George Jaeger: American alone?

This week’s writer is George Jaeger, a retired Senior Foreign Service officer and former Diplomat-in-Residence at Middlebury College.  He and his wife Pat live in New Haven.
In six short months President Donald Trump has upended the world order. His erratic behavior and “America First” policies have cost us much of the world’s confidence and reversed over 70 years of long-term American foreign policy, in which we had successfully linked our interests with those of others.
Let’s recall what happened. Faced with determined Soviet expansionism after World War II, Harry Truman and his Secretary of State, Dean Acheson, very carefully explored America’s options. They rejected both war and compromise with Stalin and opted instead for building a European, then a global system of alliances against which the Soviet Union could push and push until it would wear itself out. It took a long time, but after forty years of cold war their careful long-term thinking proved correct: In 1991 the USSR collapsed.
As it turned out this “policy of containment” did much more than win the Cold War, in spite of major mistakes like Viet-Nam. For America emerged after the collapse of the USSR not just as the world’s military super-power, but as the chairman of a globe-girdling system of states — many of whom had come to share our beliefs in human values and democracy, saw the benefits of our commitment to trade liberalization and were often willing to join us in diplomatic, economic and military undertakings.
Unfortunately there were further mistakes, beginning with our unjustifiable attack on Iraq, the repercussions of which unravelled the Middle East and continue to cost us heavily. But it was not until the relentless rise of China and the recovery of Russian military power confronted us in the last decade with the reality of an emerging new tripolar world, that some began to wonder whether American dominance might, in the longer run, no longer be assured.
Instead of crafting a strategy to confront this new geopolitical landscape, we just carried on and maintained our disproportionate emphasis on the Middle East, never weighing whether our wars there were really worth their heavy costs. It was not until last year’s wholly unexpected Russian military intervention in Syria that we realized that even in the Middle East we were no longer the only game in town.
While Russian military power is again formidable, change has been most dramatic in Asia, where China is fast developing new maritime links to all continents; is challenging our forward position in the Pacific; and is vigorously pursuing OBOR, a long-term geopolitical plan in which they are patiently investing many billions annually, aimed at creating a vast new economic and transportation network across the Eurasian landmass which they hope in time to dominate. Russia has so far been China’s cautious but willing partner, partly because western sanctions leave it with few alternatives, while the Europeans, allied with us because they fear Moscow, are nevertheless eager to do business with Beijing. The first-ever direct freight train from China arrived in London a few months ago.
While America’s geopolitical position is still strong and China has not yet overtaken us as the world’s dominant economy — Forbes Magazine says that may happen in 2018 — the time has clearly come to rethink our basic strategy and its implications for current foreign and domestic polices.
Instead of new thinking, however, we got Donald Trump, simplistically promising that he will make American “great” again and breaking more and more china as he went along. Trump’s withdrawal from the Paris Climate Agreement appalled the world and isolated us on this central issue of our time. His withdrawal from the Trans Pacific Trade Agreement has left us weakened across the Pacific. His curiously cozy relationship with Putin, his amateurish toying with China and erratic behavior with old European allies like Germany have led many of our traditional partners to conclude that they will be going it alone. In short, playing the world’s heavy, in a matter of months, has made us the world’s odd-man-out, as recent Pew opinion polls unfortunately confirm.
And he has crippled the State Department to the extent that even our generals object and argue that America cannot function without professional diplomacy. As a result the risks of major crises at several flashpoints around the world have risen rapidly.
For now we are fated to go along for the ride unless the Republican majorities in Congress step in. When Trump and his cronies do eventually leave, the challenge will be to recover our place in the world order as a bruised but hopefully wiser member.
For the days when America can assume that we are seen as the City on the Hill and behave as if ours were the only game in town are clearly over.

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