Faculty Journal Posted on Monday, December 19, 2016

Only Trump can go to China: Is a [new] New World Order Possible?

Michael Lee Assistant Professor of Political Science, Hunter College

When leaders pursue purely reactive strategies to events, their time in office may resemble a game of ‘whack-a-mole.’ The most successful presidential administrations craft grand strategies that tie together disparate foreign policy objectives. Despite being endorsed by the scholar who literally wrote the book on grand strategy, Edward Luttwak, President-Elect Donald Trump’s foreign policy stances and staffing decisions betray conflicting visions of America’s role in the world. In Donald Trump’s first hundred days, he will need to establish a coherent grand strategy that is able to generate expectations for other actors, and a valuable reference point for policy discussions.

On the one hand, Trump’s campaign rhetoric called for retrenchment, with realpolitik trumping traditional alliances and stances. Whether or not the CIA allegations of Russian hacking are true, Trump’s appointment of pro-Russian figures like Paul Manafort (who managed the campaign of Russian ally, former Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych), or Rex Tillerson, chairman and CEO of Exxon Mobil (who has a close professional relationship with Russian President Vladimir Putin) signal an affinity with Russia. Easing tensions with America’s principle antagonist could be the first step to the creation of a new great power concert. However, some of Trump’s other appointments and actions appear to signal a different direction. Trump has also elevated neoconservatives eager to use American abroad, like Lieutenant General Michael Flynn, the former Director of the Defense Intelligence Agency, or General Jim Mattis. Similarly, Trump’s acceptance of a telephone call from Taiwanese President Tsai Ing-Wen suggests a willingness to antagonize China, over a high-profile territorial claim.

Many of Trump’s foreign policy positions undermine some of his other policy goals. For instance, Trump has expressed a desire to renegotiate the U.S.’s relationship with long-standing allies and trading partners, including NATO members, Mexico, China, Japan and Saudi Arabia, using access to America’s vast consumer market as a wedge. However, the United States is the world’s biggest importer in  large part because the U.S. dollar is the global reserve currency – the U.S. can run trade deficits without downward pressure on the dollar because other countries want to hold dollars in reserve. The special status of the dollar exists by consent – for instance, Saudi Arabia dollarizes the global trade in oil (which represents 16 percent of world trade), effectively voting for the dollar. Protectionist measures proposed by Trump – particularly if they invite retaliation – are also likely to undermine the desirability of the dollar as a reserve currency. Likewise, Trump’s refusal to accept any Syrian refugees leaves the political costs of the Syrian refugee crisis to Europeans. Admitting refugees, however, has proven to be incredibly unpopular in the EU. Now, just as Trump is asking more of Europeans, anti-immigrant sentiments undermine the very institution that might otherwise have anchored European security cooperation: the EU.

In order to “make America great again”, Trump has often emphasized the use of punitive measures that rely on American strength a priori. However, a punitive approach is undermined by an unfortunate reality: in relative terms, the United States is materially weaker today than it has been at any point since 1945. The United States seems powerful only because other countries have not invested in their militaries. President-Elect Trump will encounter a world where that is no longer true – Chinese GDP has already surpassed that of the U.S. in purchasing power parity terms, and Asian military spending will exceed that of the United States by 2020.

Despite the growing economic and military power of other countries, the United States is likely to continue to enjoy structural advantages due to its position within global economic and political networks. As the world’s financial and technological leader, the U.S. is likely to remain so in the near-term (although restricting programs like the H1-B visa and deporting large numbers of people may undermine those advantages – 42.2% of Ph.D. holding workers in science and engineering jobs are foreign-born). Additionally, the centrality of the United States in global finance affords the United States favorable positions in international institutions like the IMF, where the U.S. can veto changes to national voting shares. Further, the United States stands far above all others in its ability to project force over long distances, thanks to an extensive network of military bases and advanced navy and air force. Unthreatened by regional challengers, the United States can remain relevant by specializing in long-distance power projection. By maintaining “command of the commons,” the United States can cut off other states from access to the flows of goods and capital vital to the economic wellbeing of every state. The United States is powerful today precisely because the world is linked economically and politically.

So, while many other countries are on the rise, the United States is still the dominant global power. However, because American power is relational and structural, nickel-and-diming America’s traditional allies, as Donald Trump has proposed by abandoning NATO, Japan, and South Korea, may back-fire.

Despite these tensions, Donald Trump may be able to achieve forms of international cooperation that eluded President Obama and previous U.S. presidents. The foreign policy of Obama and Clinton was built around a vision of liberal hegemony, wherein the U.S. and its traditional allies (e.g. G-5 countries like Germany, Japan, France and Britain) employed a mix of force and diplomacy to maintain order while also achieving progress on human rights and climate change. However, one might reasonably argue that the G-5 is a club of declining powers, and may not be the best partners in the long-term. The common values underlying the U.S.-G-5 relationship are not shared by many of the rising powers and important players of the 21st century.

While liberal scholars of international relations are optimistic that the present global order can survive changing international conditions, there are reasons for doubt. The BRICS countries have already begun defecting from U.S.-led institutions, instead forming their own (e.g. the New Development Bank). The present global order may, similarly, be incompatible with Russia’s conception of its own sphere of interest. Trump’s disinterest in human rights, disavowal of climate change, and lack of strong ideology in international relations may actually increase his ability to cooperate with the BRICS countries in other issue areas. This by no means negates the critical importance of human rights and climate change; it simply points to Trump’s disinterest in them as perhaps enabling new international coalitions. Rather than bilaterally coercing countries into making concessions, Trump may be uniquely positioned to play the G-5 and BRICS countries against one another within international institutions in order to expand the scope for cooperation.

Consider, for instance, Trump’s oft-stated concern for workers in import-competing industries. In 1985, the Plaza Accord between the United States, Japan, Germany, Britain and France reduced American current account deficits through coordinated devaluation of the dollar. In a similar fashion, Trump could work with the BRICS countries to devalue the dollar and the Euro.  Easing the political pressure on EU leaders, in turn, can increase their ability to take on a greater defense burden. Additionally, if Trump can convince nuclear proliferators (Iran and North Korea) that his non-interventionist intentions are genuine, he may be able to halt the spread of nuclear weapons – even without the Iran deal. On the other hand, these possibilities may be squandered by contradictory moves, such as Trump’s antagonism of China over Taiwan, or the appointment of noted Iran-hawk Jim Mattis as Secretary of Defense.

American power is declining in an era of serious challenges such as anti-globalization backlash coalitions in the West, arms buildups in Asia, and in the continuing turmoil in the Middle East. All of these are important issues that require serious leadership. Trump’s departure from previous U.S. presidents’ strategy of liberal hegemony may yield progress on at least some of those issues. On the other hand, if Trump is unable to iron out the contradictions in his own foreign policy by enunciating a strategic vision that creates workable expectations for foreign leaders, he may end up alienating both America’s traditional allies, and the governments necessary for a Trump world order.

This post appeared as part of a Roosevelt House series on the first 100 days of Donald J. Trump’s presidency. To read the rest of the series, click here.

Michael Lee is Assistant Professor in the Department of Political Science at Hunter College. His work on the politics of financial regulation and international monetary relations is forthcoming at the British Journal of Politics and International Relations and the ISA Compendium. He is currently working on a book explaining historically significant “great deregulations.”