14 October 2020
Putin & Trump

America's geopolitical quagmire

The US has made a giant mess of much of its foreign policy since the end of the Cold War three decades ago.

Just 30 years ago, America was on top of the world. It had won the Cold War and its enemy—the USSR—had disintegrated into a multitude of separate republics. Russia seemed like the USSR’s weak successor.

America’s unipolar moment was seemingly symbolised by Francis Fukuyama’s book, ‘The End of History and the Last Man,’ which argued that with the dominance of Western liberal democracy, humanity had reached “the end-point of mankind’s ideological evolution and the universalization of Western liberal democracy as the final form of human government”.

The US thus pursued a policy of “liberal hegemony”, as John Mearsheimer has argued. It wanted to remake former communist and developing countries—in America’s image—as liberal democracies and market economies. It sought to accomplish this by spreading liberal democracy across the globe, even by force if necessary; integrating more and more countries into the open international economy; and integrating more and more countries—especially big ones like China and Russia—into international institutions. The US believed that individual human rights and freedom are inalienable, and are undeniable rights for the entire world. This attitude turned the US into a crusader state.

I saw this strategy first hand when I was working at the Paris-based Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD), an organisation that represents the democratic, capitalist West. Countries from Central and Eastern Europe, East Asia and Latin America were invited into programmes billed as ‘policy dialogue’, but had the clear objective of spreading Western values of open markets and good governance.

Why pursue liberal hegemony?

Why would the US, strongly supported by Europe, want to mould these countries into liberal democracies and market economies?

There was certainly a good dose of hubris on the side of the West, especially the US, which believed it had found the elixir of political and economic success. The other countries were being welcomed into the club of wisdom.

Former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright once famously said: “If we have to use force, it is because we are America; we are the indispensable nation. We stand tall and we see further than other countries into the future, and we see the danger here to all of us.”

But there was more to it than that. The US and Europe place a high premium on the protection of human rights, and consolidating liberal democracy was seen as a way to prevent shocking human rights abuses in these young democracies.

Democratic peace theory was another factor. Adherents of this theory believe that democracies don’t go to war with each other. Fostering liberal democracy was, therefore, a powerful way to reduce the prospect of war. It was also seen as an effective way of countering nuclear proliferation.

Another argument that Mearsheimer makes is that promoting liberal democracy can help make the world safe for liberal democracy. What he means is that inside any democracy, there will always be few who detest liberal democracy and want to overthrow it. And that there is a danger that such people will call on a communist or authoritarian country for help in their cause. So, if the whole world is converted to liberal democracies, this risk is eliminated.

More fundamentally, the US was able to pursue liberal hegemony because of this unipolar moment in history. It did not have any competitor on the global stage, and could therefore ignore balance of power considerations. In its quest to bring freedom to societies around the world, it was free to do as it liked.

And it did, but not with the best results. The US’ travails in the Middle East—which it has sought to transform into a sea of freedom and democracies—have been well-documented.

But in my view, it is its miscalculations with reference to two other parts of the world that truly highlight the failure of US strategy.

Failure of the liberal hegemony strategy (Part I) – Central and Eastern Europe

One of the biggest blunders was the West’s embrace of central and eastern European countries, and the resultant sharp deterioration in relations with Russia. The US and Europe rushed to incorporate central European countries into the OECD, with the Czech Republic, Hungary and Poland joining in the 1990s. Meanwhile, a bigger group from Central Europe joined the EU in 2004.

But it was the incorporation of central and eastern European countries into NATO that most affected relations between the West and Russia. NATO was after all, a military alliance system of Western countries designed to oppose the USSR and the other Warsaw Pact countries.

When the Czech Republic, Hungary and Poland joined NATO in 1999, the Russians made it clear to the West that this was unacceptable to them. But at that time, Russia was too weak to do anything about it. Russia’s reaction was the same when a further seven central and eastern European countries joined NATO in 2004.

The crunch came in 2008 when the NATO summit declared that Georgia and Ukraine would become NATO members. The Russians weren’t particularly pleased and had no intention of letting either Georgia or the Ukraine become a Western bulwark on their doorstep.

