In the past four years, Donald Trump’s “America First” presidency has challenged the post-war spirit of cooperation more aggressively than any leader before him. One by one, he has defunded and abandoned the multilateral agreements and institutions created by his predecessors. His courtship of strongman leaders has allowed autocrats to exploit this extraordinary moment
in time to further their own interests and roll back democratic freedoms in their countries.
But the global instruments Trump deserted haven’t crumbled, nor is the world crashing and burning with its long-time leader in the back seat. Strongman leaders may be emboldened, but they aren’t going entirely unchallenged. And old US allies have not fallen straight into the arms of China, as many analysts fear.
Instead, the world is adapting these agreements, it’s reshaping its institutions and, as for China, most countries are finding ways to balance their relations with Beijing as both a friend and foe.
This shift has been a long time coming. While US grand strategists who believe American world leadership is exceptional argue it could go on in its role indefinitely, most international relations experts agree that all unipolar models must come to an eventual end, as other powers rise and challenge its primacy.
After assuming the role of leader following World War II, the US proved its dominance with its victory in the Cold War, a consolidation of power that experts described as a “unipolar moment.” That moment has lasted 30 years.
There have been clear signs over the past two decades, however, that Americans are tiring of taking on this role
, while much of the world, equally, is cooling on the US as its hegemon, and is eager to step into its shoes.
Germany, for example, is pitching itself as a global health leader
. Even before the pandemic, German Chancellor Angela Merkel had put global health on the agenda at G20 meetings
for the first time as the Trump administration showed signs of retreat from international cooperation. Germany has boosted funding for health research and development, and was even able to treat patients from neighboring countries for Covid-19 early in the European outbreak, so well-resourced were its hospitals at a time of crisis.
A long time coming
There may be no easy replacement for US leadership, but Scott Lucas, a professor of international politics at the University of Birmingham, points out that Washington hasn’t achieved many of its recent international security objectives, either. “Asia, the Middle East, Africa, in many parts, disorder continues to a great extent,” he said.
The list of US failures in international security is long. The US hasn’t been able to build legitimate states in Iraq and Afghanistan, as it sought to. Israelis and Palestinians are no closer to peace deal. Both Iran and North Korea have developed nuclear weapons. The US hasn’t prevented Russia from exerting influence in Eastern Europe. It hasn’t convinced China to end its military aggressions in Asia. These were all true before Trump’s rise.
Lucas said that the Trump presidency hasn’t really been the turning point in this shift. President George W. Bush’s invasion of Iraq was the “critical moment.”
“A lot of countries were discomforted, to say the least. They felt the war wasn’t justified — countries like France, Germany, Australia — that a unipolar America with the UK tagging along wasn’t working, especially when Iraq turned so horribly wrong, with so many people dying, and the instability that continues. So, the notion that the US leads and everyone follows was shot,” Lucas said.
Some experts say China is the only real contender here, and that a bipolar world in which the US and China compete is inevitable. Like in the Cold War, other countries will be forced to choose sides.
China too is finding areas in which to assert its growing power on the world stage with an increasingly absent US. At the UN General Assembly in September, Chinese President Xi called for the world
to “join hands to uphold the values of peace, development, equity, justice, democracy and freedom shared by all of us.” In contrast, Trump devoted much of his speech to attacking China over its handling of the coronavirus, playing to his supporter base at home ahead of the November election.
Xi’s comments need to be taken with a grain of salt — Beijing has also taken elements of Trump’s presidency as an opportunity to vindicate its own heavy-handedness at home
, in Hong Kong, for example, with its draconian national security law. But Xi does have a genuine appetite to be welcomed as a world leader, a role that will require him to conform somewhat to the rules-based order.
In the same speech in September, Xi made a pledge for China to become carbon neutral by 2060
, an ambitious goal that has been met with both excitement and skepticism. Critics point out that China “off-shores” its carbon emissions, largely through its multi-trillion dollar Belt and Road Initiative, which includes development projects across more than 120 countries.
But Beijing is looking at ways to make these development endeavors more sustainable, and Xi’s announcement at least shows that China, the world’s biggest carbon emitter, is willing to lead and engage with the world on this crucial issue, where the US, the second-largest emitter, is not.
Shaun Breslin, a professor of politics and international studies at the University of Warwick, disagrees that the long-term future is necessarily a bipolar one where countries must choose sides between a competing China and US. Instead, he thinks the transition from a unipolar world will be “messy” and more likely give way to clusters of power.
“My problem with poles is we’re trying to use language from a different era and wedge the current era on that linguistic basis. What I think we’ll see is looser constellations of power and interests dependent on specific issue areas,” he said.
The world will see countries continuing to engage China in areas like trade and technology, but not necessarily replacing Washington with Beijing on issues like security or moral leadership. In many ways, that shift has already happened.
Democratic candidate Joe Biden is among those who believe the US should continue to lead. Though he has promised to rejoin institutions like the WHO and the Paris climate accord should he win on Tuesday, he won’t be able to reverse every foreign policy decision Trump has made.
For instance, it will be difficult for Biden to invest the troops and weapons needed to regain the influence the US once had in Syria. He may also find the US’ former Kurdish allies unwilling to work with him, having for years fought alongside the US to defeat ISIS, only to be abandoned last year as Trump gave Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan the green light to invade their territory in a quick phone call.
Biden’s comments during a debate last week on North Korea also suggest he may have no policy that differs from Obama’s
, which did little to deter the pariah state.
Regardless of who wins the vote, the US’ role in the world has changed profoundly. Returning to where it was four years ago won’t be easy. Returning to its post-Cold War primacy is near impossible.