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Tuesday, 24 November 2020

US muddle

Between engagement in protection of its interests, and retrenchment in refusing sole responsibilities for world order, the US is locked in a foreign policy quandary

Abdel Moneim Said , Tuesday 25 Feb 2020
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When US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo proclaimed at the Munich Security Conference: “The West is winning!”, he was referring to the battle for world hegemony. One was reminded of a Francis Fukayama’s declaration, in the early 1990s, of the “The End of History.” Yet, the reverse is unfolding in the world around us today. The US is withdrawing from many parts of the world and Western countries, as a whole, are shutting their doors to other peoples in the world, and in many ways the West is becoming unravelled due to political and ethnic divisions. The EU is a salient example. This major landmark of Western political and economic capacities faced a debilitating blow with the UK’s decision to leave it and follow another path to development, whether in the framework of the Commonwealth, the transatlantic bond or a renewed quest for empire. 

The Egyptian diplomat Gamal Abul-Hassan wrote in Al-Masry Al-Youm: “In 1970, Asia (including Japan) contributed 19 per cent of the global GDP, or global world product (GWP), and the West 56 per cent. Today, after only three generations, Asia contributes 43 per cent and compared to the West’s 37 per cent. This is the most important transformation in the world today. It is a transformation that occurred after around three centuries of Western global hegemony, militarily, economically and culturally. The world in which we live today is more diverse and pluralistic. It is therefore more competitive, which makes for a greater likelihood that the competition will escalate into an open conflict between global poles.”

The abovementioned numbers could be somewhat misleading. The West benefited greatly from the economic booms in countries that were defeated in World War II (such as Japan) and the Korean War (South Korea). Then once they attained prosperity, the new ratios of shares in the GWP did not necessary impact on the West’s “cultural hegemony” or its unqualified lead in aerospace and technology in general. Nevertheless, the numbers do speak of new power balances in the world.

Pompeo’s remark was actually more of a response to the US’s predicament than a defence of the “West” and its global status. The predicament arises from the US’s strategic reorientation. Washington is in a state of withdrawal, not just militarily from Syria, Iraq and Afghanistan, but from the world. It is reformulating its existence in Japan, Europe and South Korea. It is no longer interested in defending common interests with its allies. It is interested in defending US resources from alliances and mutual defence pacts. The US is closing itself off to the “outside”. It is building all sorts of walls, and not just the wall with Mexico and South America. It is changing immigration laws to make the visa process more heavily selective in favour of whites and Christians. It withdrew from the Paris climate accord even though the US is primarily responsible for global warming and now ranks second to China in generating greenhouse emissions. 

Washington’s insularism has been challenged by the “globalised” outlook of the Democratic Party, which is growing vociferous these days due to the primaries and the nominees’ eagerness to best each other in attacking Trump’s policies. But the US is not just caught between the president and the opposition. It is also caught between rival outlooks among strategic thinkers. In its latest issue, March/April 2020, Foreign Affairs featured three recent strategic assessments of US foreign policy and republished one dating from April 1973 when the Vietnam War was still in progress and the Cold War was at its height. The latter article is called, “The Case for Strategic Disengagement.” Written by Earl Ravenal, it epitomises the debate that prevailed in the US nearly half a century ago and helps give perspective. The other three articles epitomise the US’s confusion today. 

One writer, Stephen Wertheim, argues in favour of the US’s withdrawal from world leadership. Beneath the title, “The Price of Primacy: Why America Shouldn’t Dominate the World,” he voices not only the prevalent cost-conscious conservative outlook but also the more progressivist view that world domination jeopardises US values. Thomas Wright, beneath the title, “The Folly of Retrenchment: Why America Can’t Withdraw from the World,” argues precisely the opposite: that withdrawal will expose these values to risk. 

Graham Allison takes a different tack. His article, “The New Spheres of Influence: Sharing the Globe with Other Great Powers,” takes us back to distant eras when the greatness of powers was measured by their hegemony over other countries and regions, or their “spheres of influence”. He reminisces on the Monroe Doctrine that proclaimed the entire Western Hemisphere — the whole of North and South America — as the US’s “sphere of influence” historically, geographically, and of course militarily. He also reminds us of other geopolitical concepts, such as political realism, when he acknowledges that, indeed, “something about geopolitics had changed”, but insists that what mattered now was to identify what exactly the change was so that the US could adjust to it. 

Throughout history, the world was divided into spheres of influence. In antiquity, you had the Hellenic world versus the Persian Empire and the Eastern Roman versus the Western Roman Empires. Moving through the medieval to the modern eras, you have Portugal versus Spain in the Old and New Worlds, the European powers versus each other in the Napoleonic era, France versus Britain in the colonialist era, and the US versus the USSR in the Cold War era. What about today? Do we not have Washington versus Beijing and Moscow? 

The US, despite its decline from the fourth largest contributor to GWP after World War II to seventh today, still dominates the world of technology and it holds a near monopoly on the realms of space and the internet. Yet, China is the world’s largest exporter and second largest importer, and its Belt and Road Initiative places it at the hub of a major international bloc. Russia is not about to revive the USSR because with the collapse of the Soviet bloc Russia shrank back into its earlier borders and its population shrank to half that of the USSR. However, Moscow remains a major military and nuclear power, and it is continuing to build these strengths. It also understands how to operate in a tripolar world. Graham Allison advocates neither a US-centred globalisation for a US retrenchment, but rather a division of spheres of influence. Is this so different from Trump’s outlook? 

*The writer is chairman of the board, CEO and director of the Regional Centre for Strategic Studies.

**A version of this article appears in print in the 27 February, 2020 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly

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