Multilateralism, in line with Mr Trump’s nativist beliefs, finds no mention.
While previous American administrations have espoused much of the same views, there is a certain change in tone and a brutal frankness in US President Donald Trump’s new National Security Strategy (NSS), unveiled in mid-December, that reflects Mr Trump’s personality and style. Van Jackson, writing for an Australian think tank, says it represents a “continuously renegotiated bargain between neo-conservative hawks and America First nativists”. In other words, an interplay between the generals who hold several key positions in the Trump administration and the US President’s own instincts.
Two major events are already casting a shadow over US policymaking. One was the WTO ministerial conference in Argentina where India, seeking exception for the procurement of crops for food security, was strongly opposed by the US. Further, the European Union and Japan joined the US to focus on industrial overcapacity and forced technology transfers, thus directly targeting China. Friends and rivals can switch with the context.
Second is the formal US recognition of Jerusalem as Israel’s capital, pending the final resolution of the Israeli-Palestinian dispute. This has embarrassed America’s partners and allies in the Islamic world and emboldened others to resist, including Nato ally Turkey. Consequently, resolutions were moved in the UN Security Council and General Assembly to condemn the US and seek a reversal of its policy. In the Security Council, the resolution was vetoed by Washington when even allies and permanent members Britain and France joined a 14-1 landslide. In the General Assembly on Thursday, 128 nations voted for the resolution, eight opposed it and the rest abstained. Significantly, four permanent members of the UNSC voted with the majority, as did India. A warning from the United States that those voting against it would invite America’s wrath and denial of aid actually worked to irritate nations like Canada, which was planning to oppose but abstained in order not to be seen as US lackeys.
The NSS opens with a “America First Foreign Policy” incantation and in a Trumpian flourish promises a “new and very different course”. Noticeably, it resurrects great power rivalry by identifying Russia and China, besides states like Iran and North Korea and non-state terrorist entities, as the prime challenges. Principled realism to promote a “balance of power that favours the US, our allies and our partners” is advocated. That US power can be self-sustaining, it argues, is a false belief. Multilateralism, in line with Mr Trump’s nativist beliefs, finds no mention. In fact, similar anti-UN rhetoric was prevalent during the Ronald Reagan presidency in the 1980s too and even speculation that perhaps the UN headquarters needed to move to a less hostile environment. The end of the Cold War in 1989-90 diffused polarisation among the permanent members of the Security Council, and American unilateralism became the means to address international crises, with rubber-stamping by the UN.
The world, of course, has changed considerably, and the current NSS deals with it. Seen leading the revisionist challenge are Russia and China. The former, it is felt, is attempting to restore great power status by establishing spheres of influence near its borders. The reference is to Russian actions in Ukraine, Crimea and Central Asia. Syria, where Russia has successfully resurrected its ally, the Bashar al- Assad regime, is not mentioned, and is hardly near Russia’s borders. China gets more attention, the tone being set by the opening assertion that many nations have risen as “they subsidised their industries, forced technology transfers and distorted markets”. China is seen as seeking to displace the US in the Indo-Pacific and expand the reach of its state-driven economic model. Finally, while both are aspiring to project power worldwide, they are seen as principal actors in their neighbourhoods, upsetting existing balances of power. The past assumption that by engaging rivals and including them in international institutions and global commerce would make them benign players and partners has turned out to be false.
It is proposed for the US to respond to political, economic and military competition globally. Free enterprise is touted as “history’s greatest antidote to poverty”. To do this, the US will counter unfavourable shifts in “the Indo-Pacific, Europe and Middle East”. Thus, the US will try bridging a paradox. One the one hand, it will ring-fence its technologies against poaching, restrict immigration of non-gifted persons, closely scrutinise students from designated nations pursuing higher education in advanced disciplines of science and technology, closely assess foreign investments through its Committee on Foreign Investment in the US and scuttle the role of international institutions like the WTO. On the other, it will aggressively market its arms and products abroad by twisting arms, prying open what it considers as non-level playing rules, asking allies and partners to share the security burden, and so on.
India finds mention in both the South and Central Asian context as well as the Indo-Pacific construct. There are the usual threats and cajolements to Pakistan on curbing the terror syndicates operating from its territory. But it will be useful to remember that any nation is just one tweet away from being a friend or a pariah. India’s vote with the majority in the General Assembly is a sensible course correction from the unbridled pro-US tilt. With Israeli PM Benjamin Netanyahu arriving in India next month it is a brave but necessary move, although it may go in Mr Trump’s debit account. The NSS loftily claims that today “geopolitical competition is between free and repressive visions of the world order”. But this Trumpian nativism is at variance with US exceptionalism which had created and defended the “free” order in the last century. Former Indian President K.R. Narayanan, when he was ambassador to the US in the early 1980s, was fond of telling his US audiences that great powers and small minds go ill together. It applies so appositely to many nationalistic leaders of big and emerging powers today. More global turbulence can safely be predicted for 2018.