The World Without American Leadership

If America has abdicated its global leadership role, are we now left with a free-for-all?
US news, US diplomacy, US global leadership, America under Trump, Donald Trump news, Donald Trump foreign policy, US State Department, US leadership, India-Pakistan conflict, Japan South Korea dispute

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People around the world, including Americans, have argued that the world can get along without US leadership. Today, they may want to scan the global landscape. While acute crises and violent conflict may not seem imminent at the moment, the view isn’t a hopeful one. For Americans, naively content in their island bubble between the two great oceans, the view may not be so worrisome yet. For those outside its shores, it may be less comforting.

Japan and South Korea, two of America’s most important allies in Asia, are at the point of a diplomatic breakup. Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe recently imposed what amounts to trade sanctions on a variety of products made by its Asian ally in retaliation for a decision by South Korean President Moon Jae-in.

The two countries’ dispute stems from a decades-long inability to resolve outstanding issues related to Japan’s colonization of Korea from 1910 to 1945 and effective enslavement of Koreans as laborers and sex workers. Since 1965, various attempts have been made to resolve these disputes, the most recent in 2015. It was President Moon’s decision last November to step back from one of the provisions of that most recent attempt that has led to the current standoff.

Mutual trade tariffs — the apparent go-to response in international disputes nowadays following the precedent of the US president’s preferred response — export and import quotas, visa restrictions and now threats of withdrawal from critical intelligence-sharing agreements have made this a potential crisis. Japan and South Korea are the second and fourth biggest economies in Asia and the continent’s most stalwart democracies. This isn’t supposed to happen between democracies. The dispute could threaten the global supply chain and even undermine efforts to bring North Korea’s nuclear weapons program to heel. The stakes are high.

Meanwhile, Washington, for whom the two nations represent pillars of its Indo-Pacific policy, seems to respond with a shrug of the shoulders. President Donald Trump, demurring from US involvement, asserted such a diplomatic undertaking was “like a full-time job.” Statements from the State Department have amounted to little more than parental “Play nice, you two!” admonitions.

Old Wounds, New Battles

Elsewhere in Asia, India and Pakistan have renewed their recurrent hostilities. Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi revoked Article 370 of the constitution, which dated back to 1949 and gave Jammu and Kashmir its special status; now it will be treated as a nominal political and administrative entity of India. Pakistan responded with trade sanctions — again we see it — and the expulsion of India’s ambassador to Islamabad. India has deployed troops to the region to maintain order.

The two South Asian behemoths have been in almost perpetual feuding mode since their independence in 1947, including wars in 1948, 1965, 1971, 1985 and 1999. Lesser skirmishes between Pakistani and Indian forces have occurred more frequently. While war appears unlikely at this juncture — the risk of escalation between the two nuclear-armed nations makes open conflict always a dangerous proposition — the unsettled nature of the Kashmir region and heightened nature of tensions render crystal ball reading hardly more than a coin toss.

The presence of Islamic militant organizations in the Pakistan-controlled areas further complicates the standoff. Though influenced by Islamabad, these groups operate according to their own ideological playbook, and attacking Indians or Indian forces in the area has been a pattern. How India might respond in today’s stressed circumstances is uncertain.

Washington may have oafishly and ineptly exacerbated this latest round of tensions. During a visit last month by Pakistan’s prime minister, Imran Khan, to Washington and a meeting with President Trump, the latter maladroitly offered to serve as mediator in the two countries’ dispute. While such mediation might be welcome in Islamabad, that is most definitely not, nor has ever been, the case in New Delhi.

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Trump’s ill-considered intervention is unlikely to be the cause of this latest fall-out. But it shouldn’t be discounted. Aside from anodyne press statements from the State Department about respecting the rights of the residents of the region and peaceful settlement of differences, there’s little sign that the White House has any intention of acting on the president’s offer to Prime Minister Kahn or taking any other action to calm hostilities.

The US maintains a delicate relationship with both nations. Pakistan is critical to Washington’s efforts to negotiate a successful understanding with the Taliban on Afghanistan’s future and end America’s 18-year long war there, something desperately wanted by Trump and most Americans. India, over the last two decades, has emerged from behind the self-imposed isolation of strict neutrality, largely a result of its close ties with the former Soviet Union, and established itself as a rising global power, though not yet on par with China.

It is the world’s largest democracy, and Washington has been working patiently to strengthen its ties with the region’s dominant power as an Asian counterbalance to China. Renewed tensions between these two countries are patently not in Washington’s or anyone’s interest. No good whatsoever can come of it.

Fracture Zone

This brings us even closer to American interests, the pending UK exit from the EU, aka Brexit. The UK’s new prime minister, Boris Johnston, has all but promised his nation’s departure from the world’s largest trading bloc by the EU-mandated date of October 31, with or without an agreement. The so-called hard or no-deal Brexit would likely lead to considerable economic disruption in Britain and potentially exhume haunting animosities in Northern Ireland. Beyond that, predictions are hard to come by, though largely pessimistic.

Dating back to his stump speeches as a candidate, Donald Trump has all but abetted Brexit. More recently, in voicing his support for Johnson, Trump has doubled down on Britain leaving the EU. While he’s also promised to quickly negotiate a bilateral trade agreement with Britain once it does leave, such a deal would do little for the US and would hardly replace the enormity of trade and other business Britain currently does with the EU. Furthermore, little assessment has been made of the impact of the British departure from the EU, currently America’s largest trading partner in the world. A weakened EU, most of whose members are also members of America’s most important strategic alliance, NATO, is patently not in US interests.

