Globalism is dead. Sovereignty is back with a vengeance. Russia and China along with Iran and North Korea are the “nouveau” enemies of the United States. And, hard power is the “new” game in town, so to speak, for the country. These are the thematic concerns and central ideas of the Trump administration’s National Security Strategy. Short on substance and rather long on rhetorical flourishes- especially in the paean to the nature and foundational ideas of the United States-, the Trump administration’s National Security Strategy, by putting “America First”, disavows ideology and ideological commitments, and commits itself to what it calls “ principled realism”. The qualifier is actually superfluous. The United States is veering rather comprehensively to the realist tradition of International Relations. In the realist schema, sovereignty and the state are central and cardinal. The corollary that flows from the centrality of the state is that the elemental quest of states is power and security. In the quest for power and security, the United States is reviewing its past commitment(s) to globalization and globalism, according primacy to narrowly defined interests. This has both an international relations/ politics dimension and a political economy one. In terms of international relations, the United States will be now focusing on building ad augmenting its “ hard power”- that is, its military capacities and capabilities, through “full spectrum dominance” among other things, which includes a review of sorts of its nuclear posture, paradigm and deterrence capabilities. All this is aimed at achieving “peace through strength”, according to the country’s National Security Strategy document.
Alliances will be built and crystallized on the basis of America’s interests and the expansiveness that defines the countries past approach will be reviewed. In this schema, China and Russia become the central adversaries for the United States, along with Iran in the Middle East and North Korea. From a political economy perspective, the United States will take recourse to what could be called “loose mercantilism” and protectionism. (Obiter Dictum, the National Security Strategy document does not call this approach as either mercantilism or protectionism. Instead, it seeks to obscure this by a long winded phraseology that refers to the new approach and practice as “fair trade”). Intellectual property will be sought to be protected and innovation will be encouraged and nurtured, to maintain the United States’ edge.
Immigration will be tightened up and, instead of a relaxed policy grid and approach, a “merit based” program or policy will be instituted. This, in the view of the document, will alleviate multifarious burdens – fiscal, social and political-on the United States and deter illegal immigration. Only those deemed and held to contribute to the efflorescence of the United States will actually be let in.
Regionally, China appears to be held almost as the peer competitor of the United States- both in terms of International Relations and political economy. The strategy document devotes significant and substantial ire against China and Russia to some extent, calling both “revisionist” powers. In dealing with both China and Russia, the United States will seek new allies and partners which “ share” the country’s values and vision. The reference- both implied and explicit- here is to India and allies like Japan and South Korea. In this schema, the Indo- Pacific Region becomes the key arena and stage.
The United States, according to the National Security Document, will also help “fragile” states. Along with this, Jihadist organizations will be constantly and consistently on the radar of the country as it will seek to not only deter these but also go after them. The Middle East assumes salience for the United States here. There is a passage on Europe but besides implicitly terming the entity as enhancing United States’ implied “force multiplier” and reference(s) to the past with bland reference to Europe being a zone of peace and prosperity, there is not much substantive attention to it. The document also prioritizes cyber security and, in lieu of this, will augment the country’s cyber capabilities and capacities.
The United State’s diplomacy will be tweaked and aligned with the country’s “new” national interests. The overall aim would be to increase the country’s influence. And, the country will seek to maintain leadership of international institutions which, according to the document, need reform.
All in all, the United States’ new National Security document, is not free from contradictions even though it is clear on its ideational premise- Realism. Consider the case of augmenting the country’s influence. By putting “America First”- a phrase that many Americans would rather reflexively like without actually understanding the implications and consequences- the United States is turning inward and somewhat isolationist, which will , in reality, undercut and undermine the country’s influence. And, by focusing and emphasizing upon hard power over “soft” or even “ smart power”- the synthesis of hard and soft power- it is not clear how the United States will enhance its influence. Unless the actual meaning of increasing influence is encouraging and crystallizing a concert of powers whose interests are “naturally” aligned with the United States. If this holds, then in a way, the Trump administration is paving the way for regional power blocs which could, mean a diluted version of the Clash of Civilizations.
Shorn of accretions, the United States’ National Security Strategy document is rooting for a return to Westphalia, so to speak. That is, by reviving or resuscitating the concept of sovereignty and its concomitants, and my making a fetish of the state, power and its elements, the country is attempting to push or even roll back globalization. The country is viewing the world as it is and not as it ought which corresponds to the school of Realism in International Relations. This has clear cut implications for human rights. Realism (whatever nomenclature is employed), in essence, only concerns itself with relations between states; it does not look into what goes on within states. The United States commitment to realism then means that states will be free to do whatever they want to their people, except when the country’s strategic interests will be involved. By way of an example, the United States will accept the status quo in the Middle East and be content in dealing with the regimes of the region, regardless of what the people in this region think or want. But, if the case in contention will be North Korea or even Iran, then the United States could use human rights as the ram rod and pretext to go after these countries.
A glaring short coming, in terms of political economy, in the United States National Security Strategy, is how the country can actually rescind globalization and the complex interdependence that is its complement. An example might illustrate this point. The Chinese have bought American Treasury Bills (bonds) in massive numbers. This has a bearing on the United States and, by extension, the world’s interest rates and thereby the health of the United States’ economy. Moreover, who will fund the country’s Current Account Deficit (CAD)? If the idea is to rope in countries like India and so on, and by virtue of capital and trade flows fund the CAD, then it surely will not be enough.
All in all, if the new National Security document is followed in letter and spirit, there will be a rejigg of international relations and political economy of the world. Trade wars, trade disruptions, revamp of alliances and alliance systems, economic disruptions and disturbances and overall volatility will define the world at large. The world is then at the cusp of radical uncertainty. The United States, is actually trying to maintain its hegemony and leadership by virtue of revamping and reviewing past assumptions and practices, and by focusing exclusively on power. While the country may or may not maintain its hegemony, but surely, it is and has abdicated and forfeited its claim to leadership. Leadership, even in prosaic dimensions of life, carries prices and costs and, in the ultimate analysis, there is always a moral dimension to it. The United States, however, is in the midst of forfeiting leadership. This might not be bad at all. The “lone superpower” has had its share of power and leadership and now it may be the turn of others. In a way, the National Security Strategy document of the United States also inaugurates, without realizing it, a more multipolar world, whose axes appear to hinge on regionalism. This too is welcome. The United States could and did not handle power well. By way of natural justice, the country is forfeiting and abdicating leadership, ironically, not through the challenge of an outside or foreign power, but by forces within. Decline, it would appear, can happen serendipitously too!
—The author can be reached at: firstname.lastname@example.org