Come to think of it, would the US tolerate a military alliance between Canada and China? No, the US has the Monroe Doctrine by which it owns the Western Hemisphere, and no other world power is welcome to intervene.

Thus began the serious deterioration in relations between Russia and the West. It is hardly surprising that there was a war between Russia and Georgia in 2008, and that in 2014, a major crisis broke out over Ukraine. And while the Obama administration was actively working to rid Syria of President Bashar Hafez al-Assad, the Russians intervened in the Syrian war and successfully saved him. Why? The Russian Navy has its only overseas base at Tartus on Syria’s Mediterranean coast.

Today, Russia is going to great lengths to try and split NATO and the EU. Both Western Europe and the US have terrible relations with Russia. And the West has now foolishly pushed the Russians into the arms of the Chinese. It is a pity we did not listen to the great George Kenan, architect of the policy of containment of Soviet expansion during the Cold War, who was steadfastly against NATO expansion.

Failure of the liberal hegemony strategy (Part II) – strategic engagement with China

In the 1990s, following China’s post-Tiananmen Square rehabilitation, China was clearly on the rise. The US was faced with the issue of what to do with China?

For America’s liberal hegemonists, the answer was simple – the tried-and-trusted formula of ‘strategic engagement’. China should be deeply integrated into the open international economy, and embedded into international institutions. In arguing for China’s membership to the World Trade Organization (WTO), President Bill Clinton said “it is likely to have a profound impact on human rights and political liberty.” He also said that China’s attempts to crack down on the internet were “sort of like trying to nail Jello to the wall”.

As it happens, I was part of the OECD team that developed the organisation’s programme of dialogue and cooperation with China from 1995. We also firmly believed, just like our American and European friends, that this would foster political openness in China. We all hoped that as it became more affluent, it would even become a liberal democracy, and a responsible stakeholder in the international system.

But even then, there were signs of Chinese inflexibility, as it insisted that the OECD downgrade Taiwan’s participation in the OECD. Almost an entire year of negotiations would prove necessary to agree on Taiwan’s terms of engagement with the OECD without, of course, any consultation with Taiwan.

We were all naive in imagining that participation in the global economy and international institutions would make China a liberal democracy. We had no way of knowing what China’s intentions would be, and they are clearly quite different. Rather than becoming a political soulmate, China has become an increasingly powerful adversary.

What now?

Given these developments, we no longer have the unipolar world of the early post-Cold War period that enabled the US to pursue an idealistic policy of liberal hegemony. With the rise of China and Russia, we have the return of great power politics, multipolarity and security competition.

Indeed, some say we are witnessing the start of a new Cold War.

Indeed the American dream of liberal hegemony in a unipolar world is now in the ash heap of history. Why?

Powerful forces of nationalism and realism mean that most countries do not welcome the idea of being told how to do their politics and undertake social engineering to fashion them into liberal democracies at the end of a rifle barrel. Nations place enormous importance on sovereignty or self-determination, and foreign interference is resisted.

Moreover, liberal democracy can also be a hard sell. The average Russian’s experience with democracy was a period of instability in the 1990s under Boris Yeltsin. The soft authoritarianism and stability of Vladimir Putin can seem preferable, despite all its shortcomings. For their part, many Chinese elites are happy with the prosperity generated by the Chinese Communist Party, and do not wish to see lower class workers and peasants having the right to vote.

Second, China has become a great power that wants to dominate Asia and push the Americans out of Asia, and is increasingly assertive. And we have seen the resurrection of Russian power, even if it is much weaker than China’s.

And the third reason is the ascent of Donald Trump to the US presidency. His argument that liberal hegemony had been a failure resonated with the American people, and highlighted the disconnect between the elite and the American people. Further, he seems to loathe multilateralism of all forms and shapes, be it trade pacts or international organisations. He has no interest in spreading democracy; indeed, it seems he doesn’t mind cosying up to autocrats.

