The Year of Trump?


January 10,2019

trump

The Year of Trump?

If Trump’s iconoclastic style was merely a breach of traditional presidential etiquette, one might argue that his critics were being too fastidious, or were trapped in old-fashioned views of diplomacy. But crudeness can have consequences.

 

BEIJING – Time magazine did not choose Donald Trump as its Person of the Year in 2018, but it may do so this year. Trump ended 2018 facing criticisms for announcing troop withdrawals from Syria and Afghanistan without consulting allies (resulting in the resignation of his respected defense secretary, General James Mattis) and partially shutting down the government over a Mexican border wall. In 2019, with Democrats having taken over the House of Representatives, he will face increasing criticism of his foreign policy.

Administration supporters shrug off the critics. Foreign policy experts, diplomats, and allies are aghast at Trump’s iconoclastic style, but Trump’s base voted for change and welcomes the disruption. In addition, some experts argue that the disruption will be justified if the consequences prove beneficial for American interests, such as a more benign regime in Iran, denuclearization of North Korea, a change of Chinese economic policies, and a more evenly balanced international trade regime.

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Niall Ferguson

Of course, assessing the long-term consequences of Trump’s foreign policy now is like predicting the final score in the middle of a game. Stanford historian Niall Ferguson has argued that “the key to Trump’s presidency is that it is probably the last opportunity America has to stop or at least slow China’s ascendency. And while it may not be intellectually very satisfying, Trump’s approach to the problem, which is to assert US power in unpredictable and disruptive ways, may in fact be the only viable option left.”

Trump’s critics respond that even if his iconoclasm produces some successes, one must assess them as part of a balance sheet that includes costs as well as benefits. They argue that the price will be too high in terms of the damage done to international institutions and trust among allies. In the competition with China, for example, the United States has dozens of allies and few disputes with neighbors, while China has few allies and a number of territorial disputes. In addition, while rules and institutions can be restraining, the US has a preponderant role in their formulation and is a major beneficiary of them.

This debate raises larger questions about the relevance of personal style in judging presidents’ foreign policy. In August 2016, 50 primarily Republican former national security officials argued that Trump’s personal temperament would make him unfit to be president. Most of the signatories were excluded from the administration, but were they correct?

As a leader, Trump may or may not be smart, but his temperament ranks low on the scales of emotional and contextual intelligence that made Franklin D. Roosevelt or George H.W. Bush successful presidents. Tony Schwartz, who co-wrote Trump’s book The Art of the Deal, notes that “Trump’s sense of self-worth is forever at risk. When he feels aggrieved, he reacts impulsively and defensively, constructing a self-justifying story that doesn’t depend on facts and always directs the blame to others.”

Schwartz attributes this to Trump’s defense against domination by a father who was “relentlessly demanding, difficult, and driven…You either dominated or you submitted. You either created and exploited fear, or you succumbed to it – as he thought his elder brother had.” As a result, he “simply didn’t traffic in emotions or interest in others,” and “facts are whatever Trump deems them to be on any given day.”

Whether Schwartz is correct or not about the causes, Trump’s ego and emotional needs often seem to color his relations with other leaders and his interpretation of world events. The image of toughness is more important than truth. Journalist Bob Woodward reports that Trump told a friend who acknowledged bad behavior toward women that “real power is fear…You’ve got to deny, deny, deny and push back on these women. If you admit to anything and any culpability, then you’re dead.”

Trump’s temperament limits his contextual intelligence. He lacked experience, and has done little to fill the gaps in his knowledge. He is described by close observers as reading little, insisting that briefing memos be very short, and relying heavily on television news. He is reported to have paid scant attention to staff preparations before summits with experienced autocrats like Russian President Vladimir Putin or North Korea’s Kim Jong-un. If Trump’s iconoclastic style was merely a breach of traditional presidential etiquette, one might argue that his critics were being too fastidious, or were trapped in old-fashioned views of diplomacy.

But crudeness can have consequences. While pressing for change, he has disrupted institutions and alliances, only grudgingly admitting their importance. Trump’s rhetoric has downplayed democracy and human rights, as his weak reaction to the murder of Saudi dissident journalist Jamal Khashoggi demonstrated. Although Trump has echoed President Ronald Reagan’s rhetoric about the US being a city on the hill whose beacon shines to others, his domestic behavior toward the press, the judiciary, and minorities has weakened the clarity of America’s democratic appeal. International polls show a decline in America’s soft power since he took office.

