Where is US Foreign Policy Heading? Long-Term Factors and Prospects

18 december 2017

Dmitry Suslov is Director of the Valdai Club program “Globalization and Regionalization: General State of the World Economy and Global Governance.” He is also Deputy Director of the Center for Comprehensive European and International Studies at the National Research University—Higher School of Economics, Moscow, Russia.

Resume: Most foreign policy debates since Donald Trump took over as president a year ago have been dedicated to his unpredictability, inexperience and even his presidential incompetence, or to the strengths of Congress, the establishment and even members of Trump’s administration, who allegedly possess the ability to neutralize his “non-system” impulses.

Most foreign policy debates since Donald Trump took over as president a year ago have been dedicated to his unpredictability, inexperience and even his presidential incompetence, or to the strengths of Congress, the establishment and even members of Trump’s administration, who allegedly possess the ability to neutralize his “non-system” impulses. Notwithstanding the administration’s rough edges, there is no unbiased analysis of US foreign policy trends under Trump or after Trump. Neither are there attempts to see logic or a system in the administration’s moves.

The focus on Trump’s tweets, his infighting with the establishment, the investigation into the alleged Russian interference in the 2016 US election, as well as the attempts by Congress and some administration members to stake claim on real political decision-making can only prevent us from analyzing US foreign policy, both during the period of Trump’s presidency and thereafter, and thus the analysis becomes impossible if not completely unnecessary. In the meantime, US foreign policy does evolve and its evolution will continue after Trump, no matter who arrives to replace him in 2020 or 2024.

To understand what this evolution is all about and make a relatively sound forecast, we should disregard Trump’s and his opponents’ current statements and focus on more fundamental foreign policy factors and their influence on the main traditions of US foreign policy over  the last few decades.

These factors fall into sub-divisions of either external (systemic) or internal factors. The former are about the alignment of forces in the world, the general world geopolitical, economic and ideological landscape, the United States’ relations with other key power centers, their acceptance or non-acceptance of US leadership, the US ability or inability to sustain this leadership, and the state of the US system of military alliances and the liberal economic order so integral to these alliances. The latter factors include the existence or non-existence of an internal US foreign policy consensus, Democratic and Republican party foreign policy agendas plus those of influential groups, the state of the economy, as well as the public’s foreign policy preferences and the extent to which they are recognized by bipartisan elites.

The primary US foreign policy traditions in the last few decades have included commitments to its global superiority and leadership, coupled with a lack of any historical experience of long-term participation in maintaining international order on a level playing field with other countries. This superiority is understood as the undisputed US primacy over all others and the lack of rivals capable of challenging, singly or collectively, this primacy. This leadership embodies the attitude that it is the United States who should be at the center of world political and economic decision-making and that the world order should be based on US-created and US-controlled rules, standards and institutions, as well as on US values, which are understood as universal.

These external and internal factors have been in flux lately, making the successful and stable execution of traditional foreign policy, based on foresight and leadership, impossible.

A mere two decades after the US proclaimed its historic victory and “the end of history,” the world is headed in a direction that is clearly unfavorable for the United States and at odds with its ideological principles. A redistribution of power is under way favoring non-Western centers, which are increasingly averse to US hegemony and are challenging it both in word and in deed -- by positioning themselves as US rivals in Europe, Asia, and the Middle East. The 2008 crisis and the subsequent Great Recession undercut the attractiveness of the US model of capitalism and the conviction that it has no alternative. China and other leading non-Western power centers have emerged as the chief beneficiaries of globalization and the current rules of international trade. The US ideological monopoly has collapsed. The US has shown that it is not only unable to transform the world in accordance with its interests and values and create a world order that hinges on these universal values, but the US has also discovered that it is no longer able to project its agenda or retain the positions it holds. The demand for US leadership in the world is shared by far from everyone. Many countries say openly that they don’t need this leadership and that they regard it as an irritant or even a threat. Even the parties that prop up this demand admit that the US is either unable or unwilling to satisfy their needs. Given the Trump victory and the surge of right wing and left wing populism in many Western countries, the America-centric international order, which was only recently represented as the basis of global order, is itself showing cracks.

It was during the second Bush term and certainly under Obama that America began its difficult and painful adjustment to this new world, one in which the US has never participated as an inalienable part and which falls short of all US perceptions concerning the “right” path of historical development. This was expressed in  efforts to curtail US involvement in regions that the administration regarded as not being of prime importance, avoid new wars, eschew long occupations and nation-building, and focus on the Asia Pacific Region as the primary gravitational center of world economy and politics. However, Obama’s attempts to “renew” American leadership and realign it with new realities have failed despite his reliance on a more cautious multilateral policy, one that emphasized non-military tools, the economic and political consolidation of the US’s main allies in Europe and Asia, establishment of large regional communities, as well as support for the Arab transformations in 2011 and the Ukrainian Euromaidan coup in 2013-2014. The erosion of the US’s standing in the world continues unabated, while challenges presented by its key rivals were increasingly open and resolute.

