A weak president in a chaotic world
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On Tuesday, 8 November, the US, the world’s second largest democracy, will elect its 45th president. Irrespective of who is elected, given the bitterly contested election, the president will be a weak leader facing opposition from their own party as well as from the rival party and extreme groups. Such a weak executive of the world’s predominant power will also be confronted with a far more chaotic world and challenges from other rising and declining states, non-state actors and myriad transnational threats even as the global institutions, alliances and arrangements to address them are found wanting.
Among states, a recalcitrant Russia will demand more attention from the next US president than it probably deserves. Moscow will continue to defy the established post-Cold War order in Europe, particularly in Ukraine, and retain its hold on Crimea. Moscow has also been chipping away at the hard-negotiated bilateral agreements on intermediate nuclear forces and fissile material arrangements.
Even as bilateral relations remain tendentious, Russia’s presence in Syria is unlikely to diminish and might also increase. This is likely to sustain the US-Russia proxy war in Syria. The undeclared conflict might even escalate if the US attempts to impose a unilateral no-fly zone. This contest will also raise concern in New Delhi, which is seeking to preserve traditional relations with Moscow even as it moves closer to Washington.
Similarly, the squabbling states in the Middle East—all US allies—will also preoccupy the next president as they contend with the Islamic State (IS), the remnants of the Arab Spring, and the growing regional influence of Iran acquiesced by the US. However, if the Iran deal unravels either on the floor of a hostile US Congress or on account of non-compliance by Tehran, it could easily consume the next presidency. Indeed, there is every likelihood that under the new president, the US will be drawn into another war in the Middle East.
These, however, are mere distractions to the real threat that the new US president will face: an aggressive and revanchist China and its two nuclear-armed allies—North Korea and Pakistan. Even as Washington is preoccupied with other crises, Beijing has moved to consolidate its position in the South China Sea, split the Asean (Association of South-East Asian Nations) consensus, and is weaning away US allies like the Philippines.
Additionally, under Beijing’s watchful eye and masterly inactivity, North Korea has accelerated its nuclear and missile programme and is soon expected to be in a position to realistically threaten US allies, and possibly even the mainland. Similarly, a recent Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists report estimates that Pakistan (another publicly proclaimed strategic ally of China) will have “220–250 warheads by 2025, making it the world’s fifth-largest nuclear weapon state”. This cache, coupled with China’s own growing nuclear arsenal and North Korea’s enlarging capabilities, makes the combined nuclear force of the Islamabad-Beijing-Pyongyang axis the third largest—after Russia and the US—and poses a direct threat to the US, its allies and interests.
In contrast, the much-touted “pivot” or “rebalance” to Asia-Pacific promoted by the Obama administration, including the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP), has practically faded into history. And the indications are that the new president will not resurrect the TPP or re-pivot. This US retrenchment will practically vacate the geopolitical space to China and allow Beijing’s writ to run uncontested from the Persian Gulf through the South China Sea to the Pacific Ocean.
For India, the unchecked rise of China (and its support of Pakistan) and the US withdrawal from the region means that New Delhi will either have to fend for itself to secure its interests or seek accommodation with Beijing and Pakistan. As the recently concluded Brics (Brazil, Russia, India, China, South Africa) summit revealed, neither option will be easy.
In addition, the new US president will also face a spate of threats from non-state actors, ranging from IS-inspired terrorist attacks in the US and on US interests worldwide to cyber attacks by unidentified hackers such as the ones who recently targeted Dyn Inc., a company whose servers monitor and reroute Internet traffic worldwide. Finally, the new president will also be confronted with several transnational threats ranging from extreme weather due to climate change, pandemics and global networks of organized crime.
The two US presidential hopefuls have opposing approaches to deal with these challenges. Hillary Clinton’s likely approach is often described as a more forceful continuation of the Obama Doctrine or a robust Obama 3.0. It relies on global engagement, nurturing existing coalitions and building new ones, and diplomacy backed by force. While it has not always worked, it has not left the US standing alone.
Donald Trump’s ‘America First’ approach reflects, according to some experts, “nativist neo-isolationism”, reminiscent of the 1940s. This partly reflects Trump’s own isolation from the mainstream Republican party’s foreign policy. It translates into scepticism about multilateral diplomacy, free trade agreements, immigration, democracy promotion and an inclination for unilateral military action. The chances of its failure are greater than its success.
If the Clinton doctrine prevails, it will be mostly business as usual, with significant nuances. If the Trump policy does, it will, doubtless, exacerbate the chaos. And if it does, be afraid; be very afraid.
W.P.S. Sidhu is professor at New York University’s Center for Global Affairs and senior fellow at the Center on International Cooperation.
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