While critics and defenders debate the attractiveness of the values embodied by Trump’s “America First” approach, an impartial analyst cannot excuse the ways in which his personal emotional needs have skewed the implementation of his goals – for example in his summit meetings with Putin and Kim. As for prudence, Trump’s non-interventionism protected him from some sins of commission, but one can question whether his mental maps and contextual intelligence are adequate to understand the risks posed to the US by the diffusion of power in this century. As tensions grow, reckoning with Trump may well become unavoidable in 2019.

US Foreign Policy:The Perils of trusting America: A Reminder for Asian All Allies


January 3, 20l9

US Foreign Policy: The Perils of trusting America: A Reminder for Asian All Allies

https://www.straitstimes.com/opinion/the-perils-of-trusting-america-a-reminder-for-asian-allies

Before its betrayal of the Kurds in Syria, the US had in the 1970s abandoned the trusting Cambodians and Vietnamese to their fate.

 

President Donald Trump’s abrupt decision to pull all American troops out of Syria is yet another chilling reminder that those who believe in pledges and assurances made by the United States do so at their grave peril.

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While his generals and European allies may fret over the geopolitical implications of his capricious move, it is the US-backed Kurdish forces, fighting on America’s behalf against the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria group in north-eastern Syria, who will bear the brunt of the repercussions.

It is almost certain that Turkey, which has long labelled them as terrorists inciting its Kurdish minority to secede, will carry out its threat to move in and crush them.

Deserted by the Americans who have been funding, training and arming them, the Kurds will pay for Mr Trump’s perfidy with blood. He may have made good on his campaign promise to pull out US troops but, to the Kurds, he has just stabbed them in the back. And they say this openly, in so many words, to the world’s media.

South Korea, Japan and Taiwan must be watching this development – which is nothing short of a breach of faith – with great trepidation. So should other economies in the Asia-Pacific region which the US has been courting in its thinly-disguised attempt to contain the rise of China.

Seoul and Tokyo, especially, could not have forgotten that soon after President Trump met North Korean leader Kim Jong Un in Singapore in June, he called off a long-scheduled military exercise between South Korean and US forces – just like that, without any prior notice to Seoul.

Or that he has signaled more than once his aversion to keeping American troops in South Korea. No one can be sure now that he would not, in a moment of impetuosity, announce a US pullout from there as well, via Twitter at 3 o’clock in the morning.

With America’s reliability as an ally being brought into serious question, it is little wonder that Seoul and Tokyo will want to hedge their bets. Hence South Korea’s quickened pace in reaching out to the North, and Tokyo’s signals to Beijing that it is seeking a thaw in their frosty relations.

Meanwhile, thinking Taiwanese are no doubt put on notice of the dangers that await them should they allow themselves to be used as pawns by the US in its bid for strategic dominance over China. How the Trump administration ditched its friends in Syria is a wake-up call like no other.

 

Indeed, when it comes to honouring its promises and assurances, the US has a history it cannot be very proud of – from failing to return islands in the South China Sea seized by Japan from China, as agreed at the Cairo Conference in November 1943, to leaving Hungarians to their fate when Soviet troops moved in to crush their 1956 uprising which the Americans had encouraged.

Vietnam, which Washington has wooed assiduously as a bulwark against Beijing’s ambitions in the South China Sea, should also remember vividly how the US deserted its allies as the Indochina wars wound to a stop in 1975.

No doubt many who have lived through those years will recall seeing television footage of the last US Marine helicopter evacuating Americans from the rooftop of their embassy in Saigon on April 29, 1975, amid pandemonium all around them. But a more poignant and shameful debacle had taken place in Phnom Penh three weeks before that.

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In early April, the US, having instigated General Lon Nol in March 1970 to oust Prince Norodom Sihanouk in a coup, decided five years later to abandon Cambodia to the Khmer Rouge forces closing in on the capital, a “bug-out” as then US Secretary of State Henry Kissinger called it.

 

Then US Ambassador to Cambodia John Gunther Dean had earlier pleaded with his superiors in Washington not to do so but to no avail. He and all Americans were ordered to evacuate on April 12, which he later described as one of the most tragic days in his life, the day “the US abandoned Cambodia and handed it to the butchers”.

