By Salman Bashir
For most of us, the United States has been the final authority in defining world power. Undoubtedly, the US shaped the politics of the previous century, while ensuring global stability throughout the first two decades of this era. Humanity owes a lot to the US in terms of defining the norms of civilization, ensuring political, economic and societal conduct and leading scientific and technological progress.
Since the advent of Donald Trump’s presidency, strategists, scholars, historians, thinkers and diplomats are striving hard to study the trends set by US policies, with an aim to understand the shape of things to come.
The international landscape, today, presents a picture of disarray. The rise and fall of nations, empires and civilizations are perennial to human history. Historical processes usually operate at a glacial pace and suddenly spurt to reveal new realities. It seems that we may be at that junction right now.
The old notion of transition from a unipolar to a multipolar world cannot explain the uncertainties of our times. The world’s power structure is becoming more and more dispersed. No one country or a group of countries can rearrange the deck, as has happened throughout history. The ultimate power has devolved to individuals who have the reins of technology at their fingertips.
In my estimation, the theory of ‘limits’ and ‘asymmetry’ seems to be at play. There are ‘limits’ to being a super power, nuclear power and even in exercising military power. This is evident from contemporary history, be it in Syria, Libya, Iraq, Kashmir or Afghanistan. The corresponding theory of ‘asymmetry’ — in responding to the use of force — was also seen, with devastating results, in the aforementioned examples.
The pursuit of political hegemony through military might invariably fails. Similarly, configuring and arraying military power against perceived competitors seems futile in a globalized and interdependent world. Geopolitics cannot upend geo-economics. Demography and technology propel change and are the prime determinants of economic weight and the relative worth of states.
President Trump is both a product and proponent of societal change. Instinctively, he understands that business as usual is not an option for the US at home or abroad. Rebounding from a two-term presidency held by Barack Obama, the popular support base of the Republican Party has constricted its own societal view and its view of the world. Trump plays to this populist base with great effect.
President Trump has taken a range of measures at home and abroad to redefine the image, purpose and role of the US in the world. An instinctive sense of ‘self-preservation’ accompanied by a resounding theme of ‘unburdening’ ring loud in the US’ current policies at home and abroad. ‘Unburdening’ is considered the key to making “America great again”.
President Trump’s recent address to the United Nations General Assembly was an explicit and honest exposition of the US’ world view. He spoke of the importance of embracing ‘patriotism’ rather than ‘globalism’, prefering to defend national sovereignty and freedom as distinct from UN collectivism and multilateral cooperation.
The US’ withdrawal from the UN Human Rights Council, the Paris Climate Change Pact, its renegotiation of bilateral and multilateral trade arrangements, its rejection of the International Criminal Court, and a renewed pursuit of new technologies and weapon systems — including the militarization of space — are some of the eamples of this unilateralist view and the phenomenon of ‘unburdening’ of the US.
President Trump believes that to be able to reinvent itself, the US needs a break from the over-bearing moral and value code it has created for itself, even as it tries to recover from the fatigue of its global responsibilities. This has resulted in the un-packaging of domestic societal norms and the US’ global commitments. President Trump realizes that the rest of the world, especially China and other Asian powers, are surging ahead. His own instincts, which were splendidly at display in November last year during his Asian tour, were to do good business with China. He still considers President Xi Jinping as a friend.
Similarly, President Trump’s personal view of Russia is different from the US’ official policy which regards Russia and China as revisionists.
A safe bet for the world would have been a G-3 Summit of Russia, China and the US to forge a new consensus on global issues and identify avenues of cooperation.
President Trump certainly has a feel for global and societal dynamics. In many ways history will judge him as one of the most consequential leaders of our times. His ‘unburdening’ drive is perhaps a matter of necessity and not choice.
(Salman Bashir is a Pakistani diplomat who served as the Foreign Secretary of Pakistan.