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Now that President-elect Donald Trump has selected his national security team, what course will he set? In a recent interview Henry Kissinger cautions that “America has conceived of foreign policy as a series of discrete challenges to be addressed as they arise on their merits rather than as part of an overall design.” Mr Trump, the deal-by-deal negotiator, may prefer to run a case-by-case foreign policy.
For 70 years, US international problem-solving has taken place within the framework that the US created after the second world war and then adapted. That framework is now at risk. States created in the Middle East in 1916 have broken down into a life-and-death struggle among sects and tribes, manipulated by local would-be hegemons. The new battleground supplies a cause and base from which radical Islamic terrorists reach around the world. The chaos has triggered a destabilising migration to the EU. Furthermore, countries in the region — Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Iran — have struggled unsuccessfully to transition to modern market economies, raising the risk of an even larger upheaval.
The European integration project that has been the foundation of transatlantic strategy since the Marshall Plan is fragmenting. Neither Britain nor the EU has a constructive plan for Brexit. Fearful populist-nationalists in eastern Europe recall destructive movements of the 1920s and 1930s. The eurozone is struggling. Even stalwarts of the European project, such as the Netherlands and Italy, are losing faith.
Seizing opportunities, Russia has extended its power in the Middle East and Europe with a mix of military force, brute threats, cyber attacks and disinformation. President Vladimir Putin wants to protect Russia’s southern flank from Islamic dangers, repel European influence and constrain the US within a system of competing powers.
The strategic question in Asia is whether China will demand regional dominance or an adaptation of the current order to reflect Beijing’s power and interests. Mr Kissinger believes that China’s preferred system is one of tributary states. President Xi Jinping moved promptly at the summit of the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation forum to fill the vacuum created by Mr Trump’s abandonment of the US-led Trans-Pacific Partnership.
The world is highly alert to signals from the US. Before long, Mr Trump and his team will be tested by crises, as all presidents have been. Their responses need to reflect a strategic framework of US interest and leadership.
History offers insights. First, the US needs continental security. In the 19th century, the US expanded its territory to assure safety. For the past 80 years, since Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s “Good Neighbor Policy”, the US has worked to build a stronger North America with Canada and Mexico — as a continental base for global power projection.
Second, the US relies on strong, resilient and confident alliances across the Atlantic and Pacific. These ties enable the US to safeguard interests on the western and eastern shores of the vast Eurasian expanse. Nato and the evolving Pacific alliance network encompass America’s closest partners. The US also enjoys special ties to Israel and states in the Gulf, and has been building a partnership with India.
Third, America needs to modernise international economic ties to advance both national interests and global growth. The US needs rules on trade, capital flows, investment, exchange rates, the digital economy, and intellectual property that will enable America’s private sector dynamism to shape the world’s economic system.
Fourth, the US should be alert to changes in the western hemisphere, in concert with Latin American friends. Since the 1820s, the US vision of a New World of republics that can shape the Old has waxed and waned. In coming years, new leadership in Brazil and Argentina offers opportunities. Cuba and Venezuela are also ripe for change.
Fifth, the US needs to invest in superior military power, both in punch and technology, while following Teddy Roosevelt’s guidance on defence diplomacy: “Walk softly and carry a big stick.”
Finally, history recounts how the American Experiment became American Exceptionalism. Across different eras, the US has stood as a “Shining City on the Hill”: an architect of open doors for private sector initiative, a voice for liberty and human rights and the leader of the free world.
Amid the uncertainties of this new era, the Trump administration will need to match power with purpose. Mr Kissinger observed, “Trump has not put forward a worldview.” Now is the time.
The writer is a former president of the World Bank, US trade representative and deputy secretary of state
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