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Prince Sirik Matak

 

 

“We had accepted responsibility for Cambodia and then walked out without fulfilling our promise,” he said in an interview in Paris years later. “That’s the worst thing a country can do. And I cried because I knew what was going to happen.”

What happened was that after the Khmer Rouge took Phnom Penh, it drove two million of its inhabitants into the countryside at gunpoint. In the end, nearly all of them died from executions, starvation or torture.

But a more stinging indictment of the US action came from Prince Sirik Matak , then Deputy Prime Minister of Cambodia.  Ambassador Dean, out of honour and decency, had offered him a ride on the evacuating convoy and, thereafter, asylum. Prime Minister Lon Nol had already fled to Hawaii.

Prince Sirik Matak replied in writing:

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“Dear Excellency and friend, I thank you very sincerely for your letter and for your offer to transport me towards freedom. I cannot, alas, leave in such a cowardly fashion.

“As for you and in particular for your great country, I never believed for a moment that you would have this sentiment of abandoning a people which has chosen liberty. You have refused us your protection and we can do nothing about it. You leave us and it is my wish that you and your country will find happiness under the sky.

“But mark it well that, if I shall die here on the spot and in my country that I love, it is too bad because we are all born and must die one day. I have only committed the mistake of believing in you, the Americans.”

This reply, reportedly circulated and read shamefacedly in the corridors of power in Washington, has gone into permanent record.  Its author was later captured by Khmer Rouge soldiers and killed – some reports said he was shot in the stomach and left to die over three painful days, while another had it that he was beheaded.

It is highly doubtful Mr Trump read the letter before he ordered the Syrian troop withdrawal.

Or that he would care to.

• Leslie Fong is a former editor of The Straits Times.

 

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on December 28, 2018,  with the headline ‘The perils of trusting America: A reminder for Asian allies’

Good Riddance to 2018


December 23, 2018

Good Riddance to 2018

Those who oppose democracy, the rule of law, and multilateralism have had a good year. But there have also been signs suggesting that those who uphold these principles have not lost the will to fight back.

MADRID – Sadly, 2018 will not be remembered as a year of political and diplomatic success. Though the international order had already begun to erode in 2017, the global political environment became downright chaotic, combustible, and hostile this year. That is no coincidence, as these are perhaps the three adjectives that best describe the United States under President Donald Trump.

Since January 2018, when the Trump administration announced tariffs on imported solar panels and washing machines, the year has been marked by an escalating “trade war,” waged primarily – but not exclusively – by the US against China. The ongoing tariff disputes have seriously undermined the World Trade Organization and deepened mutual distrust in Sino-American relations.

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For its part, China this year eliminated presidential term limits, raising fears that President Xi Jinping’s so-called new era will end the period of collective leadership ushered in by Deng Xiaoping’s reforms, which were themselves a corrective to Mao’s cult of personality. This move could also herald a further deviation from Deng’s trademark foreign-policy restraint.

Similarly, Russian President Vladimir Putin was reelected in March, to no one’s surprise. Under Putin, Russia has been re-emerging as a geopolitical force. And yet, its economy is essentially stagnant, owing in part to its excessive dependence on hydrocarbons. In the absence of growth, Putin has relied on foreign policy to shore up his domestic popularity.

For example, Putin’s campaign press secretary welcomed the British government’s response to the nerve-agent attack on Sergei and Yulia Skripal, because it may have mobilized Putin’s supporters in the run-up to the presidential election. And the Kremlin’s recent decision to blockade Ukrainian ports in the Sea of Azov may also have been designed to boost Putin’s domestic approval rating, among other goals. The danger now is that both the US and Russia will cease to implement the 1987 Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty, posing a new and acute threat to Europe in particular.

 

Meanwhile, the Middle East has continued to serve as a battlefield for some of the world’s most violent conflicts. Though the Islamic State (ISIS) has continued to lose ground, it is far from defeated – contrary to what Trump has claimed – and the death toll in Syria’s civil war continues to climb. Likewise, the humanitarian calamity in Yemen has deepened, though negotiations that ran aground in 2016 have at least resumed and made some progress. In Afghanistan, what is widely regarded as the longest-running war in US history continues, and it is estimated that the Taliban now controls more territory than at any time since their government was overthrown in 2001.