Moreover, the influence of the abovementioned internal group of factors saw a dramatic change towards the end of the Obama presidency, with a decades-old backlog of political, social and economic contradictions and problems bursting to the surface through thick deposits of politically correct lies. The Trump victory was the result, rather than the beginning, of these problems. It demonstrated the existence of a huge and growing rift between the political and business elites who became immensely enriched by and committed to globalization. Trump’s victory was also the result of the dissatisfaction of a large number of Americans with the status quo and their declining incomes, security and identity. Even the habitual “American way of life” as it came to be understood was under threat from globalization and the US globalist policies.

Many perceived internal economic problems as the biggest threat to national security, even when Obama was still in power and Washington sought to change the rules of international trade in its favor (a case in point is the TPP). But this was carried out without the necessary resolve. The scale of US problems was downplayed for reasons of political correctness. Not to mention it was simply too late. Angered by the consistent deterioration of their standard of living and against a backdrop of the fabulous enrichment of the elites, the people have now come out against globalization and globalism as such and supported Trump’s anti-system claims to the effect that globalization, global leadership, a global military presence and the global dissemination of democracy were weakening the United States rather than vice versa, and hence eroding its security and economic well-being. It is not accidental that the most popular presidential candidates in 2016 were outsiders Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders, who were populists from the right and left, respectively, while the establishment’s candidates, Jeb Bush and Hillary Clinton, were setting anti-popularity records.

The establishment’s defeat commemorated the collapse of a 30-year-old internal political consensus on US foreign policy, in accordance with which the US was to maintain its global primacy and leadership and expand the Washington-oriented international order. This expansion and global involvement were allegedly beneficial both for the United States and the rest of the world. Sharp disagreements on foreign policy between the Democrats and the Republicans, which surfaced in the 1990s and have been growing ever since, were mostly about foreign policy methods rather than its philosophy and therefore failed to affect the established foundation of US global strategy being called into question today. For the first time since 1945, Donald Trump has disconnected and even juxtaposed global leadership (involvement) and greatness (economic prosperity, political respect and military superiority), notions that have been regarded as inseparable over the last 70 years. He openly declared that US global commitments and its national interests are not always one and the same and that the latter should be prioritized, even if it means detriment to the so-called “global good.”

The center of gravity in public sentiment has shifted towards a more egoistic and mercantile foreign and foreign economic policy, which implies renunciation of past commitments that failed to yield perceptible then and there benefits to the US and a shift toward focusing on internal affairs. And the evidence shows that this is a long-term shift.  One of the best US foreign policy experts, Walter Mead, coined it a Jacksonian Revolt: angry and disgruntled people are refusing to put up with policies implemented by the current elites and this is a new long-playing factor in US political life. Over time it will change the priorities and foreign policy platforms of both parties and lead to a new foreign policy consensus that will be distinct from both the 19th - early 20th century isolationism and the late 20th- early 21th  century global leadership and globalism. But this will take time.

So far, however, the US establishment is clinging to the past and desperately trying to either disregard the ongoing changes inside America and the outside world or represent them as unpleasant, if indecisive, anomalies that can and must be reversed. For example, it is often claimed that there is no fundamental realignment of forces, let alone crisis of the America-centric international order in the world and that China, in fact, supports this international order, particularly its economic dimension, and therefore will not challenge the US in earnest. Russia, as it is asserted, is incapable of being anything more than a spoiler and only because the West mistakenly allows it to play this role.  Since Russia’s actions are dictated by its own weakness and uncertainty and are weakening its strategic status, they are ultimately doomed to fail. It is also alleged that Donald Trump’s victory and the upsurge of populist sentiments in the West are the result of meddling by hostile outside forces, primarily Russia, which seeks to destroy the West from within, rather than that of objective internal and external contradictions. As a consequence, the US establishment openly perceives these developments in the United States and elsewhere as a reversible anomaly and seriously hopes to return to a “normal” US foreign policy after Trump is gone.

All the twists and turns of US foreign policy under both Obama and Trump, its contradictory nature, which at times passes both as unpredictability and as continuity, are consequences of these fundamental shifts within the United States and in the outside world. They are part of a forced adjustment to changing circumstances that are in flux despite the wishes of detractors, history and ideology – even as current elites make desperate attempts to slow down this adjustment and preserve their habitual norm of global leadership and primacy.

As 2017 comes to a close, we can conclude that the United States has noticeably weakened the leadership component of its traditional (postwar and post-Cold-War) global strategy as it responds to noted domestic and external changes, occurring in parallel with dramatic domestic political infighting, while remaining committed to its policy of primacy.

The dwindling of this leadership component is expressed in the qualitative enhancement of foreign policy and economic egoism, unilateralism, renunciation of many non-military obligations and the production of “global public benefits,” expansion of US-oriented rules, regimes and institutions, and a policy that the majority of, if not all, conflicts be settled according to the US agenda. Washington has given up on the TPP and TTIP, withdrawn from the Paris Agreement, curtailed its foreign aid policy, relaxed “soft” foreign policy tools as a whole, scaled down its priority to spread democracy, and renounced its regime change policy. Indicatively, these moves were supported by a considerable part, if not the majority, of the Republican elite, who traditionally advocate a more unilateral foreign policy and more resolute promotion of US national interests in its narrowly egoistic interpretation.

