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CWA # 219, 25 February 2020
CWA Brief, February 2020 The shift in the US policy isn’t Trump’s making but can be attributed to the rise of new powers such as China and the granting of neo-autonomy to nations in Europe, the Middle East, and South Asia
CWA Brief, February 2020
The shift in the US policy isn’t Trump’s making but can be attributed to the rise of new powers such as China and the granting of neo-autonomy to nations in Europe, the Middle East, and South Asia
The American geopolitical exclusivity hasn’t been at par with the historical standards. With the US President Donald Trump’s foreign policy majorly leaning towards fulfilling national aspirations, international relations have transitioned into a regional and local affair transferring power to middle powers, smaller nations and emerging institutions. This came at a better time for nations like China and Russia including their allies in Central Asia and the Middle East. The situation makes it fit to question the relevance of the ‘American Geopolitical Prism’. The US, which was once the bedrock of steering global relations, has turned inwards leaving dependent nations and its allies at tenterhooks. While this shift alone isn’t Trump’s making, its overt visibility has captured the attention of international experts, societies and local stakeholders on a global level.
Inevitably, this shift can be attributed to the rise of new powers such as China and the granting of neo-autonomy to nations in Europe, the Middle East, and South Asia. The term ‘neo-autonomy ’defines the nations which have gained autonomy solely due to the US’s loosening control. Saud Arabia’s customised conduct during the Qatar blockade hints at Washington’s pre-planned approach towards its self-isolation. However, this control is ridden with both hope and pessimism. One cannot completely admit the US’s fall or otherwise, but radical policy changes have been prominent in recent times. While the US retreat augurs nationalist aspirations and domestic plans, it has metaphorically placated international affairs in a prehistoric situation. Global affairs have started taking newer shapes despite continuous devolution. It begs one to question whether the American retreat has opened room for geopolitical leasing and bargains.
It also puts forth the fate of developing economies under nations like China and Russia. One cannot discredit the Chinese global governance, but the lack of habituation with such regimes across the world may lead nations to question its reign. Trump’s wilderness has paved the way for a reorientation of global leadership roles allowing non-democracies to navigate international development. The current scenario signals towards a ‘neutral power ’demotion of the US. The withdrawal is multifaceted and multi-sectoral encompassing socio-economic, cultural and political spheres. One could also raise concerns regarding the setbacks this would lead to, in reconstructing a non-American world order.
Major Trends in 2019
The US’s retreat from the Intermediate Nuclear Forces Treaty hints at expanding its missile systems both in terms of distance and geographical coverage (RFE/RL, 2019). Its recent Ballistic Missile Test across the Pacific validates its position on diversifying critical arms production and distribution. Contradictory is Russia’s unpromising stance in keeping up with the treaty. Moscow’s provocation seems marginally complimentary to the American intent. Trump’s decision to phase out American troops from the Middle East is gradually taking shape. While the US has a long history of troop injection, the slow withdrawal of troops by the US comes amidst a slew of factors including the formation of a power vacuum in the Middle East. The US’s non-impulsive approach to the Quadrilateral Control Group Summit post scrapping the Taliban Peace Deal subtly hints itself distancing from the central Asian debacle. In addition, the participation of Pakistan, China, and Russia in the summit shows the American transfer of its baton to regional players.
Political and Policy Retreats
With the rise of political literacy and increased diffusion of political communication, fulfilling election mandates have become quintessential. Trump’s political entourage has repeatedly stressed on fulfilling the set mandates. For the 2020 elections, his campaigns have vowed to fulfil popular expectations and have started materialising through legislative instruments, sanctions, and international actions. On the other hand, his over-reliance on domestic promises for another term has shadowed international focus. Foreign Policy seems to have been used for electoral dividends limiting it a parochial affair.
John Bolton’s resignation in 2019 forms a major part of the American political tradition, however, this culminated under Trump. The number of executive resignations and dismissals has substantial signaling of a weakening administration. The culture of resignations has plagued administrative efficiency. Executive leadership breakdowns have been experimentally high, namely, Michael Flynn, Reince Priebus among others. Radical resignations hint at the tendency of ‘personalising administration’. Policy differences among executives and higher leadership have prompted Trump and parties on the other side to part ways with the administration. Considerably so, John Bolton’s military approach towards the middle-east and hawkish policy as opposed to Trump’s outlook may have caused delays in implementation and jurisdictional challenges.