Despite some recent developments in the aforementioned conflicts, the underpinnings of the Trump administration’s general strategy in the Middle East remained intact in 2018. The US has reaffirmed its support for the axis of Israel, Saudi Arabia, and the United Arab Emirates, which it regards as a bulwark against Iran. In May, the Trump administration moved the US embassy in Israel to Jerusalem. That same month, it abandoned the 2015 Iran nuclear deal and announced an abusive re-imposition of extraterritorial sanctions, which reflects the increasing .

Moreover, by siding with the Saudi government over his own intelligence agencies in the of journalist Jamal Khashoggi in October, Trump has made clear that opposing Iran and purchasing US arms is one of the quickest ways to his heart. The result of his broad approach to the Middle East has been to empower military hardliners throughout the region. In fact, Israel and Iran this year engaged in their first-ever direct military encounter.

 

Trump has also contributed, in one way or another, to the advance of populism around the world in 2018. In Latin America, Mexican President Andrés Manuel López Obrador (AMLO) and Brazilian President-elect Jair Bolsonaro have shown that “populism” can encompass diverse ideologies. While both claim to speak for “the people” against “the elites,” the leftist AMLO was elected partly as a rebuke to Trump, whereas Bolsonaro embraces a Trump-like brand of right-wing nationalism, and enjoys the support of many Brazilian elites.

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Trump has also contributed, in one way or another, to the advance of populism around the world in 2018. In Latin America, Mexican President Andrés Manuel López Obrador (AMLO) and Brazilian President-elect Jair Bolsonaro have shown that “populism” can encompass diverse ideologies. While both claim to speak for “the people” against “the elites,” the leftist AMLO was elected partly as a rebuke to Trump, whereas Bolsonaro embraces a Trump-like brand of right-wing nationalism, and enjoys the support of many Brazilian elites.

The Russian philosopher Aleksandr Dugin, often regarded as one of the Kremlin’s main ideologues, argues that “populism should unite right-wing values with socialism, social justice, and anti-capitalism.” This “integral populism,” he believes, is perfectly illustrated by Italy’s current governing coalition, which comprises the anti-establishment Five Star Movement and the nationalist League party.

In October, Italy’s government instigated a conflict with the European Union (which has fortunately subsided) by proposing a budget that defied EU fiscal rules. Italy’s leaders justified their policies in the name of an outdated interpretation of “sovereignty,” one similar to that of the United Kingdom’s Brexiteers, whose haphazardness has left the UK’s future shrouded in uncertainty.

There were a few positive developments in 2018. Certainly, the easing of tensions between the US and North Korea, and the even deeper rapprochement between North and South Korea, should be welcomed. Much credit belongs to South Korean President Moon Jae-in, who used the occasion of the Winter Olympics in Pyeongchang to reach out to North Korean leader Kim Jong-un. Trump’s subsequent turn toward diplomacy – which led to his historic summit with Kim – should also be applauded, though his administration has yet to achieve anything more than symbolic progress toward denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula.

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The result of the US midterm elections was also good news. Democratic control of the House of Representatives means that, from January 2019, there will be more checks on Trump’s policies. And there have been welcome developments in the Republican-controlled Senate, where a recent resolution condemning Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman for the murder of Khashoggi, and another to end US support for the Saudi campaign in Yemen, passed with bipartisan support.

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In Europe, the prospects for 2019 will depend primarily on three factors: Brexit, German Chancellor Angela Merkel and French President Emmanuel Macron’s push for EU reform, and the European Parliament election in May. In each case, one hopes that the supporters of democracy, the rule of law, European integration, and multilateralism will prevail.

Those who oppose these principles have had a rather good year. But they would be mistaken to think that those who uphold them have lost the will – and the ability – to cultivate a spirit of cooperation and harmony.

*Javier Solana was EU High Representative for Foreign and Security Policy, Secretary-General of NATO, and Foreign Minister of Spain. He is currently President of the ESADE Center for Global Economy and Geopolitics, Distinguished Fellow at the Brookings Institution, and a member of the World Economic Forum’s Global Agenda Council on Europe.

