Analysts and scholars from a variety of origins and backgrounds have described the present state of global affairs as going through a transition. The bilateral and multilateral ties during this interlude have remained anchored around the principles of globalization and laissez faire economic policies, which necessitate more economic cooperation.
However, the election of Donald Trump signifies the start of a new phase, which is a marked departure from the trajectory that was set forth since World War II, premised on economic interdependence as representing the best hope for safeguard humanity and preserving peace. Now, free trade is shifting towards protectionism – and the noble ideals such as promoting democracy and upholding human rights are taking the back seat. This was quite apparent in the recently laid out Trump’s Afghan policy and earlier during his visit to Saudi Arabia.
As this reversal takes shape, and contrary to what is popularly proclaimed, foreseeing the future is becoming more predictable. The history provides sufficient examples of how the commotion between the emerging and established powers usually plays out. This raises a related inquiry of why the US is seemingly ditching such high aspirations at this juncture?
A Sense of being Exploited
Whether stated or not, perhaps the most important reason is the perceived sense of being exploited by the emerging global powers that are getting ahead economically. 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 present 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.
The prolonged war against extremism has played a pivotal role towards this dilemma. 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.
Thus, because of this imbalance of global power, and due to the apparent unwillingness of the US to maintain the present order, we are entering the most dangerous phase. The era of cooperation that marked the transition phase has now entered the confrontation stage. The key challenge for the other state actors has now become how to manage and maintain tranquility as the present order crumbles, while the shape of emerging system remains unclear.
On the other hand, one of the key challenges for the West, and the US, is that after an era of complete economic and military dominance, will they be able to adjust to the new global realities and multipolarity. Understanding the ‘America First’ principle is critical to grasping the emerging US posture.
Interpreting America First Doctrine
Since 9/11 US has found itself at the forefront of many theaters of the campaign against extremism. In addition to Iraq and Afghanistan, its involvement includes the GCC, Libya, Syria, Horn of Africa, and 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 line of reasoning, resentment has gradually been building, which ultimately led to the election of Donald Trump and the mantra of ‘America First’. The full contours of this principle have not yet been laid out, and thus it is hard to comprehend it fully within the US and abroad. International actors are nervously trying to gauge what it means for the international order and for them.
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 and the narrative laid out above.
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 will likely further strangulate American economic growth under the burden of strenuous regulations.
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. This is not all, the US also seems to be saying that its interests supersede all others – and thus there is less and less room for diplomacy.
While there is an element of truth to how other nations have exploited the US, but one cannot underestimate the role played by American 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 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.
America First and Allies
As this reversal takes shape, what will be the political, security and economic implications of the America First policy? In all practicality, America First mantra is likely to put it in confrontational mode with many of its allies, including other emerging powers. While President Trump has not repeated his earlier criticism of NATO, there is no hiding the fact that US wants NATO members to increase their defense spending if they in the long run want continued American security commitment. The America First policy was also at display in the unfolding North Korean crisis, where Trump criticized the trade dealings with South Korea at an ill-conceived time.
Moreover, the new sanctions imposed on Russia could also indirectly penalize EU, especially in the energy sector, and Germany and France have come out strongly against them.
There are five western firms that are partnering with Russia’s Gazprom to construct Nordstream 2 pipeline meant to carry gas from Russia to Germany. These include Germany’s Wintershall and Uniper, the Anglo-Dutch company Royal Dutch Shell, Austria’s OMV, and France’s Engie.
European Union President Jean-Claude Juncker was quoted as stating in July,
“If our concerns are not taken into account sufficiently, we stand ready to act appropriately within a matter of days. ‘America First’ cannot mean that Europe’s interests come last.”
In his South Asia policy President Trump also asked India to assist US in Afghanistan and payback for the benefits it derives from trade with the US.
America First approach is also accompanied by less and less emphasis on finding political solutions to international crises, whether it be in Afghanistan or the Middle East, or the emerging confrontation with North Korea.
The new doctrine thus require international actors, and even the allies, to prove how they are going to reciprocate the advantages received as a result of trade with, and security assurances provided by the US. As alluded to above, this message has already been conveyed to allies such as NATO, EU, South Korea, Pakistan, and India. Some nations, such as Saudi Arabia, have quickly jumped on the bandwagon by signing huge defense deals with the US.
At the heart of this misalignment between the US and the allies is a concern that who benefits more. In any relationship when matters sink to this level, it’s an indication that all is not well. In absence of partners, the combination of America First doctrine and American Exceptionalism, will likely produce dangerous consequences 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 its global role and future direction, and this in turn will further aggravate the present order.