Problems elsewhere in the world garner less attention but still present concerns to the regions in which they occur and to America’s wide-ranging interests. In Hong Kong, Algeria, Sudan and Russia citizens are rising up to challenge the established ruling order, i.e., dictatorships. In Algeria and Sudan, outsiders — unsurprisingly authoritarian regimes themselves — are supporting the entrenched ruling class, usually the armed forces leaderships and compromised political and business elites. These include Saudi Arabia, the UAE, Egypt and Russia.

Though still lacking in effective political organization, this rise of the people to challenge the status quo and demand rule of law, accountability, respect for human rights and fair elections is another demonstration of the universal yearning for democracy and freedom.

The US, a champion of democracy throughout most of the postwar period under successive Democratic and Republican administrations, has been largely quiet. Neither the White House nor the State Department has seen fit to lend even a modest word of encouragement to those risking lives to call some of the world’s most autocratic regimes to account.

A Loss of Moral Leadership

Taken alone or even collectively, these challenges to global stability might have been taken in stride by a pre-Trump US foreign policy leadership. Presidents Ronald Reagan, George Bush, Bill Clinton, George W. Bush and even Barack Obama would have made phone calls to counterparts of friends and allies and dispatched able secretaries of state such as George Schultz, Jim Baker, Warren Christopher, Condoleezza Rice or John Kerry and their teams of seasoned experts to help mend such difficulties. 

But America under Trump, no longer the steward of global stability, is busy stirring its own pot of poisonous potions. An escalating trade dispute with the world’s second largest economy, China, threatens the global economy. Neither side seems prepared to search for serious options as both drive furiously toward a head-on collision. President Trump, when not upping tariffs, pours rhetorical gasoline on the simmering feud, foolishly believing that trade wars are “winnable.”

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In Iran, the US administration appears to be succeeding in bringing the economy of that nation to its knees but with no apparent plan to actually bring the Islamic Republic around to a new agreement that would fix the shortcomings of the earlier nuclear accord negotiated under Obama and broken by Trump.

Even at home, stability and predictability are two words never used to describe this president’s domestic programs. His overwrought policies on immigration and the border with Mexico, strained relations with both Mexico and Canada on trade, and venomous and inflammatory rhetoric on race have left many Americans with knots in their stomachs. Donald Trump’s leadership “philosophy” is a tragic departure from that of previous occupants of the office. Franklin Roosevelt once described it as “not merely an administrative office… [but] pre-eminently a place of moral leadership.” Under Trump, it’s become an office to divide, debase, degrade, distract and disgorge bilious bombast.

The US Senate, once known as the world’s “greatest deliberative body” and historically the legislative body more engaged in US foreign policy, has passively submitted to heretofore unthinkable positions and pronouncements of the president. In today’s Republican-controlled Senate, deliberation has degenerated into scandalous deference. The Republican majority has thwarted rational legislation on guns, passively ignored the brutal treatment of Central Americans fleeing their countries for the US through Mexico, refused to take up legislation to tighten America’s electoral process against foreign intervention before the 2020 election, and discounted serious and potentially impeachable actions by the president, to name but a few of the many serious issues unaddressed.

Is There an Adult in the House?

Since World War II, Americans and most people around the world took solace in the fact that US leadership, though far from immune from problem-making, could walk the always tough course of its own domestic policy and still chew the sticky and often distasteful gum of international diplomacy. It would work with its many allies and friends around the world to diffuse crises, head off conflicts and sooth edgy nerves of nations and their leaders.

Donald Trump asserted during his many campaign speeches and in subsequent statements as president that the world had taken advantage of the US and that it had become a global chump. It was settling fights while having its own lunch money taken away. Many around the world, while not necessarily agreeing with this warped assessment, nevertheless concluded similarly. American leadership has become an anachronism, its clumsy and ineffective military forays contributing to rather than alleviating the world’s instability. It has become irrelevant in a multipolar world where America’s is just another voice.

What President Trump and like-minded Americans, as well as others around the world, have forgotten, however, is the unique ability of the United States to convene. That is, its capacity to bring nations together to address global and even regional problems and ultimately to head off conflict. To be sure, the American record is less than perfect, as history confirms. But the role of convener was ably, if not perfectly, filled.

Over the course of the last 10-15 years, that distinctive ability has been squandered by a needless war in Iraq, an extended and seemingly never-ending war in Afghanistan, an all-consuming global war on terror, and an often vacillating and unfocused foreign policy. Despite his contributions to this development, President Obama deserves credit for ushering forward the Paris Climate Agreement, the Trans Pacific Partnership and the Iran nuclear deal, all of which followed in the tradition of his predecessors of leveraging America’s power and influence for the good not only of the US but also of nations everywhere. Having abrogated his predecessor’s achievements, President Trump now appears bent on full-scale abandonment of America’s historic role as the world’s convener-in-chief.

The present state of affairs may have indeed been inevitable. Nations like China, among others, have risen in power and influence. The global economy has grown so massive and dynamic that no nation, not even one with the dominance of the US, could truly lead or manage it. But in the absence of America — the mediator, conciliator, convener — are we left with a free-for-all?

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As one surveys the global landscape, there are disturbing signs that affairs in the world are not what we — whether in America, Japan, South Korea, India, Pakistan or Europe — should wish them to be. The devolution of power and action to regional powers with little control ought to be cause for alarm. It leaves the problems and the countries involved therein vulnerable to bad actors, such as terrorists, or the stronger seeking to gain advantage at the weaker one’s expense.

Governments lacking the guard rails of genuine participatory democracy and rule of law ignore, if not abuse, their citizens. Without such brakes, any one of the tensions we now see could escalate in an increasingly interconnected and interdependent world.

Would the world prefer to see active, principled diplomacy by the US to address such problems? Perhaps not. There is always the possibility of making things worse. But if not the United States, then who?

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Fair Observer’s editorial policy.

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