Daniel Drezner is a professor of international politics at The Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University, and also a nonresident senior fellow at the Project on International Order and Strategy at the Brookings Institution. He self describes as an independent; he left the Republican Party in reaction to Donald Trump but he says he is not a Democrat. He has written a thought-provoking article for Foreign Affairs in which he says, that despite the fact that “It is a truth universally acknowledged that a foreign policy community in possession of great power must be in want of peace of mind. Climate change, the Middle East, terrorism, trade, nonproliferation—there is never a shortage of issues and areas for those who work in international relations to fret about. If you were to flip through the back issues of Foreign Affairs, you would find very few essays proclaiming that policymakers had permanently sorted out a problem. Even after the Cold War ended peacefully, these pages were full of heated debate about civilizations clashing … [and] … It is therefore all too easy to dismiss the current angst over U.S. President Donald Trump as the latest hymn from the Church of Perpetual Worry. This is hardly the first time observers have questioned the viability of a U.S.-led global order. The peril to the West was never greater than when the Soviet Union launched Sputnik—until U.S. President Richard Nixon ended the Bretton Woods system. The oil shocks of the 1970s posed a grave threat to the liberal international order—but then came the explosion of the U.S. budget and trade deficits in the 1980s. The perpetrators of the 9/11 attacks seemed like an existential threat to the system—until the 2008 financial crisis … [but, he says] … Now there is Trump … [and] … It is worth asking, then, whether the current fretting is anything new. For decades, the sky has refused to fall … [but, Professor Drezner says] … this time really is different. Just when many of the sources of American power are ebbing, many of the guardrails that have kept U.S. foreign policy on track have been worn down. It is tempting to pin this degradation on Trump and his retrograde foreign policy views, but the erosion predated him by a good long while. Shifts in the way Americans debate and conduct foreign policy will make it much more difficult to right the ship in the near future. Foreign policy discourse was the last preserve of bipartisanship, but political polarization has irradiated that marketplace of ideas. Although future presidents will try to restore the classical version of U.S. foreign policy, in all likelihood, it cannot be revived.“
Professor Drezner gives a lengthy litany of mistakes, some large, many small, some corrected, others still festering, that have contributed to the state of affairs which, in his view, means that America has surrendered its century and a half tenure as the predominant global leader, the indispensable nation, as many have called it. Now, he says, “The question is not what U.S. foreign policy can do after Trump. The question is whether there is any viable grand strategy that can endure past an election cycle …[and the world now faces the situation in which we have] … a president who displays the emotional and intellectual maturity of a toddler. As a candidate, Trump gloried in beating up on foreign policy experts, asserting that he could get better results by relying on his gut. As president, he has governed mostly by tantrum. He has insulted and bullied U.S. allies. He has launched trade wars that have accomplished little beyond hurting the U.S. economy. He has said that he trusts Russian President Vladimir Putin more than his own intelligence briefers. His administration has withdrawn from an array of multilateral agreements and badmouthed the institutions that remain. The repeated attacks on the EU and NATO represent a bigger strategic mistake than the invasion of Iraq. In multiple instances, his handpicked foreign policy advisers have attempted to lock in decisions before the president can sabotage them with an impulsive tweet. Even when his administration has had the germ of a valid idea, Trump has executed the resulting policy shifts in the most ham-handed manner imaginable.” Professor Drezner fears, as do I, that “Political polarization has eroded the notion that presidents need to govern from the center. Trump has eviscerated that idea. The odds are decent that a left-wing populist will replace the current president, and then an archconservative will replace that president. The weak constraints on the executive branch will only make things worse. Congress has evinced little interest in playing a constructive role when it comes to foreign policy. The public is still checked out on world politics. The combination of worn-down guardrails and presidents emerging from the ends of the political spectrum may well whipsaw U.S. foreign policy between “America first” and a new Second International. The very concept of a consistent, durable grand strategy will not be sustainable.“
I’m inclined to agree with Dr Drezner about the likely coming swings in American politics, from the relatively moderate right (Bush, père et fils) to the progressive left (Obama) to the isolationist/protectionist right (Trump) to, possibly, a hard left Democrat and then, in reaction, to an extreme right demagogue. I think that former Canadian prime minister Stephen Harper is right, in his recent book, ‘Right Here, Right Now,’ when he says that Donald Trump is more a symptom than a cause of America’s travails and that even when he is long gone the ‘Trump Party‘ will live on because the underlying fears that President Trump exploits will still be there and so, I suspect, will there be an equally hard counter-movement. Polarized domestic politics will prevent the sort of self-stabilization that characterized American foreign policy for a century or more, arguably since the 1890s.
