US and Russia taking us on path to major global disorder

US and Russia taking us on path to major global disorder

This month began with a sinister sense of deja vu at a global level thanks to US President Donald Trump’s threat to drag the world into a trade war, which in his opinion is “a good thing,” and Russian President Vladimir Putin’s flamboyant unveiling of a new generation of nuclear-tipped intercontinental ballistic missiles, which in his view are “invulnerable to interception.” The latter announcement, coming weeks before Putin is slated to win another term as president, is seen by analysts as setting the clock back to the era of superpower arms races, amid growing fears that the world may be entering a new phase of Cold War.
In his commitment to his mantra of putting “America First,” Trump has been consistent in at least one thing: Fulfilling the campaign promises that appealed to his core voter base. Among the things he repeatedly said was the unproven and controversial allegation that, when it came to free trade, America was being swindled by its allies and foes alike. His populist-driven response was to promise to renegotiate multilateral trade agreements, such as the North American Free Trade Agreement, and to protect beleaguered US industries such as steel, oil, automotive, and coal mining.
And surely he did take a couple of steps toward that endeavor last week by announcing that he was about to impose a 25 percent tariff on steel imports and 10 percent on aluminum. Two days later, amid strong rebukes from America’s closest allies and China, the president threatened to increase customs duty on cars imported from the EU. Whether he will make good on his threats remains to be seen.
He justified his hard-hitting position on global trade in a number of tweets, with one asserting that the US has “$800 billion yearly trade deficit because of our ‘very stupid’ trade deals and policies. Our jobs and wealth are being given to other countries that have taken advantage of us for years. They laugh at what fools our leaders have been. No more!”

Worldwide trade war and multilateral arms race pose an unprecedented double threat to security and stability, with both costing trillions of dollars and neither ending with a clear winner.

Osama Al Sharif

Canada, the largest exporter of steel to the US, followed by the EU and South Korea, promised to defend Canadian industries. EU officials said they would consider slapping 25 percent tariffs on major US imports, worth $3.5 billion, including Levi’s jeans and Harley-Davidson motorbikes. China said it would take “necessary measures” if its interests were hurt, while Brazil, Mexico and Japan said they would retaliate if Trump goes ahead with his threats.
The International Monetary Fund, World Trade Organization and even some Republicans criticized the president’s approach and warned of destructive trade wars. Since the mid-1990s, the WTO has been working to remove trade barriers and regulate international trade. Since then, a new intricately connected, interdependent globalized trade infrastructure has emerged; one that is impossible to roll back. Imposing tariffs on imports and abandoning multilateral trade agreements is contrary to the interests of all sides. For example, Trump is reminded that one major European car manufacturer, BMW, makes more cars in its US factories than in Germany, where it is based. And it is only reasonable to assume that countries will retaliate to US measures by imposing tariffs on imports, thus hurting both consumers and manufacturers on all sides. 
Trade wars had become a thing of the past; as had the time when the US and the rump Soviet Union engaged in a costly and dangerous arms race, especially at the height of the Cold War. Putin’s excuse for pouring billions into Russia’s resurgent arsenal is based on America’s withdrawal from the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty in 2002 and its subsequent investment in an anti-missile shield in Western Europe. Regardless of Putin’s reasons, his boasting of controlling a new generation of ICBMs will surely be met with an unyielding US response. An arms race seems inevitable and this time it will include China, which is both an economic and military giant.
Putin wants to make Russia a great superpower again. His territorial and geopolitical ambitions have been demonstrated clearly in the past few years in the Crimea, Ukraine, Syria and the Baltic states. With US-Russia relations at their lowest point in decades, Cold War-like conditions are quickly forming. A global trade war and a multilateral arms race pose an unprecedented double threat to world and regional security and stability. Both will cost trillions of dollars and neither will end with a clear winner. 
The existing world order has often been criticized for its many faults. It has been responsible for major climate and environment-related catastrophes, a widening gap between rich and poor, regional instability leading to acute humanitarian crises, the emergence of non-state radical groups, and the weakening of conflict resolution bodies such as the UN. But the alternative now, in the wake of last week’s events, appears to be worse: World disorder, leading to global chaos. Small and underprivileged countries will bear the brunt of those two threats.
A multilateral approach by key countries and blocs is needed to avert certain collapse. The US, Russia, China and the EU must work together to stem the twin threats of a global trade war and an unchecked arms race. The pressing reason should be that no winners will emerge out of the two confrontations and everyone stands to lose.

Osama Al Sharif is a journalist and political commentator based in Amman. Twitter: @plato010
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