 

 

Navigating the new international economic policy landscape


December 22, 2018

Navigating the new international economic policy landscape

by Shiro Armstrong and Peter Drysdale, ANU
http://www.eastasiaforum.org/2018/12/19/navigating-the-new-international-economic-policy-landscape/

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The United States under President Donald Trump is on a mission to add economic policy to the armoury of national security policy to deal with a rising China. The approach holds the global economic order hostage to the attempt to put China back in its box. The stakes are as high as they get. But how should middle powers like Australia and its neighbours like Japan or Indonesia respond to the hard choices they now confront?

Using economic instruments for geopolitical objectives is nothing new. Between the two world wars the practice ended in wholesale military conflict. But the US inspired post war rules-based international regime extended US political influence through the spread of open markets at the same time as it constrained the use of trade sanctions for political security objectives (although not completely as United Nations-based economic sanctions became a feature of the geopolitical action).

‘Geoeconomics’ — conventionally defined as the use of restrictions on international commercial transactions to achieve political objectives — is now being touted as a new force in international and security relations that should be brought into active play.

Without understanding the economic implications of international economic policies, alongside their political and security implications, however, the ill-considered use of economic policy for geopolitical objectives will produce misguided policies that damage both economic and national security.

That’s exactly what the United States is doing with tariffs on Chinese imports, increased barriers to investment and bilateral economic coercion in the name of national security. China is the main target but other countries, the WTO system and multilateral institutions are also under threat. These policies will make the United States poorer and weaker, and damage its status as a global leader. If other countries follow suit, they will make themselves and the world poorer, weaker, and less secure.

How should a country like Australia navigate a world in which its primary security ally and its largest economic partner are descending into destructive rivalry while still themselves being deeply economically integrated?

For some, the answer is to follow the United States further down this track and reframe foreign policy in security terms. In this conception, the only option is total alignment with US decoupling strategy, and every economic exposure to China is cast as an all-or-nothing risk to national security. No understanding of the economic costs or the security options enters this calculus. Nor are third countries assumed to be an effective object of policy engagement on an alternative, multilateral course with or without the United States.

For others, the answer is to add a geoeconomic approach to foreign policy. That might sound like a good idea but what exactly does that entail?

The intellectual origins of ideas about geoeconomics are twofold. The first is simply about the analysis of spatial, temporal, and political aspects of economies and resources. The second is a branch of geopolitics that interrogates international politics, security and economics and commonly insists that the same logic that underlies military conflict also applies to international commerce. The first idea is of interest, though marginal, to the big issues today. The second is the way of thinking about international commerce, that prominently undergirds that of Peter Narravo, US President Trump’s trade advisor, as an instrument of warfare. That idea has been hijacked by those focussed on security issues, absent hard economic calculation and comprehensive consideration of economic as well as political security that is ostensibly its purpose. Especially for small and middle powers such as Australia it’s a strategy that will sap both economic strength and national security.

The securitisation of all national interests reduces the policy space and instruments that can be deployed to enhance both economic and national security. Soundly framed international economic policies are central to reducing the costs of broader economic and political engagement, both in dollar and in policy terms.

Economic policy and engagement reinforce and habituate a rules-based international order and, significantly, they create a bigger, broader plurality of interests in countries that reduces the costs of national security.

If geoeconomics is the answer, it had better be informed by the agencies of hard economic analysis, not left to the agencies of diplomacy or security, else it too will be a security strategy bereft of judgment about national economic interest.

Take the large economic relationship that Australia has with China. A third of Australia’s exports go to China, led by education, natural resources and tourism. No economist would sensibly advocate deliberately reducing trade dependence on China, even if they consistently argue for broadening Australia’s range of economic relationships. Many in the political and security community do. It may be doable, but the question is at what cost and whether there are better options?

It’s not a matter of just the profits of businesses at the high end of town but people’s livelihoods that are put at risk. If Australia made the choice to cut back dependence on China, it would be withdrawing from trade with the world’s largest trading nation, a country that’s playing by rules to which we’ve all agreed. We certainly need more rules in some areas. But only Mr Navarro (and perhaps Mr Trump) would suggest that that’s a reason for tearing down the rules we have and that have worked quite well.

The right strategy is to manage economic interdependence within the multilateral trade regime and continue to build rules and markets that reinforce the global plurality of interests on which security within the global economic system is more soundly built. That system protects Australia effectively. It’s Australia’s primary national economic and security priority. It would be most unwise to acquiesce in tearing it down.

