The Weakening West: Opportunities for the East
The West in the Era of Trump
As the first quarter of the 21st century unfolds, there are many signs that the West, led by the United States of America, is struggling to maintain it’s dominant influence in the world. After the end of World War II, in 1945, the United States of America played a central role in encouraging the economic and governmental cooperation between countries of Western Europe, Canada and itself. As time moved on, this union of peace grew to incorporate other countries, and through it all, the United States has been the heart of the system. The system created has been truly unique with respect to the shared values, common goals, economic successes and mutual respect shared between these countries. However, this new, and often termed liberal world order, which has been defined, dominated and nurtured by the United States, continues, in recent years, to be challenged in a way that increases the likelihood that the West will be weakened as the dominant power in the unfolding 21st century.
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Factors within and external to the West will play key roles in the weakening of its hold. First, the strength and unity of the United States itself, as the leader and defender of the liberal order, is now in crisis. This crisis of unity and rise in populism now extends beyond the borders of the United States to other key nations of the western world, further eroding the very values, policies and institutions that define the West. Second, the presence of weakened, unpredictable and misguided leadership in the United States is having a profoundly negative impact on the future of the United States as the leader of the West. And finally, China in the East, sits poised to challenge what is already a weakened international order. It is a time of great challenge for the West and it appears that the liberal world order, as known today, will be weakened in the coming decades.
The last couple of years have given us cause to observe that important challenges in foreign policies seem to be coming more from within the countries themselves than from between the countries in the West. In 2016, two powerful nations that have played key roles in the creation of the liberal order, the United States and the United Kingdom, appear to have turned away from this ideal. The rise of populism has been exemplified by the election of President Trump in the USA and the exit of the UK from the European Union, or Brexit.
Populism is best described as a commitment to strong leaders and a disdain for powerful institutions and limits on sovereignty. It suggests a suspicion and hostility aimed at elites, mainstream politics and well- established institutions. Of course many of those very institutions are at the heart of the liberal world order such as the United Nations, the European Union, the World Trade Organization, and others. Through these institutions we have enjoyed peace, safety, and economic stability.
Under Donald Trump, a populist leader, he has convinced many that he is there for the people, that he will save them and that he eschews the important institutions as unnecessary, expensive and unhelpful to the people. The very middle class that the liberal world order has helped to create are now turning against it. The working class resent the elite and rich and believe that they gain from international institutions and gain favor with higher ups in government. “America first” was a slogan that has become the new reality of the USA. In the case of Brexit, the British government under the leadership of David Cameron held a referendum on whether or not Britain should leave the European Union. To the shock of the world a majority voted to leave. As with the pro-Trump supporters, the pro-Brexit supporters believed that such dramatic change, in this case leaving the EU, was essential to restore the very identity of the country and its people. The “Take Control” slogan appears to have convinced many. It appears that the populist movement, in which a large segment of the poor and working-class population becomes anti-establishment and anti-elite has voted against the mainstream political leanings, once again. The very Union that has brought us peace for the last 70 years is now under growing strain. The impact of leaving the European Union remains to be seen for Britain itself, but this action most certainly weakens the very unified Europe that we have all counted on as a powerful component of the liberal world order of the West.
With the recognition of the United States as the historical nurturer and leader of the West it is logical to expect that the President of the United States would espouse principles of mutual respect and cooperation with the other countries of the West, in addition to shared beliefs and goals. With the election of Donald Trump the very leadership of the country, and of it’s future and of the West is threatened. Trump appears to see the United States cooperation with the greater West as somehow costing the country more than it is benefitting it. Two significant decisions by Trump since coming into office illustrate just how seriously he seeks to appeal to his domestic base, regardless of its impact beyond the country’s borders.
