Welcome to the Trumped World (Dis)Order!

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Donald J. Trump has been sworn in as the 45th president of the US. The relationship between two world-powers-- the US and China is already at a crossroads with his rise in US politics. The Chinese leadership is anxious while Russia’s strongman Vladimir Putin seems to be jubilant. America is divided as never before.  A new world order seems to be in the making. In an interview with the television channel CBS, former US secretary of state Henry Kissinger called the rise of Trump as “a phenomenon that foreign countries have not seen”. But what exactly is the ‘Trump phenomenon’? This article seeks to decode Trump phenomenon.

The US is becoming increasingly dissatisfied with the current international order. If recent rhetoric by Trump and the Chinese reaction to it is any guide, a new dynamics appears in the power shift. The hegemon, the US, is a dissatisfied power, while People's Republic of China (PRC), its rising challenger, seems to be relatively more satisfied. The theme of the speeches delivered by Chinese President Xi Jinping in the last APEC summit and recent Davos Summit were similar to that delivered by the US presidents in the past. Now, the chief architect of the liberal world order is retracting from its previous commitments but a country that has not yet been given a ‘free market' status by many is becoming the champion of international free trade. It is in fact a very big paradigm shift in the international politics that happened recently.

The ‘Make America great Again’ slogan of Trump accepts that America is declining. Had America not declined, the slogan about rejuvenation of USA would have been irrelevant.  Trump’s strategy for rejuvenating USA is domestic retrenchment and realignment in foreign policy. As part of this two-pronged strategy, he is going to do the following: First, in the coming days, US will try to spend less on international public goods. US will try to reduce its commitments to the United Nations, NATO and other international institutions. Second, Trump administration will try to decelerate China’s rise by disrupting the economic development of China through tariff and non-tariff trade barriers. Trump is constantly alleging China of being a currency manipulator, job stealer and supplier of sub-standard goods into the US market. He is clearly hinting about protectionist policies to be adopted by his administration. Third, Trump administration might try overtly or covertly to destabilize internal politics within China. The Taiwan issue will remain a thorny issue during Trump’s presidency whether he backtracks from ‘One China Policy’ or not. Fourth, Trump will make realignment with Russia since it is less powerful adversary in the long run. Given the super large population, super large territory, huge economy growing at an unprecedented pace for the last three decades, and meritocratic and significantly efficient political-bureaucratic state machinery, China becoming the most powerful country in the future is almost inevitable. That seems to be a big worry for president Trump.

For the neo-realists, tripolar world is the most dangerous place to live. Probably Trump’s foreign policy advisers also think that way. Trump has constantly argued that Russia is a lesser threat compared to China. For the neo-realists in Trump’s camp, the alignment of United States with Russia will make the international system more stable. Another incentive for possible US-Russia rapprochement is that Russia is ready to share burden to fight destabilizing forces like ISIS in Syria. Russia also has a lot of influence in the Middle East. If annexation of Crimea is recognized as legitimate by the Trump administration in one way or the other, Russia will be appeased to a large extent, and it will be easier for the US to run the show as the global hegemon. China is, in fact, a lesser troublemaker.

After all, the million dollar question that arises is: will retrenching rejuvenate USA? Will it at least decelerate the decline of USA? Will President Trump be able to ‘make America great again’? We have no accurate answers to these questions at the moment. Trump can obviously be given the benefit of doubt. However, a number of factors point toward a pessimistic scenario. First, very few retrenching attempt by declining hegemons have been successful in the past. Retrenching is in itself a sign of weakness. Second, because of scandalous and controversial background of President Trump, the US has already lost significant amount of its ‘soft power’. Third, retrenchment means less commitment to allies of the US, which might lead to a rift with its European and East Asian allies. Some of the less-committed allies of the US might change sides and align with China if it becomes beneficial for them. Fourth, the trade barriers and high tariffs for foreign goods might actually harm the US economy because this might lead to high price of consumer goods. Furthermore, if the biggest economy of the world adopts openly protectionist policies, others also will react the same way. This might hurt American business at the global level. Moreover, the realignment with Russia might be useful tool to contain rising China, but given the level of opposition within the US and among its allies, it might ultimately backfire for the Trump administration.

It seems, three and a half decades of the strange love affair between the US and China is over. In fact, immediately after the end of Cold War, the usefulness of Cold War China policy of the US was questioned by many. However, the huge potential benefit of doing business in China helped to slow down the shift in the US’s China policy. Similarly, terrorist attack in the US in 2001 and the great recession after seven years of that attack made it very difficult for the US to focus on China. At the moment, the US has no other big distractions except what is going on in the Middle East. Ironically, President Barack Obama’s ‘pivot’ to Asia itself was the beginning of President Trump’s policy of alienating China.

In the last two and a half decades, China had the convenience of stability and predictability in the domestic and international politics. China will no longer enjoy this convenience. The Chinese leadership needs to be ready for a new ‘Trumped World (dis)Order.

(Author is currently pursuing PhD in International Relations)

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