Imbalance between US power and ambitions
The US foreign policy is currently the victim of a deep imbalance between its national power and ambitions. There is inadequate comprehension on the part of the US policymakers, especially under the Trump administration, of this imbalance which has led to serious foreign policy blunders resulting in avoidable harm to US national interests and stability at global and regional levels. The need of the hour is for the US to reassess its relative power potential and tailor its strategic ambitions to fit its capabilities. Its continued reluctance to undertake such an exercise for whatever reason will lead to recurring crises both globally and in different regions.
The world is rapidly moving from the unipolarity of the early years after the end of the Cold War, when the US-dominated the global scene like a colossus, to a multipolar world where the US alone will not be in a position to dictate to the rest of the world. The dramatic rise of the Chinese economic power followed by its rapid military build-up is undoubtedly the most important factor challenging the US global hegemonic ambitions. A re-assertive Russia under Putin, whose tenure as the top Russian leader may be prolonged for a fairly long time, is an additional factor blocking the fulfilment of the US strategic over-reach. There are also other powers in different regions of the world which would resist US hegemony. The US remains the biggest economy in the world but China, which surpassed the American economy in purchasing power parity terms in 2014, is likely to overtake the US in nominal dollar terms within the next decade. According to some projections, China’s military expenditure, which is increasing rapidly, may exceed that of the US by 2035. Thus, while the US still remains the most powerful nation in the world, it is rapidly losing its relative weight in the global power calculus.
The logical conclusion of this trend should have been increased US emphasis on multilateralism rather than unilateralism, on diplomacy rather than the use of force, on compromise rather than inflexibility, and on international cooperation in various fields rather than a pursuit of narrow national interests. Unfortunately, over the past two decades, the US has moved in the wrong direction on all these scores. America’s biggest strategic blunder was its invasion of Iraq of 2003 on false pretences and in a blatant violation of its obligations under the UN Charter and international law. After an enormous loss of blood and treasure, the US has little to show in terms of its achievements as a result of this invasion. Instead, it badly destabilized Iraq and the region, created space for the rise of terrorist groups, and, from purely the point of view of the US and some of its allies had the undesirable effect of enhancing Iran’s presence and influence in Iraq. In Afghanistan, America’s easy victory over the Taliban after 9/11 emboldened it to set over-ambitious goals and place reliance on the military rather than political means for their realization. It has taken the US trillions of dollars of expenditure and the loss of the lives of thousands of its soldiers to learn the simple lesson that there is no military solution of the Afghan conundrum. The recent US-Taliban agreement is an indicator that Washington may be finally realizing the limits of its power.
Under President Bush, the US propounded the doctrine of unilateral military intervention for safeguarding its national interests, only to learn through its experiences in dealing with China and a re-assertive Russia that unilateralism in the emerging multipolar world carries enormous political, economic and military costs besides the probability of a failure in the realization of the American policy goals. America’s policy of the eastward expansion of the NATO was checkmated by Russia in Ukraine. Moscow has out-manoeuvred Washington in Syria where Bashar al-Assad remains in power despite the hostile American moves. A multi-polar world by its very nature calls for greater emphasis on multilateralism and political negotiations rather than unilateralism and reliance on the military. Instead of drawing the right lessons from history, President Trump has accelerated the process of America’s withdrawal from multilateral negotiations and treaties.
On 1 June 2017, President Trump announced the US decision to withdraw from the painstakingly negotiated Paris Agreement on Climate Change. Following the footsteps of President Bush, who had withdrawn from the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty in 2002, the Trump administration withdrew from the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty in 2018. In January 2017, President Trump withdrew the US from the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) Agreement which aimed at lowering trade barriers among its signatories. In pursuance of his America First policy, President Trump also halted the negotiations for the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership, which aimed at promoting economic and commercial cooperation between the US and the EU. Finally, in 2018 Trump withdrew from the Iran nuclear deal, which had been concluded in 2015.
President Trump has little to show for his America First policy or for his emphasis on unilateralism in pursuit of narrowly defined national interests as against carrying other countries along through multilateral negotiations in pursuit of an enlightened national agenda within the framework of progressive and stable world order. For instance, his rejection of the Iran nuclear deal and additional sanctions on Iran have not persuaded the latter to fall in line with the American unilateral demands. His withdrawal from the Paris Climate Change Agreement has not forced the international community to discard it. It merely highlighted America’s isolation on this issue in the international community.
The US, which had got used to ordering the rest of the world around for more than a decade during its “unipolar moment” after its victory over the Soviet Union in the Cold War, is finding it difficult to adjust to the compulsions of a multi-polar world which demand an increased emphasis on negotiations and compromises. Such a world is not susceptible to unilateral demands and ultimatums even from as powerful a country as the US is. This should have become clear to the policymakers in Washington after their failure to bludgeon the Afghan Taliban into submission despite having fought them for 18 long years. If the US cannot have its way in Afghanistan against a small but determined guerilla force in the shape of the Taliban, the prospects of its success in dictating to the rest of the world are even more remote.
In short, it is high time that the American policymakers realized that the US is no longer the all-powerful country that can simply tell the world what to do. It will have to re-learn the art of negotiations and compromise with other countries in the pursuit of its national interests. It has made a good beginning by negotiating a deal with the Taliban for the facilitation of the peace process in Afghanistan. It will have to adopt a similar approach in dealing with the Iranian nuclear programme and other issues of peace and stability in the Middle East, especially the Palestine issue. Sanctions and threats alone will not take it far in overcoming these problems or those in other regions like Northeast Asia. As the unsuccessful results of Trump’s trade war with Beijing show, Washington will have to come to the negotiating table especially when dealing with other powerful countries like China and Russia. Washington’s inability to realize the limits of its power and tailor its policies accordingly will condemn the world to recurrent crises while inflicting incalculable harm upon US interests.
The writer is an author, a retired ambassador and
the president of the Lahore Council for World Affairs.