If Professor Drezner is correct, if bipartisan, self-correcting American leadership is doomed then what do e.g. Australia, Brazil and Canada do?
Let me assume that China will continue to grow in wealth and power, strengthened, in some measure, by President Trump’s self-destructive trade war, but that increased power will NOT be good for e.g. Australia, Brazil and Canada or for Yemen and Zimbabwe, either. Russia, I also assume, will be emboldened, and that will be dangerous and Russia is in a demographic nightmare from which, I suspect, it cannot recover. Far Eastern Russia is being massively depopulated, by Russians, and Chinese people are rushing in .. not to conquer, rather, just, to quietly colonize. Eventually, Far Eastern Russia will break away from Moscow, forming new “independent” states within China’s sphere of
influence control, and further empowering China. Meanwhile, the Islamic Crescent, which stretches from the Atlantic coast of Africa all way to East Asia (Indonesia is the world’s most populous Muslim nation), will continue to boil over with internecine wars and revolts and the damage will spread to Africa and South Eastern Europe. Europe will be concerned but, effectively, helpless because the EU is too big to have a coherent foreign policy. India might be able to help stabilize West Asia.
Australia, Britain, Canada, India, Malaysia, New Zealand (perhaps the Philippines, too) and Singapore (a sort of CANZUK ++) might decide that some form of a loose, non-treaty arrangement covering free(er) trade and some foreign and defence policy matters might be useful in filling the leadership vacuum.
Brazil might try to revive the neverending attempts to bring some sort of political and economic coherence to South America.
America will, I am almost certain, eventually pull itself out of the downward spiral that began about 20 years ago. (Actually, I believe that the zenith of American power came in the 1950s and that the US has been in slow, often just relative decline since then … rather line Britain from, say, the 1830s, when I believe it reached the apex of its power, to 1915.) But it will not, I think, become a coequal global hegemon with China. I think Presidents Obama and Trump have paved the way for China’s unwelcome rise to the top.
My guess is that, eventually, India will become coequal with and then, later, supplant China as the world main power … that will probably be all to the good, but I am talking about sometime in the 22nd or even 23rd century.
In the interim, Canada must repair its relations with, above all, India, especially now, after Prime Minister Modi’s historic election victory. Canadian political leaders, who have seriously and dangerously courted Sikh separatists, are now facing a rising Hindu nationalist power that mistrusts more than just the Liberal Party of Canada. Canada also needs to repair relations with Australia, Japan and the Philippines, all of which have been given ample reason to doubt our commitment to free(er) trade and mutual security support. Canada has zero credibility in the Middle East because we have swung from being too uncritical of Isreal to being, equally, too uncritical of Islamic terrorist movements … all to secure a few votes in a few ridings in BC and Ontario. Europe more or less ignores Canada because we no longer make serious commitments to Europe’s security or even towards supporting European efforts in UN peacekeeping missions. Canada is, at best, a bit player in Africa and Latin America.
Canada needs to wait, along with the rest of the world, for America to correct itself. In the interim, it should help to take up the slack in e.g.:
- Maintaining freedom of navigation in the world’s oceans;
- Restoring and then keeping the peace in Africa;
- Countering Russian opportunistic adventurism in and around Europe; and
- Promoting free(er) trade on a global basis, against growing American and Chinese opposition to the WTO.
It is likely, in my opinion, that Professor Drezner is correct: Donald Trump has, finally, in 2019, pushed America off the global pinnacle it has occupied since, arguably, 1898. The implications are staggering but they should not be unexpected, not, at least, to those who read Professor Paul Kennedy‘s books, especially The Rise and fall of the Great Powers (1987), and applied their lessons over, say, 2,500 years, not just 500. Great powers emerge, rise, stagnate and decline … nations and peoples endure, often for millennia, but great powers seem, for the most part, transient. We should not be surprised that American global dominance, like that of e.g. Britain, Spain, the Arabs, the Mongol-Chinese, the Byzantines, the Greeks and Romans, and the ancient Chinese, is fading. President Trump may be the catalyst but he is not the cause.