Photo: H. M. G. S. Palihakkara | Credit: Tamil Diplomat - Photo: 2017

The Changing Role of the USA in World Affairs

By H. M. G. S. Palihakkara

HMGS Palihakkara is Sri Lanka’s former Permanent Representative to the UN and a former Foreign Secretary at the Sri Lanka Ministry of Foreign Affairs.

COLOMBO (IDN) – Commentators may have a rich diversity of views about costs and benefits of the American footprint on world affairs. That apart, there is no denying that America remained the major role player in the global scene in its many dimensions – strategic, security, economic, technological and more.

Rightly or wrongly, the American outreach and influence over global affairs has been so complex and overarching, any attempt to define it, let alone analyze and assess it, on a brief time frame, would indeed be a very ambitious enterprise even when conditions are normal in Washington DC. Anyone having TV access will know that conditions are far from normal these days in that powerful Capital. This naturally renders any quick-fire, balanced assessment of the U.S. global role in the current context, an even more complicated proposition.

Whether the anomaly in Washington is only a moment that will pass, or a movement that will sustain itself against the elected President, only time will tell. If it turns out that it is indeed an unprecedented movement against the elected President, precipitating things like 3 million women protesting worldwide, ethics law suits, Intelligence community investigating certain aspects of the President’s campaign affairs, populist issues like the crowd size, alleged voter fraud overtaking policy issues etc, it could have a significant impact on the U.S. global standing and strategy.

Of course the hope is that the force of the United States Constitution and the strength of the American institutions will eventually prevail irrespective of the rise and the fall of any individual.

In this uniquely interesting situation, two things appear to qualify as relatively safe and reasonable observations:

First,the global role of the United States including its foreign and economic policies as well as strategic and security postures are undergoing some serious redefinition both in form and content. Gravitation seems to be towards independence rather than interdependence, bilateralism rather than multilateralism with a pronounced flavor of protectionism, nationalism and even isolationism dictated by what is perceived as the Trump era American interests as distinct from the common interests shared by a larger comity of nations including America.

The Trump characterizations such as some multilateral trade arrangements being ‘ridiculous’ and security alliances such as NATO being ‘obsolete’ signify this approach. These are seen in sharp relief against a rather bewildering and divisive debate on populist and partisan issues like the inauguration crowd size, media bias etc receiving sustained Presidential attention while complex policy issues await attention..

Second, the newly defined role is likely to continue to be disruptive in many ways. The hope however is that as the administration evolves, this will eventually become progressively bipartisan at home and constructively transformational abroad creating more jobs and value addition in the former and facilitating more cooperation in the latter.

While these ‘formative’ and even disruptive processes are underway in Washington, the rest of the world has not remained static. In fact, the global economic, strategic and geopolitical scene was already marked by significant change and considerable volatility. Obviously, the final shape of the Trump era U.S. role in global affairs will to a large extent be a function of these two change processes – one in Washington that is ongoing and the other in the rest of the world which has already progressed wider and deeper.

Therefore, the U.S. role in Asia in general and in South Asia in particular will and should be assessed, including by taking into account the interaction between these two dynamics. These will profoundly impact the geopolitical, economic, security and strategic dimensions of the U.S. role in the affairs within and between nations in the region and beyond. While we are just beginning to grasp what has begun in Washington a few days ago, we know relatively more about what happened and what portends in the rest of the world.

Looking at the latter, one sees that the Cold War and its aftermath were marked by interesting contrasts as well as parallels. Only history will tell us if the risk of bipolar nuclear conflict of the Cold War was more or less dangerous than the reality of the widespread non-nuclear armed conflict and nuclear proliferation of the post-Cold war period. The latter of course happened and will happen among States as well as non-state actors.

The nuclear aspirant States include rich and poor as well as democratic and undemocratic ones. President Trump has already pronounced on the [DPRK] North Korean nuclear threat. He was emphatic that its next escalation of acquiring an ICBM ‘will not happen’. Irrespective of whether this implies military or diplomatic action or both, it could mark a new and explosive point of departure in the nuclear and security scenario esp. in Asia.

Thirdly, the wanton assault on our finite resources, especially the non-renewables and on our ecological life support system in the name of a ‘good life’ for those who can afford it, has made life untenable and unsustainable for many. A negative or a do little role for the U.S. in climate change prevention/mitigation domain, as hinted in the Trump election campaign could eventually choke any strategy to ‘make America great’ again.

Globalization has swept the world. It has brought about breath-taking progress in many areas for many people. It is nevertheless, alleged to be responsible for marginalizing many vulnerable populations. Candidate Trump rightly pointed out that even in America, significant segments of the population and some sectors of the American economy had become the victims of globalisation.

