How much difference has US President Donald Trump made to America's standing in the world? Despite the almost daily awe and horror that has accompanied media coverage of the first year of his presidency there is a view that Trump has barely made a dent on the structural trends that are paring back America's influence in Asia and around the world. That influence was well on the wane before Trump took the keys to the White House, says Evan Feigenbaum. Hugh White sees President Trump as merely accelerating America's inevitable retreat from Asia in the face of China's rise.
Trump has created uncertainty in the global system in spades — with his loose play in the North Korean crisis, his assault on the international trading system and his retreat from the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) — but he is responsible neither for China's rise nor for the recent shifts we have seen in Asia's alignments. After the global financial crisis, traditional export-led Asian economic strategies could no longer count on robust growth from American demand. Domestic demand was called in as a new driver of growth and as an intra-regional hedge against uncertainty. The structural changes now working in China's favour — many at America's expense — all pre-date Mr Trump. He has not changed the game in Asia or around the world: it has been changing for a long time and will continue to change regardless of who sits in the Oval Office.
If Trump has a strategy, it is to accept America's diminished global reach and to protect against the rapacity of China and the rest. That is the game he was dealt, not the game he has delivered (so this argument runs).
Trump may be a symptom more than a cause of America's problems. Bernie Sanders was symptomatic of a similar retreat from global leadership on the Democratic side of US politics. A stagnant median income, growing inequality and the lack of a social safety net or adequate social protections has led to most Americans missing out on the benefits of an open and innovative economy. Those structural problems will get worse before they get better with the tax bill to which Trump and the US Congress recently gave the green light.
Leadership in Asia demands an economy that can be translated into strategic power. Japan, Australia, all of East Asia and India are now deeply integrated economically with China. There may be ambivalence about the rise of China, and economic integration is yet to translate into comprehensive political security between China and its partners. But the United States is going about deploying its diminished economic heft in a counterproductive way and the TPP was never going to rebuild America's geo-economic dominance in the face of China's growth and continued openness.
Nor does China's newfound economic heft automatically translate into strategic weight — much less into regional or global leadership.
Leadership in Asia needs an overarching strategic framework that leverages economic, military and diplomatic power together towards a grand strategic goal. Trump's answer to America's new predicament is to abandon the grand strategic goal that has engaged the world's multilateral assets over three-quarters of a century and instead to opt for the reasserting the use of bilateral power at a time when America has lost its economic muscle and is limited in critical theatres to an Armageddon military option. This is a curious response to America's new circumstance.
In this week's lead, David Camroux says that once the United States could once have plausibly been described as the world's 'indispensable power'. 'Perhaps thirty years from now we will look back on US President Donald Trump's first official visit to East Asia as the moment when the United States abandoned a superpower role in Asia and grudgingly accepted that hegemonic power in the region would be shared with China'.
For Camroux, this is not an accidental outcome delivered by a leader swept haplessly along in the vast currents of our times. 'The breakdown of [America's] Asia foreign policy status quo involves a combination of wilful negligence and discreet sabotage'.
'Abandoning the TPP fell into the first category, while the hollowing out of the US State Department is a combination of both. Ten months after Trump's inauguration, many senior positions in the State Department still have not been filled. Some one hundred senior diplomats have left and the threat of a one-third budget cut remains. The Trump administration's gratuitous assault on multilateral institutions and agreements such as the WTO, UNESCO and the Paris Climate Change Agreement is being conducted in the same vein', says Camroux.
Camroux sees Trump's November 2017 trip to East Asia as a demonstration that his administration had largely abandoned two of the three pillars of America's bipartisan foreign policy edifice. In relation to North Korea there was a bellicose reaffirmation of the US commitment to playing sheriff, while the multilateral economic and soft power dimensions were substantially abandoned.
US proposals for bilateral trade deals were greeted with polite silence. Given the Trump administration's drive to renegotiate the North American Free Trade Agreement and the US–Korea Free Trade Agreement as part of its 'America first' agenda, US credibility as a trustworthy trading partner has been severely compromised.
While 'the United States has been seeking to weaken the international institutions it helped establish, China has been creating new international institutions to further its aims'. The most visible in Asia is the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank (AIIB). It is by no means clear that the objective of Chinese leadership is to supplant existing institutions with its new initiatives like the AIIB and the Belt and Road Initiative. 'Still, in terms of articulating a long-term vision, China's Belt and Road dwarfs anything that Trump seems capable of offering', says Camroux.
The fear that a new world order might evolve into a Chinese creature of influence has gone mildly viral in countries which thus far have put all bets on the alliance relationship with the United States. This is not to be unexpected: security communities struggle to justify alliance relationships that have been injected with such uncertainty by Mr Trump.
As Camroux concludes, the world we see today is far less open to hegemonic influence — China has a powerful interest in appealing to multilateralism (as in its 19th Party Congress pledges) in order to manage its many problems in the world. How the world is ordered in the future will much depend on whether other powers (in Asia and elsewhere including the European Union) can compensate for the US vacuum and help to preserve and promote an open multipolar international environment.