Shiro Armstrong is Director of the Australia-Japan Research Centre and Director of the Asian Bureau of Economic Research, The Australian National University.

Peter Drysdale is Professor of Economics and head of the Asian Bureau of Economic Research, The Australian ,The Australian National University.

Are we at ‘peak America’?


December 5,2018

Are we at ‘peak America’?

by Dr. Fareed Zakaria

https://fareedzakaria.com/columns/2018/11/29/are-we-at-peak-america

The Group of 20 summit in Argentina is taking place at a moment when the United States still stands at the center of the world. The U.S. economy is booming, the dollar is almighty, American technology companies continue to dominate the new digital economy, and the U.S. military remains the unrivaled master of land, sky and sea. But there are forces, both short-term and long-term, that are working to erode this hegemony.

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As Morgan Stanley’s Ruchir Sharma has pointed out, the global economy looks as if it’s at “peak America.” U.S. stocks have outperformed the rest of the world this decade, and that sort of trend rarely lasts. The current recovery is now the second-longest in history, and it is due for a downturn. Interest rates are rising, corporate profit growth is slowing, and budget deficits are surging. Even President Trump seems aware of the likelihood of a dip, which is why he has been preparing the ground for it, blaming the Federal Reserve for raising interest rates.

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But there are broader structural realities at work as well. While the United States continues to outperform other advanced economies, the “rise of the rest” also continues, with China, the world’s second-largest economy, growing at three times the pace of the United States. A quarter-century ago, China accounted for less than 2 percent of the global economy. Today, it is 15 percent and rising. China boasts nine of the world’s 20 most valuable tech companies.

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This economic reality is having a geopolitical effect. China is the largest trading partner of major economies in Latin America, Africa and Asia. That gives it clout. Its “Belt and Road Initiative” is designed to extend Beijing’s influence across Asia and beyond, creating not just a market but also a string of allies and dependencies. It has expanded its control over the South China Sea in ways that neither the Obama administration nor the Trump administration has been able to block or counter.

Anywhere one goes in the world these days, leaders talk about the United States’ retreat from the world stage. They note that it began before Trump. Most date it to the aftermath of the Iraq War, spanning the administrations of George W. Bush, Barack Obama and now Trump. And while the Trump administration is bellicose in its policies, especially on trade, they are all in service of a Fortress America mentality that seeks less engagement with the world, politically and economically.

Foreign leaders also note that the United States is likely to be increasingly constrained by its mounting budget woes. The Financial Times’s Gillian Tett points out that the U.S. government now spends $1.4 billion a day on its debt, 10 times more than the next major industrialized country does. As interest rates rise and more Americans reach the age of collecting Social Security and Medicare, the federal government will be unable to fund much else. Ezra Klein has quipped that the American government is “an insurance conglomerate protected by a large, standing army,” and that is becoming truer every day.

American retreat will not produce a better world. It will be messier and uglier. To get a glimpse of it, look at the Middle East today. As the United States has withdrawn from its traditional role as the region’s power-broker — maintaining relations with all sides and striving to achieve some degree of stability — Iran, Turkey and Saudi Arabia are all jockeying for influence. The United States has simply subcontracted its policy to Riyadh, encouraging the Saudis’ reckless behavior and resulting in the world’s gravest humanitarian crisis, the war in Yemen, where 12 million people are on the verge of famine.

At a time when these forces of entropy are intensifying, when the United States does face real constraints on what it can do internationally, the wisest strategy would be to bolster the international institutions and norms that the United States built after World War II, both to maintain some degree of stability and order and to preserve and extend American interests and values. The smartest path to constraining China comes not from a head-on policy of containment but rather from a subtle one that forces Beijing to remain enmeshed and interdependent with the international community. China recognizes this and tries hard to free itself from multilateral groups, preferring to deal one-on-one with countries where it will always tower over its negotiating partner.

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And yet, nothing animates the Trump administration more than its opposition to multilateralism of any kind. And so, as the world gets more chaotic, the forces that could provide order are being eroded. And as is so often the case, China simply watches quietly and pockets the gains.

(c) 2018, Washington Post Writers Group

Washington  Post