People around the world,
including Americans, have argued that the world can get along without US leadership.
Today, they may want to scan the global landscape. While acute crises and
violent conflict may not seem imminent at the moment, the view isn’t a hopeful
one. For Americans, naively content in their island bubble between the two
great oceans, the view may not be so worrisome yet. For those outside its
shores, it may be less comforting.
Japan and South Korea, two of America’s most important allies in Asia, are at the point of a diplomatic breakup. Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe recently imposed what amounts to trade sanctions on a variety of products made by its Asian ally in retaliation for a decision by South Korean President Moon Jae-in.
The two countries’ dispute
stems from a decades-long inability to resolve outstanding issues related to
Japan’s colonization of Korea from 1910 to 1945 and effective enslavement of
Koreans as laborers and sex workers. Since 1965, various attempts have been
made to resolve these disputes, the most recent in 2015. It was President
Moon’s decision last November to step back from one of the provisions of that
most recent attempt that has led to the current standoff.
Mutual trade tariffs — the
apparent go-to response in international disputes nowadays following the
precedent of the US president’s preferred response — export and import quotas,
visa restrictions and now threats of withdrawal from critical
intelligence-sharing agreements have made this a potential crisis. Japan and
South Korea are the second and fourth biggest economies in Asia and the
continent’s most stalwart democracies. This isn’t supposed to happen between
democracies. The dispute could threaten the global supply chain and even
undermine efforts to bring North Korea’s nuclear weapons program to heel. The
stakes are high.
Meanwhile, Washington, for whom the two nations represent pillars of its Indo-Pacific policy, seems to respond with a shrug of the shoulders. President Donald Trump, demurring from US involvement, asserted such a diplomatic undertaking was “like a full-time job.” Statements from the State Department have amounted to little more than parental “Play nice, you two!” admonitions.
Old Wounds, New Battles
Elsewhere in Asia, India and Pakistan have renewed their recurrent hostilities. Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi revoked Article 370 of the constitution, which dated back to 1949 and gave Jammu and Kashmir its special status; now it will be treated as a nominal political and administrative entity of India. Pakistan responded with trade sanctions — again we see it — and the expulsion of India’s ambassador to Islamabad. India has deployed troops to the region to maintain order.
The two South Asian
behemoths have been in almost perpetual feuding mode since their independence
in 1947, including wars in 1948, 1965, 1971, 1985 and 1999. Lesser skirmishes
between Pakistani and Indian forces have occurred more frequently. While war
appears unlikely at this juncture — the risk of escalation between the two
nuclear-armed nations makes open conflict always a dangerous proposition — the
unsettled nature of the Kashmir region and heightened nature of tensions render
crystal ball reading hardly more than a coin toss.
The presence of Islamic
militant organizations in the Pakistan-controlled areas further complicates the
standoff. Though influenced by Islamabad, these groups operate according to
their own ideological playbook, and attacking Indians or Indian forces in the
area has been a pattern. How India might respond in today’s stressed
circumstances is uncertain.
Washington may have oafishly and ineptly exacerbated this latest round of tensions. During a visit last month by Pakistan’s prime minister, Imran Khan, to Washington and a meeting with President Trump, the latter maladroitly offered to serve as mediator in the two countries’ dispute. While such mediation might be welcome in Islamabad, that is most definitely not, nor has ever been, the case in New Delhi.
intervention is unlikely to be the cause of this latest fall-out. But it
shouldn’t be discounted. Aside from anodyne press statements from the State
Department about respecting the rights of the residents of the region and
peaceful settlement of differences, there’s little sign that the White House
has any intention of acting on the president’s offer to Prime Minister Kahn or taking
any other action to calm hostilities.
The US maintains a delicate
relationship with both nations. Pakistan is critical to Washington’s efforts to
negotiate a successful understanding with the Taliban on Afghanistan’s future
and end America’s 18-year long war there, something desperately wanted by Trump
and most Americans. India, over the last two decades, has emerged from behind
the self-imposed isolation of strict neutrality, largely a result of its close
ties with the former Soviet Union, and established itself as a rising global
power, though not yet on par with China.
It is the world’s largest
democracy, and Washington has been working patiently to strengthen its ties
with the region’s dominant power as an Asian counterbalance to China. Renewed tensions
between these two countries are patently not in Washington’s or anyone’s
interest. No good whatsoever can come of it.
This brings us even closer
to American interests, the pending UK exit from the EU, aka Brexit. The UK’s
new prime minister, Boris Johnston, has all but promised his nation’s departure
from the world’s largest trading bloc by the EU-mandated date of October 31,
with or without an agreement. The so-called hard or no-deal Brexit would likely
lead to considerable economic disruption in Britain and potentially exhume
haunting animosities in Northern Ireland. Beyond that, predictions are hard to
come by, though largely pessimistic.
Dating back to his stump speeches as a candidate, Donald Trump has all but abetted Brexit. More recently, in voicing his support for Johnson, Trump has doubled down on Britain leaving the EU. While he’s also promised to quickly negotiate a bilateral trade agreement with Britain once it does leave, such a deal would do little for the US and would hardly replace the enormity of trade and other business Britain currently does with the EU. Furthermore, little assessment has been made of the impact of the British departure from the EU, currently America’s largest trading partner in the world. A weakened EU, most of whose members are also members of America’s most important strategic alliance, NATO, is patently not in US interests.
Problems elsewhere in the
world garner less attention but still present concerns to the regions in which
they occur and to America’s wide-ranging interests. In Hong Kong, Algeria,
Sudan and Russia citizens are rising up to challenge the established ruling
order, i.e., dictatorships. In Algeria and Sudan, outsiders — unsurprisingly authoritarian
regimes themselves — are supporting the entrenched ruling class, usually the
armed forces leaderships and compromised political and business elites. These
include Saudi Arabia, the UAE, Egypt and Russia.
