IDSA STRATEGIC COMMENTS

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Global Consequences of the Trump Presidency

General Deepak Kapoor is the former Chief of the Army Staff.
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  • May 26, 2017

    A large number of us in India had the perception that the US democratic system, having evolved over almost two centuries, was a better organised and almost corruption free system providing for better governance and rule of law. That perception had been laid to rest by the time Donald Trump got elected as President after a campaign involving a lot of mudslinging. However, a rapid succession of hiring and firing of top executives as well as a barrage of happenings within the administration emerging on a daily basis since the commencement of the Trump presidency is indeed alarming.

    Of course, none of this would have mattered to the rest of the world if the consequences of these events were limited to the US alone. But the fact that the USA has been the undisputed leader of the world since the end of the Second World War and has been instrumental in shaping global economic and strategic policies for the past 70 years means that there are global consequences of domestic events in that country. While the Cold War may have ended, the European Union may have become broader and deeper, and China may have been rising for the last three decades, the pre-eminence of the US as the leading power in shaping global policies was never in doubt.

    Trump has risen to the presidency on the premise of ‘America for Americans’. The reality of present day Americans being the immigrants of yesteryears has been conveniently cast aside because Americans today feel threatened by the influx of new immigrants. They feel that their job security and financial survival is at stake unless the outsourcing of jobs, import of cheaper labour and threat of terrorism are minimised by limiting immigration. However, migrations from overpopulated backward regions to less populated advanced countries where opportunities abound are a fact of history that would keep repeating itself at periodic intervals.

    President Trump’s victory and his subsequent actions after assuming the presidency seem to indicate the US withdrawal from a leadership role towards a degree of insulation from world affairs, somewhat akin to the policy of ‘splendid isolation’ followed by it prior to World War I. Giving up membership of the Trans Pacific Partnership (TPP), revisiting the Paris climate deal, and insistence on NATO partners spending at least two per cent of their GDP on defence are initial indicators of the Trump administration’s approach to global affairs that project a sense of withdrawal. Of course, it may be early days to form a definitive opinion but the trends do suggest it.

    The institutional and bureaucratic set up in the USA, having matured over a long period, is indeed very strong. It has survived the idiosyncrasies and nuances of a series of past presidents with forceful personalities and minds of their own. Whether Trump’s actions bring an early end to his presidency or the institutional mechanisms reassert their supremacy is still in the realm of conjecture. Notwithstanding this, the possibility that the Trump presidency may veer too much towards abdication of the traditional US leadership role in global affairs exists. Therefore, it is important to look at its implications in the long run, both for the US and the world at large.

    China has gradually been rising over the past few decades. While continuing to respect the established international order, it is attempting to break free of the constraints that come in the way of its expansionism. In doing so, it has shifted from a policy of greater assertiveness to aggressiveness in bolstering its claims. Its stances in the South China Sea (SCS), East China Sea (ECS), towards Taiwan, and on the boundary issue with India are all clearly indicative of this approach. Any withdrawal of the US from the Asian arena would give China a free hand in going ahead with enhancing its claims and influence worldwide. The recently concluded Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) summit on May 14-15 is a clear indicator of the Chinese designs. Xi Jinping’s pronouncement that China is prepared to step in and assume a leadership role wherever required further confirms it. This has major implications for the smaller nations of the Asia Pacific region which cannot match China’s aggressive designs with force.

    Secondly, the currently international order is based on the policies shaped by the US and the West for the past 70 years. Both the security and economic architectures are creations of a dominant US in the period after the Second World War. Thus NATO, the Bretton Woods twins, Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT), Missile Technology Control Regime (MTCR), etc. all reflect it. A withdrawal by the US and stepping in of China and Russia to fill that void is likely to bring in its wake massive turbulence and upheaval. How well a world in which a majority of the countries are still developing will be able to absorb such changes is a question mark. India stands to lose more than most.

    Thirdly, there is a need to look at how the US itself will be impacted by its withdrawal from a global role. It is an indisputable fact that technologically the US is way ahead of the rest of the world including China. However, in order to leverage the advantages of such an edge, it needs to export the products of its superior technology worldwide. To be able to gain access to and exploit global markets, the US therefore needs to continue to be a part of global economic architecture rather than insulate itself from it. China’s thrust in the form of the BRI aims specifically to address the issue of capturing world markets for Chinese goods.

    There is an important link between economic prosperity and hard military power. Economic growth is possible only if it is backed by a strong military, thus ensuring stability for further growth. A strong economic power is likely to be pushed aside if it does not possess matching military clout. A rethink in Japan over developing military capabilities in view of the growing Chinese threat to the Senkaku islands is a clear example. Thus, in the final analysis, the economic and security architectures do get inextricably linked. Any attempt to insulate itself from global security issues would hurt US economic interests in the long run.

    Finally, the process of globalisation and interdependence has gone too far ahead by now. In fact, it is virtually irreversible since the benefits of globalisation far outweigh any of its perceived adverse effects. The shrewd businessman that Mr. Trump is, it appears he is gradually realising how detrimental it would be for US interests if he decides to minimise its global role.

    There are many in Britain today who feel that Brexit was not perhaps the right decision. Even if Brexit finally does come about, Britain would have to pay a very heavy price for it, including possibly the breakaway of Scotland and Northern Ireland from the United Kingdom. The isolationist and ‘going it alone’ winds sweeping across Europe post the Trump victory and Brexit referendum also appear to be ebbing. Geert Wilders in The Netherlands and Marine Le Pen in France have suffered major electoral defeats, and support for the continuation of the European Union is growing by the day. In Germany, there has been a stop to the waning popularity of Angela Merkel, a strong proponent of the EU, and a relative decline in support for parties like the AfD. All in all, the sentiment seems to be predominantly in favour of globalisation.

    The Trump presidency has been mired in too many controversies in the short period since assuming office. Senior appointments have had to be replaced even before they had a chance to perform, either because of questionable conduct or because they had ‘lost Mr. Trump’s confidence’, a euphemism for not doing his bidding. There is an unprecedented inconsistency in the actions and words of the president of the most powerful nation on earth, leading to a degree of confusion and uncertainty across the globe. Tweets seem to be conveying much more than the more formal official channels of communication, even though the former is used to put across purely personal sentiments. In any case, Twitter is not the appropriate forum for a discussion on the dismissal of a senior official. The talk of impeachment of the president on various counts doing the rounds in the corridors of power in Washington may at times seem premature, but the fact that it is being discussed is disturbing.

    The reverberations of President Trump’s actions are not only going to be felt within the US but would have effects worldwide. The realignment of the global economic and security architecture as a result would be inevitable. That, in turn, would cause destabilisation across the globe, especially to less developed and developing nations like India. How well these nations can insulate themselves from the effects of such upheavals would indicate the strength of their domestic systems.

    General Deepak Kapoor is a former Chief of the Army Staff.

    Views expressed are of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of the IDSA or of the Government of India.

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