Pax Americana has died with the 45th president of the U.S. Donald Trump is, first and foremost, a businessman seeking to make money at any cost to the detriment of diplomacy, an art he does not make any effort to master (in fact, diplomacy seems to be something he despises). It should then come as no surprise when he wages both a trade war with some world powers and, simultaneously, seeks political peace with others. Will this strategy help him secure a second term? It remains to be seen.
The conflict: Trade war – all hell broke loose!
In 2018, President Trump, known for his heightened protectionism, started a trade war by imposing a series of tariff barriers on various products such as steel, aluminum, washing machines, and solar panels. This low-speed trade war impacted Canada, Mexico, the EU, and China. They responded in kind. Consequently, retaliation has manifested itself in three ways, varying according to the relationship with each country.
Firstly, a dominant-dominated relationship marks the trade war with its geographic neighbors (Mexico and Canada). The preferred weapon is rhetoric on both sides. The U.S. threatens because it knows very well that its neighbors are not very intimidating; they are “soft” countries, politically speaking, with economies in large part dependent upon the U.S. Hence, NAFTA was renegotiated after months of uncertainty. The United States–Mexico–Canada Agreement was signed in the margins of the G20 Summit in Buenos Aires on November 30, 2018, to the great relief of some and much chagrin of others. The war of words via tweets and comments to journalists’ flares up from time to time, as the relationship with Canada and Mexico is unfavorably balanced towards the U.S.
Secondly, the absence of a frontal attack characterizes the trade war with the Europeans. Instead, it stems from an economic spirituality subject to an internal cultural shock from Western values represented by both Protestant and Catholic values. The EU is a significant competitor that will not let itself be beaten easily. Tariff barriers are applied on both sides, while calls for reflection, negotiation, and compromise to achieve a nuanced balance between the U.S. and the EU are considered.
Thirdly, a more overt and direct confrontation characterizes the trade war with China, which is much sharper. The weapon of preference is the implementation of tariff barriers, with their boomerang effect on both sides. This war, with a communist authoritarian competitor who threatens American hegemony, is a long-term war and is part of a series of tit-for-tat reprisals. Financial markets and industries, including those involved in high tech, are experiencing the upheavals of this war of titans. With the U.S. elections approaching and the threat of an unprecedented global depression due to the COVID-19 pandemic, the trade war with China keeps intensifying on and off, as the relationship with China is at a stalemate where strong-arm tactics are benefiting one or the other depending on the case.
The obstacles: Pax Americana – a global tectonic commotion.
Given the current situation, all things considered, President Trump is, above all, a businessman who thinks in terms of income and earnings. His administration’s first strategic line is to disengage from its obligations abroad to limit deadweight losses. Trump insisted that the Europeans take over the NATO budget by increasing their spending to 4% of their gross domestic product on defense. In addition, just as he insisted that Germany must finance maintenance and logistics expenses, Trump then demanded that Japan and South Korea pay billions more for the presence of the American army in their countries while emphasizing and encouraging their purchase of American weapons. Trump is even disengaging from the UN and its institutions by withdrawing, for example, from UNESCO and reneging on their support of the WHO. The American weight shifts from heavy to feather.
Notwithstanding, Trump is trying to end the era of wars started by his predecessors, especially in Iraq (a loss benefiting Iran) and Afghanistan (where the Taliban win). However, he has rekindled two hotbeds of tension with global consequences. By withdrawing from the JCPOA signed by Obama on May 8, 2018, Trump triggered the first reaction of the veto powers and put Germany, his Western ‘friends’, into a conflicted position, especially since Iran had respected its commitments, as recognized by all. Trump changed the rules of the game during the match, which is inconceivable for a rational mind. The withdrawal was prepared in advance by U.S. threats in October 2017; threats to which the Iranians have not given into. To add to all this, by previously recognizing Jerusalem as the capital of Israel on December 6, 2017, Trump drew against him the entire Muslim world and broke the UN-imposed status quo while selling arms to Saudi Arabia and the UAE under the guise of protection against the Iranian threat. Trump awakens his enemy and sells weapons to fight him while fanning the embers of dormant hotbeds in the MENA region. Moreover, in the new global war emerging with Trump, Pakistan has evolved from an ally to a potential enemy because of its well-woven relations with China through its CPEC, the Pashtuns close to the Taliban, and the Iranians…
In terms of action, Trump behaves in the same way by dissociating himself from other powers and by playing the lone ranger thanks to his arrogance (and ignorance?) to then reconfigure the international chessboard in the image of his vision of the world in which he is the CEO of the largest holding company, the U.S. With Trump, moral authority and its influence have diminished in importance across all continents, which opens the way to the consolidation of a multipolar world in which China, Russia, India, Turkey, and Iran each play a predominant regional role and in which the West has seen its role diminishing and even vanishing.