As President Trump now looks to protectionism and economic nationalism to deliver the campaign promise of more jobs and more value addition in America. When the largest GDP in the world does that, it will naturally resonate beyond its borders. Also elsewhere, economists are already talking about ‘de-globalization’. It was therefore interesting, if not ironic that the President of the socialist China and the Prime Minister of the fiercely sovereign India were stoutly defending globalisation at Davos and at the Delhi Raisina dialogue respectively.

This happened in a short span of time while the supposedly free trading America was announcing a policy that will militate against free trade, free investment flows and multilateral cooperation in the realm of trade and development.

There are also untenable and unsustainable contradictions that have come to the fore challenging the very fundamentals of the so-called liberal West once led by America. Examples include the quest for opening borders for goods and services while closing them for people, especially for those in distress and those discriminated against based on their religion, race or economic deprivation.

Fourthly, in seeking greater good and wellbeing for their peoples, some nations and even continents had integrated into Unions blurring the hitherto sacrosanct attributes of sovereignty and nationhood. Some of these ‘advanced’ Nations now seem to experience countervailing waves of nationalism and even exclusion as was evident in the Brexit affair and the advent of the Trump presidency and its uniquely novel introvert agenda.

Commentators question whether the constructive idea of liberal democracy is ending and a disruptive populism is rising across nations and continents. Strategic power centres, financial prowess and production capacities have shifted from the Atlantic to the Asia-Pacific.

In this complex situation of change and volatility, one constant that stood out has been the rising power of China – another key factor that will define the U.S. role. Former German Foreign Minister Joschka Fischer commenting on the impending ‘Trump era’ laments the ending of what is known as ‘the (trans-Atlantic) West’ led by the United States. He bemoans the probability that China will ‘fill this gap’. It is contended, including by the allies of America like Australia, New Zealand and Japan that the Trump policy of withdrawing from the Trans Pacific Partnership(TPP) and thus undoing the so-called U.S. pivot to Asia will enable China to do exactly what Joshka Fischer feared.

What is interesting is that while President Trump is undoing the American pivot to Asia, President XI of China is massively pivoting to the Americas by facilitating Chinese investments amounting to over $250 billion through a series of recent visits to the central and South American regions.

The cause and effect of this change and volatility is of course the subject of wide ranging debates that are on-going. However, what is beyond debate is the ascendency of what the United States Pacific Commander Admiral Harry Harris called the ‘Indo – Asia –Pacific Region’ in general and the ‘Sino-Indian’ power in particular. He was addressing the recent Galle Dialogue .

The region the Admiral referred to has some remarkable attributes. Its key players – India and China, especially China – will have the lion’s share of the world GDP totalling trillions of dollars; the China initiated RCEPA which could become a virtual alternative to the TPP weakened by the just announced U.S. withdrawal will have about 35% of the world GDP.

The region will also have the largest middle-class the largest purchasing power cum production capacity and possibly the largest capital export potential in the world. Henry Kissinger’s words several decades ago- long before Joschka Fischer’s pronouncement- were therefore not surprising. ‘Given a decent system, China with 800 million workers will provide world leadership’ he said.

With Deng Xiaoping inspired reforms, what China has progressively and meticulously built up turns out to be quite a ‘decent system’ indeed. The country now has nearly double the population that Kissinger was talking about. No single country in recent times has alleviated poverty of so many in so short a time as China has.

Given their formidable capacity to produce and consume as well as to create wealth and export goods and services, China and India hold ‘decisive stakes’ in sustainable global growth and development. That of course requires secure and well serviced East-West trade routes including Sea Lines of Communication (SLOCs).

Has Sri Lanka, located as it is at a strategic pivot on this trade route, prudently and optimally exploited the national interest benefits that we can derive from this enormous potential ‘to produce and consume’, especially by these two giant economies? Some analysts have also speculated on ‘Sri Lanka’s quest for strategic prominence in the Indian ocean’ and the possibility of ‘carving out a role for itself (Sri Lanka) among the South Asian Littorals’ .

The challenge for Sri Lankan diplomacy has been and will be to show that we are after commercial/economic benefits and not strategic manipulation and that Sri Lanka will aggressively exploit the full investment and trading potential of the ‘Belt/Road’ initiatives of China for that purpose. In doing so, rather than having demarcated ‘zones for investing powers’, the whole of Sri Lanka can become a venue supporting multinational investment and multilateral cooperation for growth and development, without ruffling geopolitical feathers of anyone, regional or extra regional.

Thus the country will not be the ground zero for a ‘zero sum’ strategic power play that could give rise to the doomsday scenario of the kind conceived in what I would call the latest ‘geo-political flourish’ from the Indian analytics industry. I am of course referring to a new book by a former NSA of India containing a provocative and bloated construction that Sri Lanka is an (hostile?) ‘aircraft carrier parked just fourteen miles off the coast of India’.