While the US moves away from Iran, this signals the strengthening of a divide between the US and the Europe. France, Britain, and Germany favouring Iran in the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action has not bode well for the US. In 2019, Trump upped his ‘maximum pressure policy ’on Iran affecting its domestic energy affairs and exports. This is a major blow to its credibility despite the cancellation of JCPOA. Turkey’s military engagement with Russia and disengagement with NATO raises doubts about the health of the soviet-era grouping. This reflects the US’s weakening stance on developing NATO in the wake of its rival security grouping Shanghai Cooperation Organization. The poor cooperation among NATO states in the northern polar region also poses grave challenges to the US. This comes in the midst of Russia upping its Arctic presence. On the other hand, there has been a steep rise in the Sino-Russian ties, for Russia’s presence alone cannot establish geopolitical relevance. This is equally advantageous for China in making visible its international expectations. The Chinese push has reached lands of Africa, South America and Asian countries hampering the US’s presence. Washington’s mass pull-out has made it easier for Beijing to establish deep-rooted engagements. This engagement has its roots through infrastructure investments and economic ties, an instrument not actively used by the US.
The 2019 Osaka Summit didn’t see any improvement in trade talks between Xi Jinping and Trump. Until Trump’s recent tweet calling for positive engagement on trade, trade talks and tariff talks witnessed new lows. However, Trump’s recent announcement comes in the midst of impeachment hearings, which is suggestive of alternative motives not entirely linked to the trade negotiations. Trade disruption has tarnished the American geo-economical image while bagging some bargaining space and international considerations for the Chinese. On the other hand, Trump’s ‘America First Policy’ has hampered with its allies (Frida Ghitis, 2019). A striking example is of the US’s tariff policy on Brazilian beef imports and its aluminium policy, in addition to which, the US has targeted Brazil’s key industries and those of Argentina’s (Terrence, 2019).
The US officially pulled out of the Paris Climate Accord in 2019 leaving a major gap in climate funding. This translates to a Non-climate focused approach in regulating and managing industries and various sectors of the economy. While one could see China’s deference of ICJ, the US’s exit from UNESCO undermines the role of international institutions. In addition, it degrades the already decaying notion of multiculturalism by establishing unilateral conventions. Neutralizing Institutions and Neo-Autonomous Nations Trump’s controversial move against DACA and the US’s exit from UNESCO depicts the US’s attempt to fortifying their educational, social and cultural space(Caitlin, 2019).
The ‘Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals ’plan brought about by Obama, much unlike protectionism in the economic sense, has come to halt under Trump’s supervision. This shows the hard lining of opinion against immigration and favouring policies for deportation. The US’s exit from UNESCO blocks the transfer of scientific, educational, social and cultural knowledge constructing virtual walls around developmental subjects. The main reason behind this move was UNESCO’s recognition of Palestine (Annalisa, 2019). Trump only seemed to have identified himself with other Presidents who either cut funding or quit UNESCO. However, the larger issue lies in the erosion of international institutional credibility. The same could be quoted in the case of the North American Free Trade Agreement.
Neo-Autonomous Nations as explained earlier pertains to dependent nations and middle powers that have started sailing at a pace uninfluenced by the US. Middle Powers like France, Germany and Middle Eastern Allies such as Saudi have gradually started to establish geopolitical independency. The inconsistency in the US-Pakistan relations and the distancing of the US from Afghanistan has given considerable autonomy to India’s western neighbour in steering regional affairs. However, Beijing’s southern interests limit Islamabad from taking holistic steps.
Forecasts for 2020
The US outlook: Afghanistan
The American dream of bringing back troops has been occasional with consecutive Presidents. The US’s action plan in 2020 considering its apparent silence on Afghanistan seems promising for further inaction in that region. The US underplaying its Afghan role in the peace process highlights its intent to detach itself from Central Asia. This also plays along with Trump’s electoral promises of bringing back American troops. The uninterrupted QCG summit and Trump’s conspicuous espousal of peace for Afghanistan is a telling factor. A similar pattern for peace was being promoted across Palestine to pacify popular opinion. But it is important to keep in mind that the dividends from this decision may hardly provide the US with another chance to re-engage in this region. Keeping in mind the interference of China, Russia and Pakistan may hover longer only to foresee their sectoral potentials in this region.
The US outlook: Turkey
The US must loosen its emotional chains on Turkey, as one may bluntly point its inert support to one of the SCO members. However it becomes delicate to attribute Turkey’s alignment with SCO, but its cooperation with the US in 2020 seems bleak. Turkey’s NATO engagement has visibly weakened, and its S-400 deal with Russia has enraged the US to reconsider further military cooperation with Istanbul. Adding to this trend is its participation as an observer state in the VOSTOK 2018 military exercise conducted by Russia.
