Shifting Sands of Global Leadership

Joshua Roberts / ReutersJoshua Roberts / Reuters

By Dustin Cai

Originally published in the Spring 2017 Print Issue

The United States has been in the forefront of international politics and leadership for more than half of a century and this position was only strengthened in the post-Cold War era. America has risen as a global leader through economical, political, and strategic success, gaining support and allies from all across the world. In the past seven decades, the U.S. has played an integral role in building and reinforcing Asian economic stability, campaigning for human rights around the world, pledging economic support for allies in Europe, and fostering peace in the Americas. Although this leadership has not drawn all positive responses, including comments on the U.S. acting more as a “world policeman” than a leader, the U.S. has been at the center of much of the international progress over the past several decades due to the values held by American leaders that global leadership and responsibilities were important to the U.S. The United States is one of the most respected nations in the world, and was recognized as the strongest through decades of international initiatives; however, this position has been threatened as a result of leadership and policy changes under the new President, Donald Trump.

One of Trump’s earliest and most prominent platforms since his election has been the “America First” agenda, which plans to change the focus of U.S. actions and prioritize the U.S.’s interests, goals, and citizens over the rest those of the rest of the world. This represents a stark contrast to the goals of previous U.S. presidents and reflects an isolationist sentiment that has not had such widespread support since pre-WWII cries of neutrality.

While the goal of this “America First” agenda may be to take care of its citizens and its nation first and foremost, it may have significant unintended consequences. Primarily, it reduces the legitimacy of a U.S. international leadership and global hegemony. The United States’ friendship with Russia and antagonistic relationship with NATO may cause many of its allies in Europe to find alternative security measures separate from the U.S. Losing European military allies would be severely detrimental to the U.S.’ strategic deployment overseas, as the U.S. has vital military bases in many European countries, which give the U.S. the important ability to deploy and mobilize quickly to respond to international situations and conflicts. Not only are European allies essential for U.S. strategic interests, but having major military allies in European countries allow for their military forces to share the burden of missions through a multilateral approach.

Rather than joining international initiatives because it might provide a benefit to other countries, the U.S. is taking a selfish approach to global affairs. Although the cost and risk of international leadership may be mitigated through and isolationist foreign policy approach, it hinders the United States legitimacy as a global superpower. For example, a majority of the American defense budget goes towards funding and supporting other parts of the world, including efforts in global counter-terrorism, training other military forces, and peacekeeping missions. The respect other nations have for the US is founded on its global leadership role, as creating a stable, international order through leadership initiatives led to “thriving international trade; the spread of democracy; and the avoidance of major conflict among greater powers.” Trump’s policy of “America First” was crafted to contain U.S. prosperity within its borders, but much of the prosperity America has seen since the Cold War and even WWII has been because of the global hegemony created by American international leadership. By reverting back to an isolationist stance, the US will find it even more difficult to win international allies, keep its military hegemony, and push a global agenda.

So if America steps away from its international leadership position, what’s next for global power?

President Trump’s decision to pull the U.S. away from a global stage has the potential to cause major international changes. First, the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO), a military alliance formed after WWII to promote security and stability around the world, may lose a lot of operating power. Recently, President Trump denounced America’s relationship with NATO by calling the alliance “obsolete,” which reportedly led to “astonishment and agitation” within the alliance. The NATO alliance includes many significant alliances that the U.S. has, including the UK, France, and Germany. Maintaining a strong relationship with NATO gives the U.S. access to international airspace, the building of defense military bases overseas, and the ability to call on allies for international support in case of emergency or conflict. By threatening the relationship between NATO and the United States, President Trump may cause significant repercussions to U.S. global hegemony and support from European allies as they begin to look elsewhere.

Second, major international aid programs and initiatives may begin to fail due to lack of funding, creating greater instability in the most volatile regions of the world. Trump argues that the U.S. is “giving [prosperity] away” and he plans to reduce spending on global programs by a large margin. Programs such as the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID), which has been around since WWII, are under threat as their budgets may be cut in the aftermath of Trump’s “America First” agenda. Currently, there is a budget of around $34 billion dedicated to international assistance. If the budget were to be cut and major programs ended as a result, Roger Thurow, senior fellow on the Chicago Council on Global Affairs, says it would be “catastrophic,” and that others would see it as “a withdraw or retreat of U.S. leadership.”

