybe even as adversary.”
For Trump, no country in the world would want to be cut off from America’s economy and the Europeans need America’s overwhelming contribution to NATO to deter an assertive Russia to its east. It seems Trump’s call, on his way to Quebec, for Russia’s readmission to the group is yet another attempt to force concessions from the other leading economies. It also serves to undermine Theresa May’s effort to isolate Russia. America, in this narrative, holds all the cards. According to Kenneth Walt writing in this week’s Foreign Policy, “No major power wants to be cut off from the U.S. economy — even a little — and no corporations or foreign banks want to be denied access to the U.S. financial system”. For Trump, the world owes America and must begin to act accordingly.
The Americans believe they built the modern world, helped European recovery, enabled the rise of China and created institutions to further a liberal world order. They expected in return the world would recognise its role as owner and organiser of this system. Instead the world has turned its back on the United States and works to build pockets of balance against its hegemony. For the Trump administration, America has been disrespected and it is ready to overturn the world system to reassert its dominance, even if the system it created collapses.