Sunday, June 11, 2017

Will Washington abandon world leadership under Trump?

By Zhang Tengjun 

Since his inauguration in January, Donald Trump has been indulging in tricky maneuvers in Washington's foreign policy. He runs counter to his predecessor Barack Obama's pursuit of globalization. He has withdrawn the US from the Trans-Pacific Partnership, quit the Paris climate accord, planned on cutting down the foreign aid budget and has imposed unprecedented pressure on US allies. His maverick style has led many to believe that the US may be returning to an era of isolationism as it did in the 1930s. 

America under the rule of the business tycoon-turned politico has triggered worldwide concern for globalization and its future and raised doubts as to whether the most powerful country is seeking to give up world leadership. What's more, there is a view that the liberal international order is crumbling and Washington's retreat is the beginning of a great transformation. 

If the rise of Trump is viewed as a phenomenon, then its main significance lies in shaking the US' long-standing political ecology. Trump has mostly focused on domestic issues in the past five months, and the changes he has brought about to the country's foreign policy are actually less than expected. 

By his own admission, the "America First" position means that he puts most of his energy into addressing domestic affairs. His nature as a businessman determines the negotiability of foreign affairs. All the arrangements conducive to achieving his political goals can be compromised and changed. In this sense, the view that the US will abandon the world leadership is a pseudo-proposition.

Hampered by a slew of conundrums at home, the Trump administration has yet to formulate an explicit global strategy or more specific Asia-Pacific policy. Its foreign policy is somewhat fragmented, subject to a severe lack of coherence and consistency. It has so far been handling diplomatic episodes quite passively. 

Though many of Trump's foreign policy measures are questioned by the international community at large, it should not be viewed as an abdication of US hegemony. Currently speaking, it would be wrong to draw the conclusion that Trump is intentional giving up regional and global dominance. 

Two main pillars of US hegemony are the military and financial sectors. The former is backed by military power far better than other countries, the strongest circle of allies, and military bases spanning the globe. The latter is heavily dependent on dollar hegemony and the US-dominated international financial system. Trump has no intention of abandoning American military hegemony. Instead, he seeks to boost military spending by 10 percent in the coming fiscal year, further equipping the ground force, air force and navy with advanced weaponry. In this way, he inherits many of Obama's strategies. 

In addition, Trump remains ambiguous toward the financial system under US governance. Given the domestic landscape, he will prefer trade protectionism and a curtailment in expenditure of public products. But he will never discard US financial leadership on the world stage. More importantly, the US dollar, as a major international currency, is closely related to the country's leadership, and Trump understands this well. 

To say the least, even if he once planned on giving up Washington's global leadership and drawing back to the North American continent, it seems that he lacks the capacity to do so. The existing international order features a US hegemony which dates back to the start of WWII and has since been maintained through the strenuous efforts of generations of governments. Washington is unlikely to detach itself from the decades-long, consolidated framework. 

The conception of "peace under American governance" begun in the US has spread to every corner of the world to the extent that it is America's allies, instead of the American people, that are most concerned with Trump leading from the White House. They fear that if Washington breaks its promises on security, the international order will be plunged into chaos and conflict. By then they will find themselves mired in gridlock. 

Furthermore, Trump will think twice and be prudent given domestic obstruction. Both the Democrats and the Republicans continue to support American leadership in the world; they merely differ on policy and how to best exert leadership. 

Even if the US abandons its role as global leader, various legacy issues in the current world order still need to be addressed. However, even if it desires to continue with its leadership role, the world will not feel entirely reassured. The international community has already bid farewell to the era of unipolar dominance. Global governance needs collective leadership from all major countries and the wide participation of all people.  

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