Though still lacking in
effective political organization, this rise of the people to challenge the
status quo and demand rule of law, accountability, respect for human rights and
fair elections is another demonstration of the universal yearning for democracy
The US, a champion of democracy
throughout most of the postwar period under successive Democratic and
Republican administrations, has been largely quiet. Neither the White House nor
the State Department has seen fit to lend even a modest word of encouragement
to those risking lives to call some of the world’s most autocratic regimes to
A Loss of Moral Leadership
Taken alone or even
collectively, these challenges to global stability might have been taken in
stride by a pre-Trump US foreign policy leadership. Presidents Ronald Reagan, George
Bush, Bill Clinton, George W. Bush and even Barack Obama would have made phone
calls to counterparts of friends and allies and dispatched able secretaries of state
such as George Schultz, Jim Baker, Warren Christopher, Condoleezza Rice or John
Kerry and their teams of seasoned experts to help mend such difficulties.
But America under Trump, no longer the steward of global stability, is busy stirring its own pot of poisonous potions. An escalating trade dispute with the world’s second largest economy, China, threatens the global economy. Neither side seems prepared to search for serious options as both drive furiously toward a head-on collision. President Trump, when not upping tariffs, pours rhetorical gasoline on the simmering feud, foolishly believing that trade wars are “winnable.”
In Iran, the US administration appears to be succeeding in bringing the economy of that nation to its knees but with no apparent plan to actually bring the Islamic Republic around to a new agreement that would fix the shortcomings of the earlier nuclear accord negotiated under Obama and broken by Trump.
Even at home, stability and
predictability are two words never used to describe this president’s domestic
programs. His overwrought policies on immigration and the border with Mexico,
strained relations with both Mexico and Canada on trade, and venomous and
inflammatory rhetoric on race have left many Americans with knots in their
stomachs. Donald Trump’s leadership “philosophy” is a tragic departure from
that of previous occupants of the office. Franklin Roosevelt once described it as “not merely an
administrative office… [but] pre-eminently a place of moral leadership.”
Under Trump, it’s become an office to divide, debase, degrade, distract and
disgorge bilious bombast.
The US Senate, once known
as the world’s “greatest deliberative body” and historically the legislative
body more engaged in US foreign policy, has passively submitted to heretofore
unthinkable positions and pronouncements of the president. In today’s
Republican-controlled Senate, deliberation has degenerated into scandalous
deference. The Republican majority has thwarted rational legislation on guns,
passively ignored the brutal treatment of Central Americans fleeing their
countries for the US through Mexico, refused to take up legislation to tighten
America’s electoral process against foreign intervention before the 2020
election, and discounted serious and potentially impeachable actions by the
president, to name but a few of the many serious issues unaddressed.
Is There an Adult
in the House?
Since World War II,
Americans and most people around the world took solace in the fact that US leadership,
though far from immune from problem-making, could walk the always tough course
of its own domestic policy and still chew the sticky and often distasteful gum
of international diplomacy. It would work with its many allies and friends
around the world to diffuse crises, head off conflicts and sooth edgy nerves of
nations and their leaders.
Donald Trump asserted during his many campaign speeches and in subsequent statements as president that the world had taken advantage of the US and that it had become a global chump. It was settling fights while having its own lunch money taken away. Many around the world, while not necessarily agreeing with this warped assessment, nevertheless concluded similarly. American leadership has become an anachronism, its clumsy and ineffective military forays contributing to rather than alleviating the world’s instability. It has become irrelevant in a multipolar world where America’s is just another voice.
What President Trump and
like-minded Americans, as well as others around the world, have forgotten,
however, is the unique ability of the United States to convene. That is, its
capacity to bring nations together to address global and even regional problems
and ultimately to head off conflict. To be sure, the American record is less
than perfect, as history confirms. But the role of convener was ably, if not
Over the course of the last
10-15 years, that distinctive ability has been squandered by a needless war in
Iraq, an extended and seemingly never-ending war in Afghanistan, an
all-consuming global war on terror, and an often vacillating and unfocused
foreign policy. Despite his contributions to this development, President Obama
deserves credit for ushering forward the Paris Climate Agreement, the Trans
Pacific Partnership and the Iran nuclear deal, all of which followed in the
tradition of his predecessors of leveraging America’s power and influence for
the good not only of the US but also of nations everywhere. Having abrogated
his predecessor’s achievements, President Trump now appears bent on full-scale
abandonment of America’s historic role as the world’s convener-in-chief.
The present state of affairs may have indeed been inevitable. Nations like China, among as others, have risen in power and influence. The global economy has grown so massive and dynamic that no nation, not even one with the dominance of the US, could truly lead or manage it. But in the absence of America — the mediator, conciliator, convener — are we left with a free-for-all?
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As one surveys the global landscape, there are disturbing signs that affairs in the world are not what we — whether in America, Japan, South Korea, India, Pakistan or Europe — should wish them to be. The devolution of power and action to regional powers with little control ought to be cause for alarm. It leaves the problems and the countries involved therein vulnerable to bad actors, such as terrorists, or the stronger seeking to gain advantage at the weaker one’s expense.
Governments lacking the guard rails of genuine participatory democracy and rule of law ignore, if not abuse, their citizens. Without such brakes, any one of the tensions we now see could escalate in an increasingly interconnected and interdependent world.
Would the world prefer to
see active, principled diplomacy by the US to address such problems? Perhaps
not. There is always the possibility of making things worse. But if not the
United States, then who?
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not
necessarily reflect Fair Observer’s editorial policy.
This article/report/video/photo-feature/infographic was originally published on Fair Observer.