Is Trump leading the US down a dark path?

Source:  Tribune Published in US on Monday, October 16, 2017

Former US vice-president Joe Biden has described the Trump administration’s foreign policy as being in disarray with “ideological incoherence, confusing messaging, and unwillingness or inability to solve problems.” He fears the US is “walking down a very dark path” which can isolate America from the rest of the international community. Such criticism against President Trump does not come only from the Democrats but Republicans also are sharing their views on his leadership skills and his lack of understanding of vital national interests.

In Trump’s latest spat with Republican Senator Bob Corker, the head of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, Senator Corker made no effort to hide his views on the president’s leadership skills, suggesting that President Trump could lead the US to World War III. According to The Washington Post, “President Trump’s often-controversial foreign policy pronouncements, which have generated criticism abroad, have produced sharp divisions within the Republican coalition.”

The lack of understanding of complex diplomatic challenges has been demonstrated repeatedly by the Trump administration, however, the confrontational mode of Trump towards handling foreign policy issues has accelerated its pace recently, particularly in Asia. The latest policy statements on the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC), moving towards scrapping the Iran nuclear deal, the new Afghan strategy, and the escalated tensions with North Korea have generated a strong criticism from both in and outside the administration as well as the Republican Party.

And if the US does not want to go down the path of diplomatic isolation and wants to retain its space, it needs to have a deeper understanding of the rapidly changing political environment in the region. This will not only be beneficial for the US but also for the countries it wants to be involved with.

Understanding the political milieu in Asia

“Asia’s balance of influence is shifting on all fronts — economically, militarily, technologically, diplomatically, politically and the pace of change is accelerating.”

In Asia, reside Russia, China and Iran, the countries that have been described as revisionist powers in the return of geopolitics discourse. It is argued that the world looks less post-historical today as Russia, China, and Iran relegate the political settlement of the Cold War and seek to revise the status quo. They certainly are not full scale revisionist powers as none can provide the kind of “systematic and global opposition that the Soviet Union did,” yet, they have a lot of potential to wield their agendas. The strategic rivalry between the rising powers and a status-quo power is often demonstrated both on global and regional levels.

Russia’s aspirations for re-establishing its global status has led it to reengage itself in various regions. China’s economic success interests are more closely tied to trade and energy, with the One Belt, One Road (OBOR) as a perfect tool for China to push its influence. Iran continues to flex its muscles in the Middle East and stands in undeterred defiance of the US. Lastly, North Korea routinely challenges the credibility of the US’s security interests. Asia is also home to two nuclear rivals, Pakistan and India. Pakistan’s unique geo-strategic location at the crossroads of various sub-regions of the Asian continent makes it one of the most important regional players. India, on the other hand, aspires to compete with China for a bigger role in the region. Certainly, the political milieu in Asia is more complex than it appears.

Tread softly in the heartland of rising powers

Instead of working with caution and diplomacy, the current administration has outlined a hardline stance towards the rising powers and has launched new strategies and policies that have upset former US allies and partners.

The tensions between Russia and the US have been growing in recent years over deep disagreements about Ukraine, Syria, and the Russian hacking of the 2016 American elections were crystallised with the US Congressional approval of new sanctions against Russia which were signed by President Trump in August 2017.

In South Asia, the new Afghan strategy declared Pakistan as a part of the problem in Afghanistan and promoted the role of India, Pakistan’s arch-rival, in Kabul. However, as Secretary of State Rex Tillerson pointed out, Pakistan is and has been a “valued partner” in the past against combating common enemies.

In East Asia, the Trump administration has withdrawn from the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) creating a lot of uncertainty among US allies about the reliability of the US.

Towards the “dark path of geopolitical decline”

Launching abrasive policies in the heartland of the rising powers in a non-diplomatic fashion and not considering the concerns of the stakeholders will likely produce more volatile relations with competitors and potentially between Washington and its allies that could lead to a geopolitical decline.

Not working towards having Moscow on board as a constructive player for meaningful cooperation in the areas of common interests and on specific issues like Ukraine, Syria, and elsewhere has restricted America on various fronts and calls for caution. For example, Russia’s eight vetos in the UN Security Council regarding Syria and the statement that it will “respond to anyone, including America, if it attacks Syria and crosses the red lines.” Considering the capability of Russia, the tension in relations has already shown repercussions as Russia is achieving its foreign policy objectives not only in Asia but also in Europe and the Middle East.

China’s economic initiatives appear to be a diplomatic victory for Beijing and a diplomatic setback for Washington. It is argued by some Western scholars that China’s positive reputation is mainly based on its economic success.

Scrapping the nuclear deal with Iran has the potential to become a sharp point of contention between the Trump administration and its Western European allies.

In South Asia, undermining Pakistan’s role will only minimise the chances of success for the new Afghan strategy. If the shift in the US policy is to have troops in landlocked Afghanistan, it needs Pakistan’s logistical support in order to be successful; and for sustaining those gains, greater cooperation with Pakistan would be required.

In East Asia, withdrawal from the TPP will help China fill the economic vacuum as America looks inward. The idea behind TPP was to increase American influence in Asia and in the world by reassuring allies and rivals that the United States is a multi-dimensional resident power. However, the Trump administration did not let the agreement materialise.

Coming to terms with a rising yet fragmented Asia will require sustained multipronged strategies involving the perspectives of economics, trade and investment, diplomacy, and security. It is time for the Trump administration, or specifically President Trump to have second thoughts about “America First” and lean more towards cooperation in the international arena.

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Written by Naseem Rizvi