At the same time, the primacy component has been strengthened rather than weakened. Under Trump, the US has increased its military spending, preserved and even partially built up its global military presence, retained its global system of alliances, including NATO, and continued or even intensified containment of chief global and regional rivals (Russia, China, Iran, and the DPRK). The perception of US security interests, its friends or foes, has not changed over the year. And this again has the support of the majority of traditional elite. Interestingly Congress has increased US military expenditures by an even greater amount than proposed by the “militaristic” Trump administration (given the number of generals in it).

In fact, while issues related to US leadership are being heatedly debated, there is still a consensus on primacy and it is shared both by the traditional elite and Trump (as well as his inner circle and members of the administration). Both Republicans and Democrats support the US antimissile defense program, modernization of its nuclear potential, preservation of the global system of alliances, as well as the need to retain US military superiority and contain its global and regional rivals. As a result, primacy considerations are beginning to define US international moves that were earlier determined primarily by leadership considerations. For example, it was leadership ambitions (regime change, diffusion of democracy, transformation of regions) that brought the US to Afghanistan, Iraq and Syria. But its continued presence there today is linked to primacy considerations (reluctance to admit defeat, the need to contain Iran, China and Russia, etc.).

After Trump, the US will seek to continue policy of primacy but will also reinvigorate the leader component. The next president, who will initially position himself as “anti-Trump,” will return to multilateral trade agreements and the production of global public benefits. He or she will also enhance the role of “soft” power and boost foreign aid. The ideological aspect of foreign policy will certainly be strengthened as well. The new administration is likely to return to spreading democracy or even to its policy of regime change. Specifically, the political regime in Russia will be again declared the primary cause of problems within the country.

However, this policy will be at odds with the desires of those US citizens who voted against it in 2016 (conventionally speaking, the Trump and Sanders electorate, who will not disappear into thin air) and therefore the next electoral cycle is likely to lead to the victory of another non-system candidate either from the right or from the left. Thus, in the mid-term (two or three presidential cycles), the evolution of US foreign policy can be represented as two horizontal curves, one of which (the policy of primacy) will be more or less straight, while the other (the policy of leadership) will resemble a sinusoid with regular rises and falls.

In the longer term, this picture will not remain static. First, the oscillatory amplitude of the leadership policy curve will contract as both parties inevitably adjust their political platforms under the influence of the abovementioned problems and differences and as a new foreign policy consensus takes shape. Gradually, it will go to naught and become a straight line that will lie much lower than its median in the period from 1945 to 2016. The US policy will be less leadership-oriented and more egoistic, but under no circumstances will it be isolationist in the classical sense.

Second, the primacy component will shrink as well against the backdrop of system-wide transformations in the world, primarily the irreversible emergence of a multipolar world and the United States’ reduced ability to dictate a course of development for the key regions of the world. The US, being unable to stop China’s strengthening in East and Southeast Asia, must accept the more autonomous policies charted by some of its allies (South Korea, the Philippines), and has to put up with the PRC interests de facto. India is willing to flirt with the US on an anti-Chinese basis, but it preserves full independence in its foreign policy and is in no mood to become dependent on America. More likely than not, Washington will have to grant de facto recognition to a nuclear DPRK and, for the first time, establish a relationship of containment with a small state, something that, in turn, is fraught with the weakening of its influence on its allies in the region. In the Middle East, US attempts to reinforce containment of Iran have failed to lead to the same degree of influence on its allies as before Obama. Both Saudi Arabia and Israel welcome Washington’s steps and rhetoric but continue to diversify their ties, including in the area of security, and steer a more independent foreign policy. The same is true of such US allies as Turkey, Egypt and Iraq.

Prospectively, shifts in the external environment will lead to a qualitative change in the nature of the US presence in key regions of the world (if not to US withdrawal) and will reformat the global system of alliances and partnerships. To be sure, this process will proceed at a different speed and dynamics in different regions. It will be the slowest in Europe, where there is the greatest demand for US military presence, which will persist for at least another fifteen or twenty years. But the process will be faster in other regions. On the whole, the policy of primacy will be substantially abridged and modified. Internal factors will also be working toward this. When forced to adapt to their angry electorate and revamp their platforms and find new elites, both parties and their new leadership will not so closely associate America’s prosperity and security with its continued global military presence. New foreign policy solutions will be needed to promote the country’s security and economic development under new circumstances.

Eventually, both curves – leadership and primacy – will merge to form a single line at a lower level and in a new form. Their merger will mean that the US has completed its transition from following a global leadership/hegemony policy to one of being a great power (albeit the strongest of all great powers) in a polycentric world policy. Of course, this transition will be extremely difficult and will possibly require new sacrifices from the US and the world at large. New wars and crises are likely. But the above factors indicate that US foreign policy will arrive at precisely this destination.

Valdai International Discussion Club

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