Although Trump has flip-flopped on his position to support or defund international aid, recent support of the “America First” proposal may point to Trump defunding aid programs. Highly volatile regions of the world, including countries such as Pakistan, Afghanistan, Belize, Korea, Burundi, and Egypt, rely on US funding to support humanitarian campaigns, security measures, and regional stability.In addition, programs that help spread democracy around the world would be in danger if President Trump withdraws foreign aid. Withdrawing much needed international assistance that specifically helps the most volatile regions of the world would certainly not bode well for the U.S.’ image as a world leader or lessen the impact of statements from nations that are already calling the United States out on humanitarian issues.

Finally, the U.S. stepping down from its international leadership position will create an extended period of global uncertainty. Major allies in Europe and Asia may turn to other nations for leadership and partnership or look to stay within their borders as well; countries in need of aid will be severely harmed and look to other means to get aid; and a power vacuum will emerge at the global stage for someone else to step up as the major superpower. Countries like China, Russia, and Germany would be ready to overtake the U.S. as the global superpower and dominate in diplomacy, economic gains, and military alliances. Chinese diplomats have already responded to Trump’s “America First” agenda by saying “if China is required to play that leadership role then China will assume its responsibilities.” Even though China, according to director general Zhang Jun, does not want the global leadership position, they suspect America will leave that role open due to its withdrawal on the global stage, allowing another nation to take its place. China is increasingly becoming the dominate world economic power and threatens to overtake the U.S. in economic output in the near future. In addition, China has made significant investments in Africa and South America, regions of the world the U.S. would have had more influence in if not for Trump’s “America First” agenda, and has cultivated significant relationships in the developing world

Another prime contender for global leadership is Russia. Vladimir Putin, president of Russia, continues to make power grabs, such as Russia’s annexation of Crimea. Moreover, Russia continues to make moves in Syria by directing and controlling peace talks between rebel groups and the Syrian government, strengthening Russia’s position in the Middle East. Recent discussions around Russian involvement in the U.S. presidential election also do not help America’s image in the world.

A third player set to steal the show is Germany. Chancellor Angela Merkel has been critical of President Trump from the start of his election campaign, specifically regarding Trump’s immigration policy and his distaste of NATO. While Trump has closed the U.S.’s borders to Muslim countries, Merkel remains on the moral high ground with Germany’s open border stance to refugees, ramping up Germany’s reputation in the world. If Trump continues to deteriorate the U.S. relationship with NATO, Germany would be set to become a more significant leader throughout Western Europe, drawing further support of major European allies. Aligned with China and Russia, Germany has also experienced a period of significant economic growth, allowing Germany to be seen as a greater international leader. As President Trump deliberately diminishes America’s role in world leadership, other countries are primed and ready to take center stage, with some countries, like Russia, more ready than ever.

President Trump’s agenda of “America First” really does represent a significant shift in global trends and leadership. Following a prolonged period of American hegemony, growth, prosperity, and diplomacy, new developments in Trump’s plan for America may change that. International security in the form of NATO may face significant changes, for better or for worse, and may even dissolve in the future as the main source of funding pulls out. The uncertainty associated with America’s actions may lead European and Asian allies to look elsewhere or adopt isolationist policies as Britain has already done. In addition, developing countries may face a significant blow to their growth as they lose foreign aid from the U.S. Aid that has fostered peace and stability in South America, Africa, Asia, and Europe may no longer exist under an “America First” agenda, causing these volatile regions to either look to other countries for help or turn to other means of action, including violence. Finally, a loss of American leadership will allow other countries to step up and create their own period of hegemony. Countries such as China, Russia, and Germany are all ready and able to replace the United States in a new era of global leadership. China, Russia, and Germany have made significant strides in the recent years on a domestic and international stage, giving them the opportunity to quickly overtake America if the U.S. chooses to halt its international plans.

In order for America to retain its prosperity and international hegemony, America should not look to isolationism. In the increasingly connected world, it becomes imperative that countries remain open to collaboration. Turning inward will not produce the economic, military, and strategic gains that Trump hopes to achieve; rather, active participation on a global scale will maintain and build upon America’s existing strength and will also serve as a benefit to countries world wide, from the developing countries that rely on international aid, to major countries that enjoy alliances with the United States. Otherwise, the stage will be set for other countries to take on the role of global leader and assume the title as the global superpower.

References

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  22. [1] Claire Jones, “German Economy Grows at Quickest Rate in 5 Years,” Financial Times, January 12, 2017.

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