The climax: ‘Shame on who sings while Rome burns’ (Lamartine)
The current global context adds a layer of complexity to an already complicated situation. At the international level, Trump’s actions and their consequences are reminiscent of the past. An atavistic resurgence of social conditions between the world wars is striking in this regard. Indeed, the Spanish flu killed 50 million people worldwide. The 1929 Wall Street Stock Market Crash led to the Great Depression that spread from the U.S. to the rest of the world. The collapse of the Ottoman, Russian and Austro-Hungarian empires, the rise of new players like the U.S., and the creation of the USSR remodeled international power relations. Ideologies like fascism and Nazism emerged. The colonial empires in Africa and Asia attained their height. Finally, the existence of dictators and a lack of democracy combined with human, political, and military brutality exacerbated the rise of nationalism that led to the Second World War.
What is happening today? The COVID-19 pandemic is hitting the world badly, leading to lockdowns everywhere, stock market yoyos, shrinking economies combined with even further wealth concentration, and pessimistic predictions of a great depression looming in 2020-2021. International relations are experiencing a new configuration with the weakening of the West (EU disunity, U.S. isolation and their population’s explosion at long last versus murderous racism), the rise of new regional powers (Russia, China, Turkey, Iran, India), the emergence of populist and far-right movements (Brazil, Italy), the appearance of a new form of colonialism (China’s Belt and Road Initiative) as well as a worrisome global decline in democracy which raise the question whether the world is heading toward the Third World War or no…
At the national level, American society is divided more than ever between Trump supporters and detractors and between the rich and the poor. The pandemic has severely hit the country, with the most victims globally and a health system that is haphazard and systematically unfair to those on the lower rungs. At the same time, the civil uprising following the assassination of George Floyd by a police officer continues to gain momentum everywhere, relayed by media and social media. Police violence and racism towards Black, Latins and Native American (First Nations) people echo the earlier violence and segregation; a segregation that has mutated through the decades. Trump is just adding insult to injury with meaningless tweets, controversial statements, and revealing silences.
Just like Emperor Nero burnt Rome and watched it burn for days on end, Trump has done the same in the world and in his own country! Is it a knowingly, intentionally-maintained Trumpist tactic to win the next elections as his base crystallizes around him when he is under ‘attack’, or is it a chain of events that Trump has lost control of and whose outcome is unknown?
This article was originally published in Turkish on Gorus21.com on June 22, 2020: TRUMP MUHAREBEYİ, SADECE SAVAŞI KAYBETMEK İÇİN Mİ KAZANDI?
Dr Fatima-Zohra Er-Rafia is a lecturer at HEC Montréal and Polytechnique Montréal, a consultant, and an independent researcher. She holds a PhD in Business Administration with a focus on China and Japan. Dr Er-Rafia specializes in international affairs, geopolitics, cross-cultural management, and strategy. Her focus is on Weberian sociology, politics, economics, and history, and she uses aspects of all these disciplines to study Asia. Dr Er-Rafia previously served as a Corporate Strategist at Desjardins Group and as a Management Consultant, Director of Operations, and a Strategy and Business Development Consultant at Stratégies Internationales. She provides training for Business Executives at the international level and regularly gives presentations about Asia’s geopolitics, and its business, management, and culture. She is the recipient of several honors and awards and author of two book chapters on China and Japan, several articles and business case studies. For more info: www.fatimaerrafia.com