Scholars have written about US decline since the late 1980s, but successive presidents have worked against this trend, projecting American power overseas while bolstering the nation’s standing as leader of the free world. In the last year, however, Trump’s status as an isolationist threatened this role.
Given its very real regional security issues, the Asian sphere has been a focus of US administrations for the last two decades. But following Trump’s recent tour of the region, it is clear that his commitment to its stability is in jeopardy, as allies doubt the US role as security guarantor and regional players such as China and North Korea fill the vacuum.
China in particular chose to couch Trump’s visit in pomp and ceremony, avoiding any discussion of hard policy. Trump, who should have used his visit to project US power, was distracted by the show and instead spoke fawningly of “the very special man” and his “warm” friendship with President Xi Jing Ping. There was no mention of Beijing’s posturing in the South China Sea; rather, Trump hailed Xi for his recent consolidation of power.
Pakistan can do more to combat terror, but the US will only be able to influence Islamabad via a frank working relationship rather than isolating it.
Zaid M. Belbagi
Erstwhile US allies such as South Korea and Pakistan have seemed at odds with the Trump administration. Following a rare overture by North Korea to open dialogue with the South, Trump’s saber-rattling on Twitter immediately damaged any goodwill brought about by the move.
His hyperbole over America’s nuclear deterrent has drawn consternation from observers, especially given the delicateness of the diplomatic situation and the effort required for Russia and China to commit to sanctions on North Korea.
Trump’s threat to withdraw aid from countries that would decline to support the US at the UN illustrated a worrying trend in his policymaking. As the UN voted resoundingly against US recognition of Jerusalem as Israel’s capital, Trump’s inability to grasp the nature of the situation was all too clear.
In treating diplomacy as a zero-sum game, he had expected a threat to result in votes in support of the US. But in an increasingly globalized world with multiple sources of development aid, Trump was wrong to use aid as a bargaining chip, and the US was left diplomatically exposed after last month’s historic vote.
A similar tactic has been deployed regarding the sensitive relationship with Pakistan. As a recipient of US military and development aid, Pakistan has been key to the situation in Afghanistan and to efforts to avoid regional nuclear proliferation. With Trump stonewalling an already delayed payment of $225 million in military aid, he risks destabilizing a crucial alliance with short-term threats.
Pakistan can do more to combat terror and to rein in groups such as the Haqqani Network, but the US will only be able to influence Islamabad via a frank working relationship rather than isolating it or pushing it toward Iran or China.
At several points in their long relationship, the US has halted aid to Pakistan entirely; in the 1990s it even closed the offices of USAID. So Pakistan’s leadership and military are acutely aware that other, more reliable, alliances will be necessary, especially if the current relationship is used by Trump to exert pressure.
Candidate Trump lashed out at NATO and US allies, hoping to focus on domestic policy. As president, he was expected to adjust to the complexities of international diplomacy, in keeping with the traditional understanding that the view from the Oval Office is unique.
Earlier in his presidency, aides squirmed as he insisted on a bilateral trade deal with Germany despite Chancellor Angela Merkel explaining twice that such a relationship would have to extend to all EU member states.
Illustrative of a complete disregard for the international system, the meeting was one of several instances where he has left observers perplexed. If the legacy of his predecessor was reaching a global accord on climate change, Trump’s may well be that he dismantled America’s alliances.
• Zaid M. Belbagi is a political commentator, and an adviser to private clients between London and the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC).