It is now clear that the twenty-first century is ushering in a new world order. As uncertainty and instability associated with that process spread around the globe, the West has responded with either timidity or nostalgia for older forms of nationalism that failed in the past and certainly will not work now.
Even to the most inveterate optimist, the G7 summit in Quebec earlier this month was proof that the geopolitical West is breaking up and losing its global significance, and that the great destroyer of that American-created and American-led order is none other than the US president. To be sure, Donald Trump is more a symptom than a cause of the West’s disintegration. But he is accelerating the process dramatically.
The roots of Western malaise can be traced back to the end of the Cold War, when a bipolar world order gave way to economic globalization, allowing for the emergence of new powers such as China. In the ensuing decades, America has apparently come to regard its longstanding alliances as more of a burden than an asset.
This applies not just to Europe, Japan, and South Korea, but also to America’s immediate neighbors, Canada and Mexico. Trump’s decision to impose tariffs on imported steel and aluminum left the US and Canada deeply divided at the Quebec summit, and their split over trade is certain to have much broader political implications.
Europe and the North Atlantic dominated the global economy for four centuries. Not anymore. And the new geography of power implied by the shift in the world’s economic center of gravity from the transatlantic region toward the Asia-Pacific region does not conform to the conceptual map of twentieth-century – let alone nineteenth-century – geopolitics.
China against the US
Though the US remains the world’s leading superpower, China has emerged as both a new and ancient geopolitical force. With a population of 1.4 billion people and an enormous domestic market, China is already challenging the US as the world’s economic, political, and technological leader.
Anyone who has ever visited the corridors of power in Beijing knows that Chinese leaders have their own map of the world. On it, China – the “Middle Kingdom” – lies at the center, while Europe and the US drop off the left and right sides, respectively. In other words, the US and Europe – that odd miscellany of small and medium-size nation-states – are already divided and consigned to the margins.
The US initially reacted to this century’s geopolitical changes intuitively, with a “pivot to Asia.” But America has long had a presence in both the Atlantic and the Pacific; and, as the last remaining global power, it is in a position to anticipate historic geopolitical changes in such a way as to guard its own interests.
Europe, on the other hand, has been sleepwalking through today’s historical interregnum. Europeans have concerned themselves largely with introspection, ancient animosities, and sweet dreams of the nineteenth century, when they still ruled the world. And that narrow outlook has been reinforced by events such as Trump’s election and the United Kingdom’s Brexit referendum.
Still, rather than dwell on Trump’s bizarre behavior, we would do well to remember that today’s global developments predate his presidency. The “pivot to Asia,” after all, was inaugurated by former US President Barack Obama. Trump has merely carried it forward, most recently by meeting with North Korean leader Kim Jong-un in Singapore.
Insofar that Trump’s policies pose serious risks, it is not because they represent a strategic reorientation for the US, which was happening anyway, but rather because they are self-contradictory and unnecessarily destructive. For example, when Trump calls for a reduction in US military involvement in the Middle East, he is merely echoing Obama.
Yet by reneging on the nuclear deal with Iran, Trump has made war in the region more likely. And by going out of his way to alleviate North Korea’s international isolation, while getting almost nothing in return, he has strengthened China’s position in East Asia.
Trump’s global trade war is equally self-defeating. By slapping tariffs on America’s closest allies, he is practically driving them into China’s arms. If European and Japanese exporters are facing protectionist barriers in the US, what other option do they have than tapping the Chinese market? Despite Russian President Vladimir Putin’s militarism in Eastern Ukraine and efforts to influence the outcome of Western elections, a Europe without its North Atlantic backstop has no choice but to turn toward Eurasia.
Moreover, even without US protectionism, Japan was going to have to accommodate China’s growing economic power sooner or later. The last chance to contain the Chinese heavyweight disappeared when Trump scrapped the Trans-Pacific Partnership, which would have created a US-led Pacific Rim bulwark against China.
The “pivot to Asia” will thus play out very differently on each side of the Atlantic. In the absence of joint US-EU policies to maintain transatlantic cohesion, the West will quickly become a thing of the past. With the US looking westward across the Pacific, and Europe looking eastward toward Eurasia, China will be the sole winner. The real strategic danger of the Trump era, then, is not merely that the global order is changing. It is that Trump’s policies are guaranteed to “Make China great again.”
Copyright: Project Syndicate, 2018.