Maurice Earls writes: Some people are surprised that a person as disruptive and unsophisticated as Donald Trump became, and has been widely accepted as, president of the United States. Adam Tooze’s essay “Is this the End of the American Century?”, recently published in the London Review of Books, points towards a possible explanation.
Tooze, a distinguished historian, does not offer a definitive answer to the question posed in the essay’s title but does say very clearly that the conservative political and military establishments in the US have no intention of going quietly into the good night of global powe- sharing. This is a worrying prospect.
Because China is seen as not playing by American rules of subordination, because it offers an ideological and thus, it is concluded, an existential challenge, the American state plans to confront it. It follows then that if the end of the American century comes, it will not be the result of a voluntary relinquishing of postwar leadership, and it will not be as a result of adapting to the arrival of Chinese power. If it comes it will be because a US strategy of radical containment will have failed.
Mahbubani Kishore, Singapore’s former ambassador to the UN, confirms the new mood, observing in a recent article in Le Monde Diplomatique that “a consensus has formed in US government that China poses a significant threat to US interests and wellbeing”. He says there is extensive support in the US for Trump’s hostile approach to China, which includes “moderate figures such as Democratic senator Chuck Schumer”.
The widespread belief in the US is that not only must China be contained but that the American style of international politics, pursued since at least the end of the Second World War, no longer serves the interests of the US and that a radical change of approach is required. It follows from this that there are inherited attitudes to be discarded and institutions to be neutered or restructured. This is where Donald Trump, as the great disrupter, is useful. His transformative potential is aided by the combination of his own wholesale ignorance of and dislike for the way things used to be done.
Where Trump’s critics argue that at a time when China’s power is increasing the US should strengthen its alliances abroad, the Trumpists take the opposite view. For them it is precisely in order to face down China that the US must shake up the Western alliance and redefine its terms so that it serves American interests more clearly. What we are witnessing isn’t just a process of dismantling and destruction, but a deliberate strategy of stress testing. It is a strategy Trump personifies, but it goes well beyond him.
Trump announced recently that he had been considering making his daughter Ivanka president of the World Bank, adding, by way of explanation, that she had always been good with numbers. He clearly delights in upsetting liberals, and others attached to the postwar multilateral institutions which once served to support US hegemony. Donald Trump’s deliberately outrageous behaviour is a way of saying that those postwar institutions are no longer regarded as useful. Those who believe in the necessity of this approach are unlikely to be put off by Trump’s manners, nor are they likely to want his impeachment on the foot of Mueller’s report on his transgressions.
In some ways Trump is continuing the strategy followed by Obama and his secretary of state, Hillary Clinton, one a dignified cerebral president the other a person schooled in the protocols of international relations. Both were strategising the containment of China but neither was suited to defining the new disruptive political style which is now believed necessary to achieve success. From a conservative point of view Trump is necessary, at least temporarily.
One big difference between Trump’s politics and that of previous US leaders is that under Trump the US establishment has abandoned its belief in inevitable progress towards liberalism. As Mahbubani Kishore reminds us, in 2002 Bill Clinton supported China’s admission to the WTO on the grounds that political liberalisation would inevitably follow from economic liberalisation. George W Bush thought likewise, and Hillary Clinton said that in persisting with Communist Party rule the Chinese are “trying to stop history, which is a fool’s errand”.
This attachment to the idea of inevitable progress is deep-seated in Western culture, both in its Christian and secular Enlightenment manifestations. It has been conducive to absolutist thinking and has underlain much of the West’s darker history.
Postwar American leadership held such a belief in progress and, also, that history favoured the American way, which was believed to be in the vanguard of human development. That, it seems, is now over. Adam Tooze remarks:
Trump closes the chapter begun by Woodrow Wilson in the First World War, with his claim that American democracy articulated the deepest feelings of liberal humanity.
What remains in Trump’s America is not the beginning of a new, more nuanced, political philosophy but simple aggression.
Kishore Mahbubani comments that given the view of China as an immediate danger, “it is not hard to see why Graham Allison, in Destined for War, reaches the depressing conclusion that armed conflict between the countries is more likely than not”. China, however, has a history more than ten times longer than that of the US. In such a stretch of time, a great many things are learned. China may not facilitate American aggression; it may even deprive it of oxygen.
Tooze tells us that the US conservative touchstone for geopolitical strategic success is the arms race with Russia during the presidency of Ronald Reagan, a strategy which is credited in conservative circles with having led to the collapse of the Soviet Union. This is the model conservatives are looking at, under President Trump, to deal with China. But it may be that the US has missed the most important lesson of Soviet decline: military might must be backed by economic might.
The problem China poses for the US is recognised as far greater than that posed by the Soviet Union, an economically weak state which happened to have intercontinental missiles and a nuclear armoury. Conservatives recognise that establishing dominance over China will require a far greater effort than in the case of the Soviet Union and, also, a departure from the settled ways of international politics. Allies and satellites will have to be reminded which side their bread is buttered on and they will have to behave accordingly.
Taking on the challenge of China will require acting on multiple fronts and a national focus unprecedented in the postwar era. This, within its own terms, is accurate. China’s growth is staggering. Mahbubani takes as a given that China’s economy will surpass that of the US. He argues that in this context America’s massive military spend is illogical and unsustainable and that in continuing it, the US will be repeating the mistake of the Soviet Union. Tooze also notes China’s amazing growth.