The US outlook: Israel
The US ’international support for Israel and its controversial UNESCO exit is assuring of a longing partnership with Tel Aviv. In a way, the US is compelled to strengthen its ties with Israel, considering the limited number of partners in the Middle East. The US-Saudi partnership with status due to Riyadh’s influence in the region will remain. However, Netanyahu’s trembling leadership, upcoming polls in Israel and Trump’s impeachment in addition to his chances of re-election make it a risky affair. One may also consider Israel’s advanced science and technology in this region which makes the US precarious. Additionally, the US’s partnership with Israel may be viewed as cooperation for securing America’s region-specific interests.
The US outlook: North Korea, South Korea, and Japan
The North Korean conduct has rather been twisty, perplexing perceptions, for the US’s interaction with North Korea, has not been very clear. Trump’s policy of boom and bust hasn’t reaped benefits. It has rather left the opponent confused, Kim Jong Un’s year-long missile tests prove the American inability to engage North Korea towards effective outcomes. On an ending note, the US’s attempts to ease tensions across the Korean Peninsula may not see much light in the year 2020. Trump’s cooperation with South Korea has been positive to keep in control Kim Jong Un’s adventurism. However, the tussle between Seoul and Tokyo seems worrying and attempts to mediation by the US in 2020 could either prove effective or otherwise. The dynamicity of the situation makes predictions blurry. Whereas the US is expected to increase its engagement with Japan in 2020, considering China’s advance in maritime transportation and BRI. Japan is a potential partner in countering Chinese influence along the Pacific Ocean.
The US outlook: Sino-Russia
Invariably, the US would harden its stance on China and Russia, in view of its increasingly global footprint. Russia’s geopolitical fortification of geographical north and lands east of Europe raises serious concerns in terms of security. Alternatively, the US looks at the Chinese fortification as a threat thereby requiring it to keep a check on China’s advances. While Washington attempts to tackle Moscow militarily, the Chinese rise is measured through a larger bucket consisting of trade, economy, political establishments among others. This hints at the possibility of prolonged rivalry. The American leaders have been cautious and vocal about Chinese aspirations in the international financial markets. Chinese provocation in terms of manipulating currency may find some responsive mention in the American policy in the coming years. However, issues such as debt-trapping and rapid advancements in the BRI project are not likely to be included in 2020, considering the lack of initial actions.
The US outlook: Iran’s European Sympathisers
The US-EU divide could further escalate considering Macron’s ideological and political disagreements with Trump. Macron’s centrist and Trump’s Republican ideas created friction in the recent ‘NATO 70 Years Event ’increasing the divide. Additionally, Trump’s disagreement with France, Britain, and Germany over JCPOA could create new irritants between the US and the three European countries. In geopolitical terms, Macron’s outspoken leadership in Europe could face criticism from Trump in the coming year. A tipping factor is the issue of members’ contribution to NATO which includes European nations, an issue Trump could voice out if he still retains his position post impeachment.
The US outlook: Climate Change
Trump’s strong opposition to the discourse on Climate is not likely to change any sooner. Trump’s official pull-out from the Paris Climate Accord of 2015, primarily affects efforts towards climate action and funding support(Keith, 2019). However, the time period to abort this decision lasts for a year allowing the next president may choose to do otherwise. On the positive side, this has seen the rise of climate activists across the US and around the world. Media has played an active role in creating climate awareness and changing minds. Trump in the wake of the 2020 election promises may sanction coal plants and already existing infrastructure to generate employment.
The US outlook: Recession
Recessionary trends across the world have caused turbulence in various emerging and developing economies. The US cut its fed rates twice in its bid to fight recession. However, a point in case is the supplementary effect leading to raising tariffs on cheap imports and lowering export duties. Discriminatory protectionist policies also see application during such times. This could further push for weak convergence capabilities and distancing external engagements, furthering prospects for protectionism. Such might intensify the effect of the US-China trade war. In addition, the expansion of recessionary trends to virtual areas such as education, culture, and social spheres must not be ignored. This might make leeway for protectionist and unilateral policies in these spheres. On the positive side, prolonged trade war has led to the diversification of businesses and opened opportunities for South Asian and Southeast Asian engagements.
Parikshith Pradeep is a Research Associate with the ISSSP at the National Institute of Advanced Studies, Bengaluru
This essay was published at the NIAS Quarterly on Contemporary World Affairs, Vol 2, Issue 1, January-March 2020
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