The election of Donald Trump in 2017, and unveiling of the ‘America First’ Doctrine, signified a marked departure from the political, economic, and security framework set in place in the aftermath of WWII. This vision championed by the US and premised on economic interdependence and free trade, also known as Globalization, was presented as the best hope for preventing wars and preserving peace. The institutions such as the UN, WTO, World Bank, and IMF have all facilitated and regulated the spread of Globalization and free trade – while NATO provided the security apparatus for the victors of WWII.
However, under the America First doctrine, free trade is shifting towards protectionism and nationalism – and the noble ideals such as promoting democracy and upholding human rights are taking the back seat. President Trump’s recent speech at the UN further elaborated on the contours of the doctrine that propagates the demise of Globalization.
This obviously is a gargantuan shift and is coming about in the absence of any ‘world war’ magnitude conflict. However, the Great Recession of 2008 is termed as the second worst economic meltdown since the Great Depression of the 1930s.
Trump stated in his speech at the 74th UN session:
“Globalization exerted a religious pull over past leaders, causing them to ignore their own national interests. Those days are over.”
He went on to add, “ Around the world our message is clear, America’s goal is lasting, America’s goal is harmony, and America’s goal is not to go with these endless wars, wars that never end.”
While on the political and economic front he declared:
“If you want freedom, hold on to your sovereignty, and if you want peace, love your nation. The future does not belong to Globalists. The future belongs to patriots. The future belongs to strong, independent nations,”
Trump phenomenon is part of an anti-establishment wave that has popped up in various places around the globe, including Pakistan, in the form of Imran Khan. At one level, there is the question of what led to this, and will this drive sustain itself. And secondly, what does it mean for the rest of the world and the multilateral institutions that were set up to promote Globalization. PoliTact, will be examining these aspects in a series of articles.
What Led to America First?
Economic Sense of Exploitation
Perhaps the most important reason for this shift is the perceived sense of being exploited at the hands of emerging global powers that are getting ahead economically and technologically. And they are doing so by not being necessarily democratic or upholding human rights. In fact, a case can be made that in these times of chaos and polarization, democratic systems are reflecting mounting paralysis – whereas centralized and hierarchical systems are being able to better navigate the social turbulence.
Moreover, as the sources of Western economic wherewithal dwindle, they have started to challenge the very basis of their strength, such as multiculturalism and diversity. And again, historical precedence would suggest similar outcomes in such circumstances. When the going gets tough, immigrants and minorities are usually the first to be blamed for the predicament, and this also explains the rise of right wing elements in the US and Europe.
On the other hand, Europe that has acted as the bedrock of American global power projection is more and more looking unable or unwilling to play this role, as the seismic events in the form of Brexit play out. Additionally, the emerging powers of Russian and China are also acting as centrifugal forces when it comes to the future of Europe. This was also recently visible when US warned European allies not to adopt Chinese 5G next generation mobile networks due to security risks.
From the American perspective, it has gone out of its way and at the cost of tremendous resources for the preservation and sustenance of the present system. The US has often acted for the common good and the mutual benefit of its allies. When it comes to global crises, other powers seldom act in the absence of American leadership. Obviously, American allies have their own perspective on the evolving American role.
This sentiment has also crept over into the economic realm, and led to the quick dissolution of trade agreements such as the Trans Pacific Partnership (TPP) that America had itself crafted with tremendous efforts, while questioning how North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) is benefiting the US. At the core of this belief is a feeling that US is being unfairly treated within the very system it helped create, and that Paris agreement on climate change would have likely further strangulated American economic growth under the burden of strenuous regulations. Under America First, Trump prefers bilateral format as opposed to the complexities involved in multilateral deals.
And if this is the case, with its emerging policies under Trump, US is telling the world that they need the present system more than it does. Moreover, it can help in maintaining the present order – but the allies would have to take the lead and the responsibility wherever applicable, and to establish fairness.
While there is an element of truth to how other nations have exploited the US, but one cannot underestimate the role played by multinational corporations. These companies have benefited tremendously from globalization by outsourcing work to other nations to maximize their profits while the American job markets and industrial capabilities suffered. The argument that technology and robotics are to blame for this is only a part of the explanation. And even if it is due to these reasons, it should have been a cause for alarm. A large unemployed workforce is in itself cause for instability, ethnic tensions, and hike in crimes.
Surprisingly, even the political representatives have failed to take notice of this combustible mixture, while overlooking the interests of their constituents. In one way, they are not to blame because Globalization conflicts with the concept of nation-state, and often puts the citizen of their own country in a second place. Globalization works best when there are minimal hindrances in the way of cross border trade, and the free market dynamics are allowed to play out.
Modern Warfare and Endless Conflicts
Since 9/11 US has found itself at the forefront of many theaters of the campaign against extremism. In addition to Iraq and Afghanistan, the involvement includes the GCC, Libya, Syria, Horn of Africa, and the nations of Islamic Maghrib. While it has the support of Western and regional Muslim allies, however, most of the financial and security heavy lifting for this campaign has been undertaken by the US. Even NATO partners have been reluctant to increase their defense contributions to the organization. And this is despite the fact that American role brings security benefits for its regional and Western allies.
And because of this, resentment has gradually been building, which ultimately led to the election of Donald Trump and the mantra of ‘America First’.
The prolonged war against extremism has played a pivotal role towards this dilemma as well. While the wars of the past were direct inter-state conflicts, the emerging conflicts have so far avoided the conventional theater, and have relied more on non-state actor acting as proxies and on hybrid warfare. Irrespective, the economic drains of these modern formats are mostly invisible to the pubic but incrementally drain the treasury. These formats convey a false sense of stability and are good for market and public confidence in the short term. Moreover, the hybrid warfare configuration has played havoc with the state sovereignty concept.
Thus, because of the imbalance of global power, and due to the apparent unwillingness of the US to maintain the present order, we are entering a dangerous phase. The key challenge for the other state actors has now become how to manage and maintain tranquility? Additionally, how to preserve their interests and sovereignty as the present order crumbles, while the shape of emerging system remains unclear.
At the heart of the misalignment between the US and the allies is a concern that who benefits more. The combination of America First doctrine and American Exceptionalism, will likely produce dangerous consequences, confuse allies, and hasten new global and regional realignments.
If American First policy does not produce economic dividends for common Americans in the short and long term, it will further complicate its domestic politics and confusion regarding America’s global role and future direction, and this in turn will further weaken the present order. Moreover, the America First principle is likely to unnerve the multinational corporations and this can add to the challenges confronted by President Trump in altering the status quo.
One of the key challenges for the West, and the US, is that after an era of complete economic and military dominance, will it be able to adjust to the new global realities and multipolarity.