March 28, 2018
Will Cooperation Redefine the New World Order?
by In Sophal*
Following a string of resignations from the Trump administration, US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson is officially dismissed in March 2018 due to differences between him and President Donald Trump. His dismissal, viewed together with President Trump’s withdrawals from the Trans- Pacific Partnership (TPP) agreement and the Paris Climate Accords, may signal an important development in international relations: the increasing cooperative efforts of the international community.
Trump withdrew the US from the TPP — which would have included the US, Japan, Mexico, Canada, Australia, New Zealand, Vietnam, Peru, Chile, Malaysia, Singapore, and Brunei — on his first day as president. This is the first time the US withdrew from a treaty it promoted, and Trump declared an end to the era of multilateral agreements.
The Paris Climate Accords was entered under the Obama administration and hailed as “a major step” in globally combating climate change. The announcement to withdraw was made on June 1, 2017. The official withdrawal had been submitted but the earliest completion date of the process will be November 4, 2020. Although the US is not officially out of the accords due to the processing time, reactions to Trump’s withdrawal have been negative. The leaders of Japan, Canada, Australia, and South Korea expressed their disappointment, while major carbon emitters such as China and India pledged to continue abiding by the treaty.
Besides these withdrawals, Trump has also stated he would withdraw from the Iran nuclear deal if there were no substantial changes. This announcement was not supported by China and Russia, who also negotiated the treaty. Trump’s decision was not supported by his then-Secretary of State Tillerson either and was probably one of the reasons for his dismissal. In fact, both Tillerson, the EU, and the UN agree that Iran has been fully compliant with the agreement.
These policy shifts show that the US is not only withdrawing from treaties but is also ceding its role as a global leader. In light of these shifts, the international community has also taken action. The most recent actions include the CTPP accord initiated by Japan, and the RCEP initiated by ASEAN.
Following the withdrawal of the US from the TPP, Japan and the other members of the TPP renegotiated the agreement. An amended agreement was finalized in February and a new agreement without the US was signed in March. This amended treaty is the Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement for Trans-Pacific Partnership (CPTPP). The signatories of this treaty have economies equal to 13 percent of the global economy, and they would have represented 40 percent of the global economy if the agreement had included the US.
Concurrently, ASEAN has led negotiations for the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP). Although these negotiations are still ongoing, and there has been doubt about its success, Singapore’s Finance Minister has expressed optimism on its successful conclusion. The RCEP is seen as an alternative to the TPP and is also supported by China. It is part of ASEAN’s policy of looking outward, and if the negotiations conclude successfully, it will demonstrate ASEAN’s ability to fulfill its goal of ASEAN Centrality.
On the other hand, China’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) is operating and receives support from the state, private parties, and foreign investors. The BRI aims to connect different countries and is seen as a geopolitical counterbalance to US influence by China.
The question now is how much faster the world can transition to a world order without a hegemon.
Withdrawing from global leadership with America First Policy
Based on the current actions by the US, and the actions of other nations, it can be seen that the US is effectively withdrawing from its global leadership and is focusing more on its America First policy. This approach has caused allies to question the US’ reliability and has spurred other countries into action. The CPTPP and the international community’s continued commitment to the Paris Climate Accords demonstrate that the transition from a world order completely dominated by the US to another order is already happening and is smoother than thought. Furthermore, the international community is almost united in committing to the climate agreement, with China calling for greater cooperation.
In terms of balance of power, these events are consistent with Hedley Bull’s concept of polarity, in which he predicted that a system becomes more complex as a new center of power arises . As can be seen, the examples of the international community’s commitment to free trade and the environment demonstrates this complexity. Furthermore, it also demonstrates how the number of actors in a system can affect the balance of power . As the international community continues to maintain their commitments to adhering to international treaties and free trade, their actions isolate the US politically.
The Wizard of Oz of American Policy
From a world order perspective, Henry Kissinger correctly noted that the United States is an ambivalent superpower. Regarding Asia, he noted the multiplicity of views of nations such as Japan, and China, and also noted that the US viewed itself as “a city on the hill for all to look,” and stated how America’s foreign policy was based on the US as a model, and a source of conscience . However, the timing of Kissinger’s writing was during the Obama administration, and with Trump as President, the US’ role as a benign power has become questionable. Trump’s America First policy has undermined the US’ credibility as a trade partner.
These events indicate that the Trump administration’s current policies are ironically accelerating and smoothening the transition from a US-dominated unipolar world to a complex multilateral world order. The fact that different nations are able to unite and create agreements demonstrate the existence of a global society united by mutual interests. This global society can act without the guidance of a hegemonic power.
By the end of the Trump administration, the global arrangement will be such that the US will no longer be the sole predominant power. With the current trends, it can be seen that national governments are aware of this transition and are taking actions accordingly. Therefore, what is most important is that formal global institutions should start adapting to this situation in order to make the transition even smoother and decrease the likelihood of major upheavals in the future. This proposition was also raised by Dean, Lee Kuan School of Public Policy and former Singaporean diplomat Kishore Mahbubani (Mahbubani, 2013).
In this context, it can be seen that collective leadership among nations is possible and that the current foreign policy path of the Trump administration has reinforced the collective will to cooperate. Though it may be argued that China and other powers may vie for domination, the development of a complex structure of overarching interests is also very likely.
To sum up, the timing of the dismissal of Rex Tillerson may seem like an isolated issue, but the global context around which this event happened is worth noting. This action shows the unpredictability of US policy, and it raises the question of the reliability of US foreign policy. This marked unpredictability has already been noticed by the global community and has spurred different nations to action in order to protect their interests. What is notable is that these actions are cooperative and rely heavily on trade and diplomacy. They also show the global community’s ability to act without the need for a dominant power to guide them.
Thus, the question now is how much faster the world can transition to a world order without a hegemon. With the decline of US influence, the question of what will happen in a new world order is being discussed by scholars, and what has not received much mention is how fast this transition is going, and how swiftly the vacuum will be filled by other nations.
Kissinger, H. (2014). World Order: Reflections on the Character of Nations and the Course of History. London: Penguin.
Little, R. (2007). The Balance of Power in International Relations: Metaphors, Myths and Models. New York: Cambridge.
Mahbubani, K. (2013). The Great Convergence: Asia, the West, and the Logic of One World. New York: Public Affairs.
Waltz, K. N. (1996). Man, State and War. In M. A. Genest, Conflict and Cooperation: Evolving Theories of International Relations (pp. 11-28). Beijing: Peking University Press.
*In Sophal is Lecturer at the Techo Sen School of Government and International Relations, University of Cambodia, Phnom Penh. He is PhD-candidate in International Relations. He can be contacted through his email: firstname.lastname@example.org