Chaos trumps logic in US foreign policy

Framing and analysing US foreign policy under President Trump is particularly difficult. Sometimes he shows good instincts, a willingness to try new initiatives and wrongfoot other countries by his unconventional actions. At other times, his actions are contrary to US national interests, and seem to reflect personal grudges and quirks. Moreover, he seems unable—or unwilling— to follow through on a strategy with any consistency.

But, as Robert Blackwill has argued, “President Donald J. Trump’s actions have often been rash, ignorant, and chaotic. He seems sometimes to imagine that he can withdraw from the world and sometimes to think he can dominate it. Yet some of his individual foreign policies are substantially better than his opponents assert.”

But many are questionable.

A lack of coherence

President Trump has been right in pushing allies, especially European NATO members, to raise their often very low military expenditure. At the same time, he is often awfully rude and disrespectful to the same allies, including close neighbours Canada and Mexico. Both these countries have been friends of the US for at least 70 years.

Similarly, his decision to meet North Korea’s Kim Jong-un showed a refreshingly daring side of his diplomacy. Yet, these meetings were ultimately more about showmanship, with no concrete results being achieved. Indeed, by suspending US-South Korean wargames without gaining any concession in return, the US was arguably a loser from the meetings.

He has invested efforts in fostering relations with India, Japan and Australia – countries that are seen as effective counterweights to China. At the same time, he has cosied up to unsavoury autocrats like Jair Bolsonaro of Brazil, Viktor Orban of Hungary, Mohammed bin Salman of Saudi Arabia, Recep Tayyip Erdogan of Turkey and others.

The President’s instinct to reach out to Russia’s President Vladimir Putin also had much potential to reverse the downward slide in US-Russia relations, arguably provoked by NATO’s enlargement. And yet he never demonstrated the capacity to negotiate a comprehensive new deal with Russia that would take into account the full range of complex issues like NATO, Syria and Russia’s alleged interference in the US elections.

The past couple of years of this administration have marked a turning point in Sino-US relations. The former strategy of strategic engagement has been replaced by the recognition that China and the US are locked in great power competition. President Trump decided to stand up to China, especially with respect to trade. But after two years of battling with China, it is arguable whether he has achieved anything in terms of changing China’s protectionist and mercantilist trade policies. In fact, his latest manoeuvres with respect to Huawei and TikTok are only likely to invite retaliation from the Chinese government and even more protectionist tech policies.

Perhaps most regrettably, President Trump has shown no interest in global leadership (or indeed, national leadership) in the face of the COVID-19 pandemic, a natural role for the US which would allow it to demonstrate that it can be an indispensable nation.

By insisting on playing a blame-game against China and castigating the WHO, the current US administration has come across as petty and small-minded, something which has only been confirmed by its appalling domestic mismanagement of COVID-19.

A need for a reset

President Trump often seems more interested in repudiating the achievements of the Obama administration—such as the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP), the Iran nuclear deal, the Paris climate change agreement and improved relations with Cuba—than with building on the difficult achievements of his predecessor.

None of these deals might have been perfect, but they were certainly of value and in the US’ national interest. Now the US needs a different kind of a reset.

Looking ahead, the next US president, whoever he is, desperately needs a reset in foreign policy strategy to get out of this geopolitical quagmire the US finds itself in.

This implies focus on several areas. The US must develop and implement a sound and coherent strategy for its strategic competition with China. It must envisage a comprehensive new deal with Russia that embraces the current complexities, including NATO, Syria, relations with China and domestic political interference.

Additionally, rather than belittle multilateral organisations, the US must revitalise them. Many of President Trump’s concerns about international organisations such as NATO, the WTO and the WHO have some merit. But these concerns are better addressed by reforms within them, rather than by withdrawing from them and hurling hostile criticisms.

Most importantly, the US must rebuild its relations with allies, many of whom Trump has disparaged time and again. Allies are not a burden, but an asset that can be leveraged in many contexts. Strategic allies like Japan, Korea, Australia as well as NATO give the US additional military clout. Furthermore, most European countries share Trump’s concerns about China’s closed markets and growing assertiveness. They should be mobilised in support of the US’ strategic competition with China.


This article by John West was first published by Unravel on 13 October 2020.
Tags: asia, us foreign policy

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