China alone was responsible for a doubling of global steel and aluminium capacity in the first decade of the 21st century. Its huge investment in R&D transformed it from a ‘third world’ importer of Western technology into a leading global force in 5G. As the likes of Navarro and Lighthizer [US strategists] see it, it was the naivety of enthusiasts for an American-led world order in the 1990s that allowed China’s communist-run state capitalism into the WTO. What the globalists did not understand was the lesson of Tiananmen Square. China would integrate, but on its own terms. That could be ignored in 1989 when China’s economy accounted for only 4 per cent of global GDP: now that figure is close to 20 per cent. As far as the American trade hawks are concerned, competition within an agreed international order is to be welcomed only so long as the competitors agree to play by America’s rules, both economic and geopolitical. This was the lesson Europe was made to learn after the Second World War. It was the lesson that Japan was taught the hard way in the 1980s and early 1990s. If China refuses to learn that lesson, it must be contained.
The US is reminding the world, and particularly the West, that politics is about power. The parts of the world which experienced postwar American power as a benign force are being offered a steep learning curve.
If Canada and Mexico believe they are broadly, in a vague and ill-defined way, equal partners in trade agreements they are to receive a good kick and to be asked which part of the word subordinate they do not understand. Europe, with its notions of grandeur, needs to be reminded it is a satellite which owes its survival to US military might. And China needs to know that the days of its easy ascent are over. Who better to introduce the new global riding orders than Donald the disrupter?
America is a warlike country. China understands the benefits of strategic restraint, an insight related to it much longer history and perhaps also the superior human utility of Confucianism over Evangelical Christianity. China has not fired across a border in over thirty years, whereas even under the thoughtful Barack Obama the US military dropped 26,000 bombs on seven countries.
US strategists wish to confine Europe to the status of a satellite.
[T]he incomprehension and disrespect shown by the White House towards the EU is unprecedented … Trump’s open advocacy for Brexit and encouragement of further challenges to the coherence of the EU has been extraordinary.
James Mattis, Trump’s former defence secretary, threatened Sweden with serious consequences if it declined to join NATO and a group of ten US senators recently wrote what was probably an unprecedented letter threatening the Irish state with serious consequences in connection with the occupied territories bill currently before the Dáil.
Trump’s unpredictability is useful tactic for confounding enemies. And it is not just Trump.
In October 2018 the giant Nimitz-class aircraft carrier USS Harry S. Truman unexpectedly pulled out of the Eastern Mediterranean, where its planes had been bombarding IS’s positions in Syria. It sailed into the Atlantic and then suddenly and without warning headed north. Aircraft carriers don’t do this: their itineraries are planned years ahead. This was different. The Truman and its escorts headed full steam to the Arctic, making it the first carrier group to deploy there for 27 years, backing up Nato’s war games in Norway. The consternation this caused delighted the Pentagon. Unpredictable ‘dynamic force employment’ is a key part of its new strategy to wrong-foot America’s challengers.
It seems everyone in Washington is agreed on the need for a huge military build-up. The Trump administration has asked for a staggering $750 billion for defence in 2020, more than the spending of the next seven countries in the world put together.
The factors which made the American Century possible were many and included brilliant strategists such as Henry Cabot Lodge, Dean Acheson, Henry Kissinger and Zbigniew Brzezinski. There is no one approaching their calibre in the Trump administration which is radically changing US foreign policy. The outcomes will surely reflect this.
The current US thinking as described by Adam Tooze clearly constitutes a serious threat to the interests of humanity. If it is possible to sleepwalk into war, it is also possible to cause unnecessary war through strategic inadequacy. But it also possible the rest of the world will not stand by as its affairs develop negatively.
Europe’s recent characterisation of China indicates the type of sophisticated thinking required in response to the phenomenon of China’s rise. An EU Commission report to the European Parliament outlined a nuanced assessment of the principles which should govern EU engagements with China.
China is, simultaneously, in different policy areas, a cooperation partner with whom the EU has closely aligned objectives, a negotiating partner with whom the EU needs to find a balance of interests, an economic competitor in the pursuit of technological leadership, and a systemic rival promoting alternative models of governance. This requires a flexible and pragmatic whole-of-EU approach enabling a principled defence of interests and values. The tools and modalities of EU engagement with China should also be differentiated depending on the issues and policies at stake. The EU should use linkages across different policy areas and sectors in order to exert more leverage in pursuit of its objectives.
There are also indications that there is an appetite in the world to maintain and develop multilateral institutions, which the US no longer seems to value. These could form a web which would help to restrain the US from pursuing the implications of its new and reckless policy.
Christopher Wray, the FBI director, assessing the scale of the challenge facing the US said: “One of the things we’re trying to do is view the China threat as not just a whole-of-government threat, but a whole-of-society threat … and I think it’s going to take a whole-of-society response by us.” But is there any chance of there being a whole of society response?
There is by no means full political consensus behind the new direction in the US. Bernie Sanders, who is seeking the Democratic Party nomination, has begun to express views on foreign policy. Previously his focus was entirely domestic. He has now made it clear that he does not wish to see the US pursue global hegemony and accepts a future which is multipolar. There is also the fact that considerable sections of civil society in the US are unlikely to drop pursuit of issues, such as gender equality, social justice and environmental protection, which have long concerned them, in order to join a focussed national effort to defeat and suppress China.
The US will have difficulty is controlling the global script in the near-to-medium future and indeed it may simply be impossible to do so. This, however, should not take from the reality that the world is now dealing with a very different USA.