The Powerlessness of the Most Powerful

23 october 2018

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.

Resume: The president of the leading global power has made it clear that he has no interest in getting involved in resolving any of the world’s shared problems, dressing up his foreign policy as one of "principled realism." But there is nothing principled or realistic about it.

The annual General Debate of the United Nations General Assembly is one of the most notable events on the international diplomatic calendar. As usual, this year’s meeting, during the last week of September, brought together a long list of world leaders, although perhaps the term “world leader” should no longer be used so lightly. The president of the leading global power has made it clear that he has no interest in getting involved in resolving any of the world’s shared problems. Unfortunately, he is not alone.

For those of us who put our faith in international cooperation as a necessary complement to economic globalization, the General Assembly debate revealed a bleak panorama. Certain leaders’ short-term interests, often presented as “national interests,” are one of the factors roiling international relations more than any time since the end of the Cold War. But the rise of nationalist populism is less the cause than the result of rifts that have been forming for some time.

As with any economic process, globalization has a distributive dimension, which means that it is bound to generate frustration for some groups of people. The center of the Western political spectrum has tended to underestimate the impact of rising inequality within countries, focusing instead on the benefits of market opening and integration, such as the unprecedentedly rapid reduction in global poverty. Understandably, however, not everyone is consoled by such outcomes.

It is not only goods, services, and capital that circulate through the global economy. Ideas circulate, too. So globalization, like democracy, is vulnerable to itself, because it puts at its opponents’ disposal a set of tools that they can use to sabotage it. Aware of this, the “nationalist international” driven by US President Donald Trump and his ideological fellow travelers has mobilized anxiety and alienation to launch a (somewhat paradoxical) crusade to globalize their particular anti-globalization discourse.

Addressing the UN General Assembly, Trump stated openly that, “We reject the ideology of globalism, and we embrace the doctrine of patriotism.” He lavished praise on other states, such as Poland, that follow his example. Should Brazilians elect the far-right presidential candidate Jair Bolsonaro, they will join the wave of national populism threatening to raze the world’s multilateral institutions.

Yet globalism and patriotism are not incompatible concepts. Trump’s invocation of patriotism has no aim other than to whitewash his nationalist and nativist tendencies. Rhetorical traps of this type can catch us with our guard down, above all when the person who resorts to them is a leader who is known for serving his ideas raw. But it is evident that the Trump administration, too, worries about keeping up appearances.

There are many other examples. At the UN, Trump sought to give his foreign policy a patina of coherence by calling it “principled realism.” In international relations, realism is a theory that regards states as the central actors and units of analysis, relegating international institutions and law to an ancillary status. Principles such as human rights are usually set aside, though countries may deploy them selectively to advance their interests.

This is precisely what Trump does when he criticizes the repression of the Iranian regime, while failing to denounce similar practices in other countries. But no self-respecting realist would exaggerate the threat posed by Iran, or allow a flurry of compliments from Kim Jong-un to cloud their vision regarding North Korea.

“America will always choose independence and cooperation over global governance, control, and domination,” Trump told the UN. In theory, cooperation is not incompatible with the realist paradigm. For example, realists could conceive of the US trying to offset China’s geopolitical rise by bolstering its alliances in the Asia-Pacific region, especially with Japan and South Korea.

But the Trump administration has called into question the security umbrella that it provides for these countries, not even exempting them from its protectionist trade measures (although the recent update of the bilateral agreement with South Korea seems to have calmed the waters). This disconcerting behavior has extended to other traditional US allies, such as the European Union, revealing that Trump is extraordinarily reluctant to cooperate. When he does, he seldom favors the alliances that most fit his country’s strategic interests.

Regarding China, US diplomacy openly uses the term “competition,” despite the friendly relations that Trump claims to maintain with Xi Jinping. The ongoing trade (and technology) war between the two countries, along with the bouts of friction in the South China Sea, seem to presage an uncontrollable spiral of confrontation.

Nonetheless, this scenario (which the realist school might foresee) can be avoided, especially if we shore up the existing structures of multilateral governance, which can help us to manage shifts in the balance of power. It is clear that China does not always adhere to international norms, but the right response is to uphold these norms, not to bulldoze them. Unfortunately, the US is opting for the latter course in many areas, such as commercial relations.

In his General Assembly speech, China’s foreign minister, Wang Yi, did not stress the realpolitik that his country often promotes; instead, he mentioned the concept of “win-win” no less than five times. If Trump – together with the rest of the nationalist international – continues to reject this notion of mutual benefits, he will likely manage to slow down not only China’s growth, but also that of the US.

Even more alarming, spurning multilateral cooperation means dooming the world to resignation in the face of existential issues such as climate change, a negligent stance that the Trump administration has adopted with relish. America’s abdication of leadership under Trump raises an obvious question: What good is it to be the world’s dominant power if, in the face of the greatest global challenges, its government chooses to condemn itself to powerlessness?

Project Syndicate

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