Trump Weakened America’s Global Leadership While China Rose

In pursuing his failed isolationist "America First" approach to foreign policy, Trump allowed China to grow its global influence.
U.S. President Donald Trump, right, listens to a speech by Chinese President Xi Jinping during a business event at the Great Hall of the People in Beijing, Thursday, Nov. 9, 2017. (AP Photo/Andy Wong)

U.S. President Donald Trump, right, listens to a speech by Chinese President Xi Jinping during a business event at the Great Hall of the People in Beijing, Thursday, Nov. 9, 2017. (AP Photo/Andy Wong)

This is part three in a series on Trump’s legacy. This one focuses on Trump’s foreign policy.

Hans-Georg Betz is an adjunct professor of Political Science at the University of Zurich, Switzerland.

Childhood impressions, they say, mark you for the rest of your life. I spent the formative years of my life in Germany in the 1960s. This was a fundamentally different world. There were two Germanys, one “free,” the other one not. The two Germanys belonged to two different blocs, each with its own system, locked in a deadly confrontation, or so it seemed.

As a child, I knew nothing about Germany’s recent history; I knew nothing about the Soviet Union; or why there were two Germanys; or why at the end of the nightly news on TV, when the weather for the next few days came up, there was a map that showed territories in the East that were characterized as being “under temporary Polish administration.” Once in a while, I watched American tanks pass by our house in southern Bavaria, but I did not think much of it. And yet, I was a child thoroughly marked by West Germany’s integration into the American sphere in Europe.

This had nothing to do with politics and everything with popular culture, particularly TV. Like so many kids of my generation, I watched classic American series, starting with Lassie, Fury and Rin Tin Tin, then moving on to Flipper, I Dream of Jeannie, 77 Sunset Strip, Tammy and Get Smart. Not all of them were my cup of tea, but my parents watched them, so I did too.

Despite settings that were entirely different from my daily reality in small-town Bavaria, they felt familiar, created a sense of belonging, of being at home. I did not know it at the time, but I was a typical victim of what Harvard political scientist Joseph Nye would later on call America’s “soft power.” Soft power is based on attraction, not coercion. As with its “universalistic values, open culture and vast popular cultural resources ranging from Hollywood to foundations and universities,” the US proved “uniquely placed to affect how others viewed the world” – and, one might add, the United States

Ironically enough — at least from today’s perspective — Nye advanced the notion of soft power at a time when there was much concern that the United States was on the decline, both economically and militarily. It came at a time when Yale historian Paul Kennedy’s The Rise and Fall of the Great Powers was all the rage among American foreign policy wonks. Kennedy traced the decline of great powers to “imperial overstretch” – when military power and strategic commitments are no longer sustained by a country’s economic resources. This, Kennedy warned, in the late 1980s, was the case in the United States. And he suggested that the United States prepare itself and manage the process of relative decline “prudently, making it as undisruptive and as painless as possible”

Kennedy was hardly the only prominent foreign policy analyst to worry about America’s deteriorating position in world affairs. In Washington, David Calleo at America’s leading school for advanced international studies (Johns Hopkin’s SAIS), warned shortly after the end of the Cold War that America’s chronic debt, largely resulting from the quest for military power rather than prudent economic logic, was a serious challenge that called for a reassessment of America’s global commitments

With the Wall coming down, the Soviet empire collapsing, however, nobody talked about American decline. Instead, Francis Fukuyama pronounced the end of history, the triumph of Western liberalism and liberal democracy, the nirvana of unbridled consumerism. The euphoria did not last very long.

Mark Twain is credited with the adage that one should never make predictions, especially not about the future. Never has this been as painfully obvious as today. In the early 1970s, the eminent German-Jewish philosophers, Max Horkheimer and Theodor W. Adorno, wrote that “the fully enlightened earth radiates disaster triumphant.” This might sound hyperbolic. Yet in today’s world, caught between Covid-19 and accelerated global warming, it at least merits serious reflection.

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America First Left America Alone

The reality is, we live in dystopian times. Donald Trump has understood this very well. He probably never read Paul Kennedy or David Calleo. But he instinctively imbibed the lesson. This is what informed his most famous slogan, Make America Great Again (MAGA). What probably escaped his enthusiastic followers is the fact that MAGA is a tacit admission that America is no longer great. Far from it. Otherwise, where is the need to make it great again?

Trump’s foreign policy over the past four years has been an attempt to regain lost ground and re-establish the United States as “the greatest country in the world.” It was a valid effort; it did not work. In fact, more often than not it proved counterproductive.

To be sure, Trump’s strategy has a long ideational pedigree, rooted in paleoconservatism, espoused most prominently by Pat Buchanan. Its roots lie in Buchanan’s famous statement from 2002 that the American conservative movement had “been hijacked and turned into a globalist, interventionist, open borders ideology.” One of Buchanan’s major points was that America is a republic, not an empire. It took Donald Trump to turn Buchanan’s notion into the dictum informing American foreign policy. As Buchanan has recently noted, Trump “affected a sea change in national thinking.”