Trump recently announced a decision to withdraw the United States from the Paris Climate Agreement. In 2015, 195 countries attending the Paris Climate Conference adopted the first ever universal global climate deal. The main goal of the agreement is to keep global average temperatures from rising 2 degrees by the end of the century. Beyond 2 degrees promises catastrophic weather changes threatening man’s very survival. For the U.S. the pledge they made was to reduce 26 to 28 percent greenhouse gas reductions by 2026. The agreement is to create a culture of accountability and hopefully some peer pressure between countries will be at work. President Trump’s decision to withdraw has many believing, including Former Energy Secretary and US negotiator for the Paris Climate Agreement, Ernest Moniz, that his decision is more about politics, even about theatre, than it is anything to do with climate. Again, he is playing to his domestic base at home, focused on the United States, with little regard for other countries, or for the world at large. Without the United States there is no doubt that the Agreement will be weakened, not to mention the remarkable coalition of all but two countries, who worked so hard to come to such a remarkable agreement.
On the first day of President Trump’s presidency he also pulled the United States out of the Trans-Pacific Partnership Agreement. This is a trade agreement between twelve countries, responsible for 40% of the world’s trade, that border the Pacific Ocean. They signed up to this agreement in 2016. The agreement was ultimately aimed at helping these countries to encourage trade between them and to deepen their economic ties. It is believed that this deal, once ratified, would have supported greatly the United States’ position in the Asia-Pacific region, where China’s influence is being felt more and more. Trump called it a “horrible deal” when on the campaign trail and claimed that it aims to benefit big business and other countries and that, in the process, jobs in the United States would be threatened. While the USA now appears focused on its domestic interests, far from it’s previous role as the leader of the West, China now sits poised to replace the West as the new world leader.
Gideon Rachman, in his new book Easternization writes of a transformed Asia. In his words, “the West’s centuries-long domination of world affairs is now coming to a close.” China, a country of enormous population and administrative determination, is on the move to take advantage of the refocusing of the recent United States administrative decisions and to assume control as the Eastern leader.
In 2014 China became the worlds largest economy. A fast expanding military speaks to the confidence the leaders have in it’s own strength with respect to the United States and its own neighbors. China’s President Xi Jinping dedicates far more time visiting the People’s Liberation Army headquarters than his predecessors and clearly has as a mandate to develop new military policies and bolster Chinese Communist Party propaganda. China is claiming ownership of waters claimed by other eastern countries and is building artificial islands and sending airplanes and ships to challenge fishing boundaries and oil resources.
Many ongoing decisions of the United States administration bear evidence of their apparent willingness to forfeit power and leadership to China, in exchange for building their internal appeal to the general populous. Removing itself from the Paris Climate Agreement has left China the opportunity now to move forward with leadership in this area and to pledge new partnerships with members of the Agreement. Likewise, a few weeks after the United States removed itself from the Trans-Pacific Partnership China sent high-ranking diplomats to meet with the remaining members of the partnership to discuss forming a new regional trade partnership with China, rather than the United States, as a member.
Just this week an article appears in Foreign Affairs in which Casarini writes about “A New Era for EU-China Relations?-How They Are Forging Ahead Without the United States”. He details several ways in which China is recently working with the EU. Beijing is trying to charm Europe through investments. Europe is now the top destination for Chinese foreign investments, surpassing the United States. Both China and the EU have pledged to continue efforts to reduce pollution and combat rising sea levels even, without the United States. Casarini believes it is likely that the EU and China will foster ties on security and defence as well. However, he points out quickly that “A China-EU alliance would be more a marriage of convenience than a solid partnership—one that is facilitated by Brexit and that revolves around a shared antagonism for Trump.”
The future of the West, with the
United States in a leadership role, faces major threats and, on it’s current
trajectory, stands to weaken as the 21st century unfolds. With the
President of the United States working to remove his country from agreements
focused on the collective welfare of many countries, in favor of pleasing his
own voter base, combined with the rise of populist governments within the West,
the future does not look hopeful. With the West weakened and lacking
leadership, the East is well poised and stepping forward to strengthen it’s
leadership on many fronts, including areas of economics, security and climate.
It may be that China will forge alliances with members of the existing West,
but one thing is certain, the West as it has been known until recently, will
not exist and the future remains unclear.
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