It is not too soon to examine the shifting strategic balance in the world in the light of the unfolding coronavirus crisis and its economic and political consequences.
Though he gets little credit for it—even from his supporters, who tend not to be overly sophisticated foreign policy specialists—President Trump has carefully developed a subtle foreign policy. This policy is based on a definition of America’s interests that is not adventurously overstretched like Lyndon Johnson’s plunge into the ground war in Vietnam or George W. Bush’s energetic support for democracy—even in places like Gaza, Lebanon, and eventually, Egypt, that had little aptitude for it and democratically elected anti-democratic politicians. Nor is Trump’s foreign policy the wavering pacifism and overly earnest pursuit of adversaries as President Obama attempted with Iran.
Trump has revived the concept of nuclear non-proliferation in the case of untrustworthy states (Iran and North Korea) and has left local disputes to be worked out locally, where it wasn’t practical for the United States to maintain force levels adequate to prevail over local balances.
Trump was widely criticized last year when he withdrew a few hundred special forces troops trying to maintain a cordon between the Turkish army and the Kurdish forces. Turkey has a large army and the U.S. presence in Syria had become impractical. The U.S. withdrawal amplified Turkey’s traditional frictions with the Arabs, Russians, and Iranians. The exit also obliged the Kurds, who have been treated badly in Syria and Iraq, to cease their intrusions in Turkey.
The evacuation of the Americans requires the local elements to resolve matters themselves. When they fail to do so, the United States can influence matters with only moderate injections of assistance, which need only very rarely require deployment of ground forces. No one disputes audibly now that it was a good move, although it contributed to James Mattis’s resignation as defense secretary. No one complains about a strong policy toward North Korea or much laments the Iranian nuclear agreement, or the move of the U.S. embassy in Israel, for that matter.
This is how a sensible Great Power maintains its influence, by defending what is important, ignoring what isn’t, avoiding unnecessary confrontations, and sorting out abrasions without humiliating anyone—except where serious provocations require disproportionate responses, as in the execution of Iranian Quds Force General Qasem Soleimani earlier this year.
Franklin D. Roosevelt concluded that an American presence was required in Western Europe and the Far East to prevent those key regions getting into the hands of enemies of this hemisphere. The resulting policy of “containment” was devised by Roosevelt’s strategic team and executed by President Truman and his successors and imaginatively refined on two occasions. Richard Nixon triangulated Great Power arrangements with his opening of relations with China, and Ronald Reagan pushed to build a comprehensive high-altitude, laser-based, missile defense system which implicitly threatened to undermine the entire Soviet nuclear deterrent capability. The combination of Chinese diplomatic and high-technology military pressure caused the peaceful disintegration of the Soviet Union.
The end of the Cold War left the United States preeminent; but Europe, after some rhetorical posturing, started to make noises of potential rivalry with the United States, though not of hostility. The strength and purposefulness of the leading continental states—France, Germany, and Italy—have deteriorated seriously even since the times of Francois Mitterand, Helmut Kohl, and Silvio Berlusconi just 25 years ago. The Western Alliance, so completely successful while the Soviet Union was a threat, deteriorated into an “alliance of the willing”—that is, countries that would happily accept an American military guarantee but beyond that would decide on a case-by-case basis if they wished to do anything about collective security.
President Trump has had considerable success in extracting larger defense budgets from the slackers in the alliance (meaning almost everyone except the British, Poles, and Estonians) and has advanced in Ukraine the weapons necessary to prevent continued Russian incursions into the former Soviet Union, which President Obama and German Chancellor Merkel had withheld.
Trump quietly blocked Russian expansion west but has not attempted to restrain it from the historically unremitting policy of dabbling in the Middle East. Russia has less than half the population of the old Soviet Union, and a GDP smaller than Canada’s. It is a great nationality and culture that defeated Napoleon and Hitler, and is somewhat sullenly trying to reclaim a status more prestigious than it has earned.
The fraudulent preoccupation of his Democratic enemies with malicious fictions about Trump’s relations with Vladimir Putin have obligated him to move cautiously, but he is careful not to humiliate Russia. The only threat Russia could now pose to the United States would be if the United States faced Russia down so abruptly it was driven into the arms of China. Only in unison would those countries be able to challenge U.S. primacy.
China is becoming technologically and commercially skilled, but it has very few resources. A chronically overaged population is developing after their insane “one-child policy,” and the Chinese are extremely vulnerable to American pressure, both on tariffs and in America’s ability to encourage official Taiwanese separation. Despite its swashbuckling, China is in no position to challenge the United States for mastery in the world’s sea lanes, and China’s neighbors look to America for encouragement. Trump has given it to Japan, India, and others, quietly. Like Japan before World War II, which was importing 85 percent of its oil from the United States while it invaded China and Indochina, China today would be severely compromised if the United States blocked its ability to dump goods in sophisticated markets.
In economic as in other matters, the United States is able to outbid almost any country for the goodwill of a third party, as is demonstrated by the Europeans’ accommodation to American sanctions on Iran, which they opposed. If Russia rented large tracts of Siberia to China to exploit with its surplus manpower (even as its population declines), the northern and eastern vastness of the Eurasian landmass would be in the hands of a power that could mount a serious challenge to U.S. strategic preeminence. President Trump began rebuilding U.S strength with his immense pre-coronavirus economic boom, the elimination of oil imports, renegotiated trade agreements, a reinforced military and shaped-up NATO, swift and strong responses to provocations (as in the Soleimani affair—no disappearing red lines), and orderly withdrawal from areas of imprudent exposure, such as Syria (after the complete destruction of ISIS).
Britain’s withdrawal from Europe, and the European Union’s complete ineffectuality in the coronavirus crisis will have further drained that organization’s political credibility. It is no longer the world’s next superpower-in-waiting and will have great difficulty continuing with the mission of “an ever-closer Europe” with a substantially shriveled mandate to attempt any such thing.
Apart from internal contradictions, the EU’s structure is composed of authoritarian commissioners who are not answerable to the European Parliament of their constituent governments. The departure of Britain, Europe’s most admired nationality, from an integrated Europe to approach tighter arrangements with the United States and Canada is an undoubted shift in the balance of importance of Europe and America in the world. After China, Europe is the big political loser in the coronavirus crisis.
The Chinese misconduct in misleading the world about the coronavirus and negligently facilitating the spread of it to the whole world, will, it appears, be treated subtly by the Trump Administration: it is generating international irritation with China and inflicting, without epithets or grandstanding, precisely the diminution of Chinese prestige to which that ancient nationality is so sensitive.
Trump will not rage or threaten, at least in public. He will maintain correct official relations while new trade arrangements come into effect but will evict China from control of the World Health Organization, and subtly incinerate a good deal of its influence for a time. There is no natural dispute between Russia and the United States, as long as the Russians do not become aggressive in Ukraine or the Balkan states. Trump, contrary to what his opponents think is compulsive behavior for him, is following Theodore Roosevelt’s counsel to “speak softly and carry a big stick,” and it is working.