Withdrawals and Regional Proxies: The New American strategy
Following the Second World War, Western order was organized around free trade, institutions, and United States military presence in Europe and Asia. Spearheaded by the US, Democracy spread. Economic growth brought hundreds of millions out of poverty. Dozens of countries joined old alliances and institutions, spreading democracy, human rights, and market economies in the process. It provided the necessary changes to the environment that was otherwise brimming with conflict and hostility. However, that world order is in jeopardy. Forty-fifth President, Donald Trump, is significantly reversing the dynamic role America played. He has smeared institutions, derided alliances and dismantled agreements in a bid to adopt a more isolationist stance, at least on the surface. Indeed, Trump is ensuring the interests of the US are prevalent in all the regions, but via regional proxies, as he retreats, but his battles are fought by his allies.
From the outset, Trump expressed his profound disdain at the over-reliance of the international system on US power, and the freehand several foes were on the receiving end of. His rhetoric throughout the presidential election was one overladen with antipathy for the international economic treaties, which he pledged to overhaul. That is exactly what he did once in the Whitehouse.
He set the ball rolling with his withdrawal from the Paris Climate Change Agreement in June 2017. The voluntary deal aimed at curbing global temperatures was described by Trump as ‘Draconian’. He continued by asserting that should the US maintain their involvement, it will negatively impact the quality of life for Americans, as it would have cost America trillions of dollars, killed jobs, and hindered the oil, gas, coal and manufacturing industries.
Trump and America will officially leave the agreement, of which 200 countries are signed up to, in the coming years, but this was an issue he pinpointed early as a necessary withdrawal, and he kept his word. Of the deal, Trump affirmed, ‘I was elected to represent the citizens of Pitsburgh, not Paris’. An astute reminder of the model of foreign policy Trump is enforcing.
It did not stop there. After labelling the Trans-Pacific Partnership a ‘potential disaster’, just three days into his presidency, he signed the executive order formally ending US participation in it. The TPP was one of former president Barack Obama’s signature efforts, part of a broader strategy to increase American influence in Asia and provide a check on China’s economic and military ambitions, but it was binned with immediate effect by his successor. Evidently, Trump was on a mission to reverse the internationalization that had defined the global economy for so long.
Much of this involves nullifying his political opponents. This is embellished by Trump’s latest decision to withdraw from the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces (INF) pact, the 32 year old Cold-War era treaty that contains measures to ban the US and Russia from possessing or test-firing ground-launched cruise missiles with a range between 300 and 3,100 miles.
Accordingly, in a statement, Trump affirmed that Russia had ‘for too long’ violated the treaty ‘with impunity, covertly developing and fielding a prohibited missile system that poses a direct threat to our allies and troops abroad’.
Critics, because of fears it could trigger an arms race and engender further global instability, have reprimanded the manoeuvre. Palpably, that is no concern to the president. If it cripples a rival, Trump will do it. This was underscored by Trump in his own statement where he professed the US will work to ‘deny Russia any military advantage’.
In fact, the US even expressed concerns that China, which is not part of the agreement, is deploying large numbers of missiles in Asia that the US cannot counter because it is bound by the treaty, in a piercing example of the dynamics of this contemporary US approach.
Indeed, abrogating the impact of his antagonists has become the priority. For example, Trump initially expressed his desire to unleash ‘fire and fury’ towards the regime of North Korea. However, a more toned down and measured approach is what he opted for when he suspended US-South Korean joint military exercises, with the intention of giving the diplomatic process a chance, as he aims for North Korean nuclear disarmament.
This was accentuated when in September 2018 Trump met Kim Jong Un, and claimed to have ‘fell in love’ with him. Trump is aware of the threat of North Korea and the detrimental nature of their nuclear capabilities, but simultaneously knows a war is inconceivable. Rather he is attempting to protect the US by forging a relationship with North Korea. This is emphasised by mention of another summit between Trump and Kim Jong Un scheduled for late February, in which the road map to denuclearization will be the central topic.
Exceedingly, when it comes to thwarting enemy progress, Iran is top of the list for the US. The ongoing rivalry between the two states poses grave danger to the national security of both states. Trump condemned the deal for several years and labelled it ‘defective at its core’. The so-called Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) curbed Iran’s nuclear activities in return for the lifting of sanctions that had been imposed by the UN, EU and US.