No longer would the Republican party pursue lofty Bushian dreams of a “New World Order” set up to “end tyranny in our world” and herald in a new golden age of global democracy. No longer would NATO’s “freeloading nations” be able to count on the United States without paying “their fair share of the collective defense” unless they wanted Americans to “ pack up and come home from Europe.” For Buchanan, with the Cold War, America should once again come first.

This meant, Buchanan charged in 2017, that “we put the national interests of the United States and the well-being of our own country and our own people first. Our foreign policy, first and foremost, should be focused on the defense of American freedom, security and rights.” This meant above all that the United States should extricate itself from conflicts that were none of its business, that had no bearing on its vital national interests

Trump followed Buchanan’s playbook to the letter. During his tenure, he ordered the withdrawal of American troops from northern Syria, Afghanistan, Somalia, even Germany. None of these measures pleased America’s allies. Quite the contrary. But, then, they don’t have a vote in American presidential elections. And they don’t give a hoot about MAGA.

The Rise Of China

President Donald Trump shakes hands with Chinese President Xi Jinping during a dinner at Mar-a-Lago — Thursday, April 6, 2017, in Palm Beach, Fla. (AP Photo/Alex Brandon)

President Donald Trump shakes hands with Chinese President Xi Jinping during a dinner at Mar-a-Lago — Thursday, April 6, 2017, in Palm Beach, Fla. (AP Photo/Alex Brandon)

MAGA, however, does not only mean extricating the United States from conflicts that are a drain on American resources; it also means confronting the adversary that really counts. And that adversary has been China. Trump’s obsession with China did not start with his inauguration or with his raising tariffs on Chinese imports. Years before his election already, Trump charged on Twitter that the “concept of global warming” had been created by and for the Chinese in order to make U.S. manufacturing non-competitive” and to gain unfair trade advantages over the United States.

Once at the helm, the Trump administration embarked on a collision course with China, culminating in the trade war that set the stage for further confrontation. With Trump, China became “the White House’s preferred villain” on a range of global issues — its trade tactics branded “unfair and duplicitous,” its “opaque government” blamed for the Covid-19 pandemic, its hi-tech companies, such as Huawei, tarnished as Trojan horses, its repressive treatment of ethnic minorities in Xinjiang and pro-democracy protesters in Hong Kong held up as “emblems of the 21st century’s authoritarian behemoth.”

Critics have charged that the Trump administration’s position on China has had less to do with rational politics than emotions and attitudes. There is much to this view. As Michael Swaine from the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace has put it, Beijing’s transformation, under President Xi Jinping, “into a more ideological, party-driven, assertive, and capable power has raised questions in the United States over the efficacy of engagement.” For a long time, American policymakers entertained the idea that engaging China, integrating China into the liberal economic order would invariably lead to political liberalization at home.

This proved an illusion, largely grounded in wishful thinking. In fact, over the past several years, influential Chinese intellectuals, instead of adopting the thinking of the Western liberal canon, have increasingly come to embrace the ideas of Carl Schmitt, German’s highly controversial, legal theorist (1988-1985). Unfortunately, Schmitt was a convinced Nazi who gained his reputation during the Third Reich with his justification of Hitler’s elimination of rivals and adversaries during the Night of the Long Knives in an article entitled, The Führer Protects the Law.

As a result, Schmitt came to be known as Hitler’s “Crown Jurist.” He characterized himself as an “intellectual adventurer.” In reality, he was a fervent anti-Semite who had nothing but praise for Julius Streicher, publisher of the Nazi rag “Der Stürmer. None of this, however, has prevented Schmitt from gaining in intellectual clout in the postwar period, both in Germany and abroad — and both on the right and on the left. It is perhaps telling that in the United States, Schmitt’s major works were published by MIT press.

Schmitt’s attraction among Chinese intellectuals stems from the absolute priority Schmitt accords to the sovereign as the ultimate authority. “Commitments to the rule for law,” as Chang Che has recently noted in The Atlantic, “would only undercut a community’s decision-making power, and ‘deprive state and politics of their specific meaning.’ Such a hamstrung state, according to Schmitt, could not protect its own citizens from external enemies.” No wonder, Schmitt has reached iconic status, reflecting the growing authoritarianism that has become the hallmark of Xi’s new China.

Disillusion over China’s authoritarian turn in one thing, global realities quite another. With the end of the Cold War, the United States was the only superpower left standing. The result was a brief moment of global US hegemony constituting, in international relations theory, a unipolar system. International relations theory predicts that unipolar systems don’t last very long. The rapid rise of China proves the point. Hardly surprising, American elites, accustomed to being “number one” don’t like this development. As Joseph Nye wrote in early 2019 in the Financial Times, “Many in Washington, both Republicans and Democrats, fear that the rise of China will spell the end of the American era. This exaggerated fear can itself become a cause of conflict.”

