On June 1, President Donald Trump announced America’s withdrawal from the Paris Agreement on Climate Change. The decision was announced a few days after Trump returned from G7 summit where Trump unveiled Article-5 and lambasted NATO members for not ‘paying their bills’. These developments are not isolated instances but represent a pattern which has culminated into Trump’s outright isolationist agenda.
The first half of the twentieth century was marked by some of the most tragic upheavals in modern human history: the two World Wars, the Great Depression, rise of fascism, and genocide. It was the consequence of inaction by Western powers who hunkered down in the face of geopolitical and economic crisis, looking inward and passing the buck, each one hoping that it would somehow escape the trouble. But, when it happened, the catastrophe swept over them with full force regardless.
A postwar international order was born out of this intuitive realisation by the United States that how much catastrophic the collapse of a stable world order could be. This liberal international order consisted of a wide array of global multilateral institutions in which the United States played a pivotal role in providing public goods such as freedom of the seas and freer trade. The United States, as the single most powerful country to have ever existed in human history, embedded itself at the heart of this global web of security alliances, leading multilateral institutions such as United Nations and Bretton Woods institutions, and nurturing predominantly beneficial concepts like democracy, open trade, human rights, and the rule of law. When the war-torn countries proved too weak to fend for themselves, the American leadership engaged itself in making open-ended alliances, provided substantial economic aid to other countries, and deployed U.S. military forces around all continents of the globe. The U.S. provided United Kingdom with a major loan in 1946, supported pro-Western regimes in Turkey and Greece in 1947 as part of Truman Doctrine, played crucial role in post-war economic reconstruction of Europe with Marshall Plan in 1948, set up NATO in 1949, provided South Korea with military assistance to protect it from invasion in 1950, and signed a security treaty in 1960 with Japan.
These efforts were based on a set of fundamental intellectual principles that became the cornerstone of U.S. foreign policy for generations: it is better to confront aggressors early, before they transform into existential threat to global peace; that it is easier to maintain stable international order now than to restore it after it has been destroyed; that it is preferable to make small sacrifices now than to make great sacrifices later; that international rules and global stability are not self-sustaining but require proactive and consistent support by those countries who seek to perpetuate them. Most importantly, there was realization that the United States — as the strongest nation in the world and the sole country capable of shouldering this burden — would have ultimate responsibility for maintaining this congenial global order.
The result was a flawed masterpiece – the Pax Americana – a rule-based international system backed by the extraordinary American power which was never perfect, but one in which aggression was contained and reached its record low in human history, economic growth reached its dizzying heights, a great-power piece was established that has led to over seven decades of progress.
This system both bolstered the global order and contained Soviet influence. As the American diplomat George Kennan and other important figures noted, there were five key areas with enormous industrial productivity and power in the postwar era: the United States, continental Europe, the Soviet Union, the United Kingdom, and Northeast Asia. To prevent a third world war and protect the global order, Washington opted the policy of isolating the Soviet Union while binding itself tightly to the other three. Consequently, the U.S. troops have remained stationed in Asia, Europe and elsewhere to this day. And within this whole framework, global interdependence grew exponentially.
The mythology that has come to surround this order can be exaggerated and overrated. Washington may have generally displayed preference for pluralism, openness and democracy, but it has often ended up supporting dictators and even undertook cynical self-serving steps along the way. By and large, however, the postwar liberal order has been so successful that even the American policymakers have started to take it for granted. This amnesia has been growing for sometime and it ushered most profoundly in President Donald Trump’s isolationist policies. America’s global leadership and support for an engaged international order have also been undermined due to dismaying track record of recent U.S. military adventurism, particularly in Afghanistan and Iraq. Political fragmentation within the U.S. political power structure has also undermined its ability to command global leadership effectively. For instance, the U.S. Senate has not been able to ratify the United Nation’s Law of the Sea Convention, even though Washington is depending upon this treaty to protect the freedom of navigation against Chinese provocations in the South China Sea. Congress has repeatedly failed to fulfill the inexpensive U.S. commitment to assist the reallocation of IMF quotas from Europe to China. Congress has undertaken legislation that violates the principle of sovereign immunity. And failure to put a substantial price on carbon emissions has made it harder for the United States to lead a global struggle to combat climate change. In his first foreign trip, when Donald Trump pressed NATO member states to ‘pay their bills’ and failed to appreciate the Article-5, it represented a paradigm shift in favour of an isolationist foreign policy. The withdrawal of the United States from Paris Climate Agreement was perceived across the globe as America’s resignation from the guarantor of the postwar international order that it has nurtured for more than seven decades.
This development has occurred at a time precisely when the international arena is once again becoming more threatening. In Eastern Europe and East Asia, revisionist autocratic powers are coercing their neighboring states and weakening the international order. Chinese policymakers are undertaking their ambitious plan for creating a Sino-centric Asia, and Russian power elite is pushing to move towards a “post-West” global order. It is highly unlikely that either of these transitions can happen without immense use of violence and coercion. In the Middle East, Iran is reasserting itself to become a regional hegemon, the Levant dictator Bashar al-Assad is leading a slow-motion genocide against his own people, and the ISIS and other Islamist organisations continue to wreak havoc by operating in a much more decentralised fashion as their concentrated military fortunes decline. In East Asia, North Korea is speeding up its nuclear and missile systems in defiance of international laws, posing an existential threat not only to its neighbors but to the whole international community as well. And across different regions, the rules that have come to underpin the global order in the wake of the Cold War are being increasingly threatened and transgressed. Most importantly, the laws of the seas have been challenged as freedom of navigation in world’s strategic waterways are being tested acutely today more than any time in recent decades.
John F. Kennedy confidently asserted in 1961 that Americans were willing to “pay any price, bear any burden, meet any hardship, support any friend, oppose any foe” in order to maintain the liberal world order. That willingness has now gone down the drain.
We are now officially witnessing the demise of the U.S. as the leader of the free world; just how much of a disaster it would be remains to be seen.