However, Trump postulated the deal only limited Iran’s nuclear ambitions temporarily, and declared that under no means no necessary should Iran pursue their nuclear programme, as it would be destructive on a monstrous scale. He then proceeded to impose new sanctions on Iran, targeting banks, national airlines and the shipping industry.
Contrastingly, defenders of the deal stipulate Trump’s withdrawal jeopardises chances of Iranian cooperation, whilst concurrently paving the way for the termination of a robust US relationship with Europe, and adding fuel to an already heated fire in the Middle East.
However, such scenarios are of little interest to Trump. He has made it abundantly clear the international arena is not one that will witness a proactive US, and the tearing up of an agreement that had worldwide consensus reinforces such sentiments.
Warsaw & Venezuela: Alliance building
Consequently, gone are the days of US being the global hegemon and referee. It is now Trump and his interests above all else, and at any cost. However, Trump is ensuring the American ambitions remain intact, but are maintained by virtue of his allies. The latest US backed plan for a summit in Poland demonstrates that. Having taken place on the 12th and 13th of February, a paramount dynamic of it was about ‘making sure that Iran is not a destabilising influence’ in the Middle East.
Resultantly, the US has been quietly pushing for Gulf Arab countries, together with Egypt, Jordan and Israel, to start putting together what some White House officials have called an “Arab NATO” of Middle Eastern allies to stand against regional power Iran, which would concurrently pave the way for a flourishing relationship between the Arab states and Israel, something historically unprecedented.
Trump has given the impression that the US under his administration is waving goodbye to global affairs. In reality, Trump under the guise of retreating, is still determined to spread US interest and thus remains engrossed in all the problematic regions.
At a time when Europe is fragmented and in urgent need of stability, Trump proceeded to exacerbate the predicament by tearing up an agreement that encouraged harmony because it goes against the interests of the US. Meanwhile, a region overflowing with volatility, Trump is attempting to unite in order to negate an arch-rival. This embellishes the Trumpian strategy of the modern era.
That is why in his years of presidency, the abandonment of global strategic policies have been limited and consequently strained relations with those in Europe. Yet relations with stalwart allies of the US, especially those in accord with foreign policy, have remained unimpaired. For example, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and his country have worsened the plight for Palestinians, and the US have looked the other way.
The Trump administration moved the U.S. embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem and declared the city the capital of Israel, which for all intents and purposes spells the end of the quest for statehood for Palestinians. Likewise, when Palestinians in Gaza protested against their deteriorating conditions, they were met with merciless live ammunition from the Israeli Army, which fell on deaf US ears. In fact, in the six months since protests commenced, over 150 Palestinian have been killed, and up to 10,000 injured. Yet at a UN Human Rights Council, when the matter of Israel’s cataclysmic record on human rights was referenced, the Trump administration withdrew from the council and issued a blistering critique of the panel, citing it as a manifestation of ‘political bias’.
In addition, Trump cut funding to Palestinian charities, and was oblivious as Israel denied entry to young Americans affiliated with the Boycott, Divestment, Sanctions movement.
Hence, it is discernible that the state of affairs for the Palestinians remains strenuous and unresolved, and yet Trump is uniting the region to instead tackle the Iranian question, which also happens to be the concern of the US’s unfaltering allies in the Middle East, Israel and Saudi Arabia.
Furthermore, the recent US engagement in Venezuela embodies the Trump strategy. The South American country has been in a quagmire for some time now. Political discontent, alongside skyrocketing hyperinflation, power cuts and food and oil shortages have left the country at an impasse, and its citizens disgruntled, with up to 3 million Venezuelans leaving the country in recent years.
Since President Maduro’s election in 2013, the country has declined hugely. Thus, with protests expediting and opposition to Maduro incrementing, Juan Guaidó declared himself acting President on January 23rd. In move that effectively promoted regime change, Trump endorsed Guaidó within five minutes of his announcement.
Ostensibly, Trump has his sights set on allegedly assisting Venezuela in making the transition to a democracy. So much so, he has already imposed heavy sanctions and contemplated intervention. Hardly the epitome of an American retreat.
However, again, Trump’s actions are strategic. The South American region is now one loaded with right wing reactionary leaders, from Bolsanaro in Brazil to Ivan Duque in Colombia, all of whom are stout Trump allies, and who have followed his lead in swiftly recognizing Guaidó as the president. Therefore, Trump’s involvement seems to be an attempt at enhancing the advancement of neo-fascists who share his agenda.