The Belt/Road potential can of course be projected and used as an opportunity for everyone and a threat to no one. The initiative straddles such a large economic space and is home to some of the largest economic power houses in the world, it has room for all the key players including the U.S., China and India provided the playing field is levelled through diplomacy based on the force of rule rather than the rule of force. Continuous sabre rattling over the South China Sea is not an auspicious beginning though.

Despite the fact that China and Sri Lanka have deepened and widened their relations building on ‘the everlasting friendship’, to a platform of ‘strategic cooperation’, critics say that the former Government in Sri Lanka had unwisely placed most, if not all of their ‘eggs in the Chinese basket’ entailing serious debt management issues at home and troubling strategic concerns abroad involving India and the U.S.

Not to be outdone, the current Government too got its share of criticism for the ‘clumsy handling’ of relations with China at the outset of its tenure. The new Government appeared too pre-occupied with making ‘course corrections’ to Sri Lanka’s relations with the United States and India that became sour during its predecessor’s tenure. Rightly or otherwise, concerns have emerged that these course corrections had morphed into a firm trajectory Westwards with a locked-rudder.

The Government has since embarked on what appears to be successful diplomatic negotiations to iron out differences with China, especially with regard to two key projects – the Port City and Hambantota. But residual irritants continue to linger and the usual partisan politics add to the Government’s woes in developing its Indo-Sino-American posture.

To conclude; it is indeed quite a challenge for a super power with declining influence to keep its ‘traditional’ leadership role in the context of other rising powers and shifting capacities to produce and consume as well as to create and export wealth. The judicious application of a hard power-soft power combination to deter war, prevent and mitigate conflict, build common ground and consensus is the way forward for the leader.

While those who are not equipped to do ‘global police duties’ can hardly offer prescriptions, the conventional wisdom of ‘the world citizen’ brings out some pointers:

The unilateral demolition of existing partnerships will prove costly in the long term; undermining time tested instruments like multilateralism, United Nations, regional organisations etc. will not help global stability and international peace and security.

Admittedly, these may not be the most efficient or effective performers of the international system, but recreation of a similar even less efficient system will be virtually impossible in the current context; denying the obvious will harm America more than others; joining international cooperation to address dangers like climate change and the inequities brought about by globalisation will make America stronger, not weaker.

Erecting walls in America, after celebrating the demolition of walls in Europe will be incongruous indeed; selectively condemning some atrocities while condoning others will not enhance the credibility of any global role-player as events stretching from Sarajevo to Aleppo have clearly shown; withdrawing from international cooperation and wrongly interpreting a narrowly conceived ‘independence’ as a substitute for’ interdependence’ in the realm of interstate trade and development activity has not been a great template; and successful business models are not necessarily successful diplomacy models.

Creating the impression that the ‘deals based approach’ to diplomacy and the rules based ones are mutually exclusive, is counterproductive, especially in the context of the reality that the powers rise and fall and the agreed rules don’t. It is in the interest of the ‘existing Power’ to ensure the integrity of the rules based-system since the ‘rising Power’ may not necessarily abide by a ‘violated regime’.

Building more nuclear weapons and qualitatively refining their kill efficiency as espoused by Trump will provide aggressive marketing for the nuclear weapons’ utility . It will encourage more proliferation and more proliferators. That is certainly not smart leadership in a world of increasing nuclear brinkmanship.

Finally, while being accused of being a hegemon brandishing double standards, the U.S. has also remained a unique global leader on a broad spectrum of things. Those include the U.S. role in wars against tyranny where Americans have made the supreme sacrifice in massive numbers, in norm setting nationally and internationally as signified in land mark documents ranging from its own Constitution to the likes of the Philadelphia Declaration enshrining the rights of the working class and indeed the Universal Declaration of Human rights (UDHR) in which the leading light was Eleanor Roosewlt, in technology and creativity – from the Edison lamp to the Ion engine, and from the model T Ford car to the Orion space craft. These are no mean accomplishments.

Listening to the UN web cast speeches in the Plenary of the UN Gen Assembly in 2013, I was therefore not surprised to hear the 44th President of the United States declaring that “America is exceptional”. It may not necessarily follow that all of the 193 members of the UN including Sri Lanka will reach or even attempt a UNGA consensus on that score!

However only a few will dispute that it would be a great pity if the 45th President of the U.S. were to embark on a course that would make America an ‘exception’ to the ‘exceptionalism’ his immediate predecessor was talking about! [IDN-InDepthNews – 10 February 2017]

Photo: H. M. G. S. Palihakkara | Credit: Tamil Diplomat

IDN is flagship agency of the International Press Syndicate.

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