It is not all that clear, however, that these fears are exaggerated. The fact is that the rapid speed of China’s rise to the top of the international pecking order has taken American decision-makers by surprise. They probably thought it would take China decades to catch up with the West. This in itself proved a miscalculation.

Not only did China’s surge proceed with rapid speed; under President Xi, the country embarked on a number of projects designed to expand China’s role and influence in the world: The Belt and Road Initiative, a vast “geopolitical project” spanning the whole of the Eurasian region; massive investments in the African continent designed to gain access to the continent’s raw materials; and, last but not least, the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP), a Pacific free trade zone in the making likely to prove attractive even to those that look to Beijing with weary eyes, such as India.

As a result of these developments, there is a growing consensus among Washington policy circles that China needs to be treated as a “systemic rival.” Trump’s tariffs, his withdrawing the United States from the World Health Organization, charged with being nothing more than “China’s puppet,” and, most recently, his claim that China, not Russia, was behind the massive cyberattack on the US government reflect not only Trump’s obsession with China, but a more profound American unease with China’s rapidly growing geopolitical stature.

Trump’s departure from the White House is unlikely to change much in the American position towards China. In fact, with Biden, the relationship between the two superpowers is likely to deteriorate even further, given the Democrats’ traditional emphasis on human rights. And a Biden administration can hardly afford to reverse course on trade issues, given the importance of “rustbelt states” such as Michigan and Pennsylvania for his victory in November.

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Trump Eroded America’s Global Leadership

In 2016, Trump won because he promised he would make America great again (which to some meant a return to a more racist era and to others may have been genuine). In the past, the United States was great because significant parts of the world considered it great and willingly followed its leadership. In large parts of the world, even those generally not particularly well disposed to the United States, the trademark “America” has for a long time proved irresistible. Parisian flaneurs on the Champs-Élysées sporting t-shirts proclaiming “I Love NY;” hungry Chinese lining up in front of KFC and Domino’s Pizza in Beijing; young Indian women devouring American romance novels brought to them by Amazon; Italian youth sipping their cappuccino at Starbucks rather than in the bar next door — the attraction of the American way of life knows no borders, or so it seemed.

After four years of Trump, this is no longer the case. America’s image, America’s reputation, American’s standing have hardly ever been as low as it is right now. A recent Pew survey found that even among America’s traditional allies, from Canada to Germany, from the UK to Australia, the United States scored abysmally low. In Germany, for instance, only a quarter of the population had a favorable view of the United States. With Trump, the United States certainly appears to have used up much of its soft power.

A YouGov survey from earlier this year largely confirms these results. Respondents were asked whether a given country had either a positive or negative effect on world affairs. The results were, once again, rather disillusioning for the United States. In Germany, less than a fifth of respondents thought the US had a positive effect; in France, Great Britain, and Sweden, around 30 percent.

To be sure, this was to a large extent a Trump effect. In Germany, for instance, in late 2019, more than 40 percent of respondents said Trump was a greater threat to world peace than the likes of Putin, Khamenei, even Kim Jong-un. Yet, images of police brutality against African Americans as well as the large-scale failure to respond to covid-19 in a serious and professional manner also contributed to further tarnish the image of the United States.

The only consolation – China fared hardly better. In June of this year, 60 percent of respondents in the UK and France, and a bit less than 50 percent in Germany agreed with the statement that China represented a “force for bad” in the world. Apparently, the Chinese leadership’s efforts to translate the goodwill it received during the initial months of the pandemic — a result of genuinely generous gestures, characterized as “facemask diplomacy” in Western media — into political leverage, backfired in a big way.

It has been suggested that the confrontational relationship between the United States and China marks the beginning of a new Cold War. This might be an exaggeration, or it might not. The fact is, as Adam Tooze has recently put it in the pages of the London Review of Books, that “we have reached a point of historic rupture.” The challenges are enormous, not least because of the enormous weight both have when it comes to the future of the planet. And this, unlike during the first Cold War, has nothing to do with nuclear weapons. Currently, the United States and China together account for about 45 percent of annual global carbon emissions. Under the circumstances, containment is not an option; a new Cold War would spell disaster.

As the Trump administration has shown, escalating tensions to the point of outright confrontation is relatively easy. Détente, on the other hand, not so much. Europeans, and particularly Germans, can tell you a thing or two about it. Yet, given the stakes, de-escalation is the only way forward, even if it means taking leave of the notion, also dear to the Germans, that rapprochement would invariably lead to change. Ironically enough, Trump has done a great job in allowing the Chinese regime to consolidate its hold on the country by playing the nationalist card. Once again, Trump’s art of the deal has turned out to be a rotten deal.

This article is brought to you by the Centre for Analysis of the Radical Right (CARR). Through their research, CARR intends to lead discussions on the development of radical right extremism around the world.

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