Indeed, in Europe, there has been an outpouring of right wing populists who have amassed support in their respective countries and shaped the trajectory of the region. They and their Trumpian ideology are expected to win enough seats in the upcoming European elections to influence key processes and decisions, in a move that could pave the way for the right to assert their master plan in the region. This could leave the Western landscape overflowing with right wing commanders on the same wavelength as Trump, thus limiting the leverage of those not in favour of the Presidents outlook.
However, such an approach does not come without consequences.
A pending recession?
In the midst of all the agreement withdrawals, pact retreats and isolationism, is a US trade war with China that could be nail in the coffin for a global collapse. Trump relentlessly complained about China’s trading policies before he took office in 2016. Then the US launched an investigation into such policies in 2017. The latest phase of this increasingly hostile matchup has seen the US impose three rounds of tariffs on Chinese goods, totalling more than $250 billion.
With two big trading giants at loggerheads, this has triggered vast international economic ambivalence. Indeed, economic output in Japan and Germany contracted in the third quarter, while in October consumer spending in China hit its slowest pace in five months and bank-lending fell, according to data released about the world’s biggest economies after the U.S.
Importantly, across the globe, economists and business executives warned about a common denominator that is hurting growth: trade battles among the U.S., China and others. Remarkably, the effects are so detrimental, that Deutsche Bank economists suggested the start of the 2019 German economy has been so disappointing that the country could drift towards recession.
This apace with the plight in Italy, in which the country has fallen back into recession for the third time in a decade, reinforces the scope of the economic instability that has engulfed the world.
Similarly, the International Monetary Fund cut its global growth predictions for this year and next, saying ‘the balance of risks remains skewed to the downside’ and momentum is ‘past its peak.’ In fact, chief executives ranked a global recession as their number one concern for 2019, according to a survey of nearly 800 top business leaders around the world. Likewise, Consumer confidence has fallen to the lowest level of Trump’s presidency, according to the University of Michigan Consumer Sentiment survey.
Thus, inflation is increasing in several economies and growth in the world is slowing. That is why American politician Bernie Sanders and Greek Finance Minister, Yanis Varoufakis, propose an Internationalist New Deal. This would provide scope for the upending of the existing world order and introduce a system of global governance that favours neutrality and justice, as opposed to a concentration of power.
The Western internationalism that once thrived is no more. The norm has become for countries to embark on a mission of a nationalistic retreat, as economic survival of the fittest takes precedence. That is why situations like Brexit unfold. It is why in Britain, the fifth largest economy in the world, the Bank of England has stipulated there is a one in four chance the UK will dip into recession, and Trump’s authoritarian rule is right in the middle of it all.
Indeed, Trump is pursuing a reckless foreign policy which is inhibiting any economic progress, disrupting the status quo and alarming investors. That is why international polls perceive Trump as the greatest security threat, even ahead of Russia and China. However, for him, he is exploring a route that is the means to a necessary end, and the price that must be paid if the US’s interests are to be maintained.
This ‘America first’ approach which has been weaponised by Trump since the outset, could have damaging consequences on the rest of the world. It is when such repercussions unfold and obstruct progress that nationalism becomes a priority, and opportunistic populists enter the equation. In fact, the ramifications of the Eurozone crisis is what overwhelmingly generated tendencies against the establishment in Europe, and concurrently precipitated an environment where nationalistic populists and their divisive rhetoric could flourish. Exceedingly, another financial crisis triggered by Trump’s imprudent conduct could accelerate such growth.
Nevertheless, the realisation that the latest phase of globalization, which encompasses a complete digitization of social, economic and political paradigms, thus influencing the realms of interaction and how the world is viewed, appears to have hit the US President.
Hence, there is a comprehension in the Trump administration that the biggest threat to Western, specifically American, democracy is no longer limited to just wars and aggression, as digital intimidation enters the equation. Hence, he wants to protect himself from all angles.
This coupled with the significant conflicts Trump is balancing in every region in the world provides an indication as to why despite his portrayal of a modest US, there is still robust involvement. Nevertheless, such participation is conducted in a manner that seeks to preserve the US and their ally’s interests and security whilst displaying a complete disengagement and rejection of any matter that will not benefit nor obstruct their objectives. Crucially though, it will seemingly induce the collapse of the existing world order and the global economy, as change nears.