“…along with broader changes in the international environment, has put many assumptions back up for debate…” – Jake Sullivan, Foreign Affairs review article
What an understatement! As the former foreign policy Mandarin during the Barack Obama administration explained, the Donald J. Trump era has reopened a number of issues that impact US grand strategy and more broadly, a western-dominated global order. From an American partisan perspective amid unprecedented polarization between Republican and Democratic Parties, the Grand Old Party (GOP) foreign policy ‘thinking’ has deteriorated into outright farce amid ‘end of days’ white evangelical ascendancy in what passes for Trumpian foreign policy-national security. So indeed, everything really is “up for debate.” Except that deeply ingrained mental maps and reflexes amongst Democrats, as well as Republicans, severely limit the magnitude of transformative rethinking required to move US foreign policy back from the Looney-Tune realm of farcical Trumpola!
Given that many of these assumptions, pertaining to the legitimacy and efficacy of the liberal world order, were already under serious intellectual and policy-political stress well before Trump’s disruption, critiques of liberal internationalism generally, and American primacy in particular are now beginning almost to resemble a cottage industry. However, the urgency of these debates cannot be underestimated given the global high stakes for humanity as a whole, and the health and security of planet Earth. The problem is that these debates and discourses are culturally constrained in a manner precluding an intellectual and policy-political breakthrough away from ingrained but outdated Anglo-American Atlanticist perspectives. For example, such a transition is necessary to adaptively amend liberal internationalism to factor in realities of a post-western pluralist strategic landscape.
But this promises to be an uphill struggle since the combined post-Cold War intellectual baggage of Euro-American ‘the west against the rest’ assumptions remain the bedrock of how the world is viewed, even in the non-west. Perhaps it was the era of US Secretary of State John Foster Dulles that entrenched much of the culture of western and especially American orientations about the international system. Under Dulles, there was no middle ground during the Cold War. Hence, the emergence of the Spirit of Bandung and its multilateral legacy in the Non-Aligned Movement (NAM) in the 1950s was trashed to a point that to this day, Washington thinking among liberals and conservatives alike discount any serious recognition of the non-western world as a multilateral force in its own right. A force which is deserving of equal consideration in global governance apart from cherry-picking co-opting of selected ‘emerging powers’ into what is considered ‘the high table’ of Great Power diplomacy occupied by the US, China, Russia and the European Union and such leading EU members as Britain, France, Germany and token non-western Japan. Otherwise, non-alignment was considered ‘pro-communist’ and anti-western within a bipolar paradigm for which there was no middle ground. Hence, during the Cold War, a superpower geopolitics of scrimmaging for ‘allies’ in Africa, Asia and Latin America ensued. The notion of a ‘third world’ was summarily dismissed along with such initiatives like the New International Economic Order (NIEO), precursor to the Global South as ‘third world’ successor along with its corollary ‘South-South Cooperation.’ Anecdotally, raising any of these notions in Washington elicits a blank star. This may be because academic and policy studies of the global South-cum-third world have always been programmatically siloed into specialist and subspecialist compartmentalization. Hence, for example, Sub-Saharan Africa on the one hand, the Middle East and North Africa on the other.
As a result: South Multilateralism? What’s that? Not until South Africa’s post-apartheid transition which led to establishing of the trilateral India-Brazil-South Africa – IBSA – forum did some in Washington deign to acknowledge the existence of a ‘South’ and this was due to their branding as ‘three democratic’ regional powers on their respective continents. The late Steve McDonald, as head of the Woodrow Wilson Center Africa Program ventured outside his silo and initiated a seminar on IBSA and later, in 2011, one on BRICS. These reflected some inkling of acknowledgement of emerging powers and their multilateralism gaining traction; and then, with BRICS, it was the presence of China and Russia that resonated. Otherwise, the potential of a counter- North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (NATO) in the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) under the co-leadership of Beijing and Moscow was similarly given short shrift except for the Democratic Party’s late counterpart to the GOP’s Henry Kissinger, Zbigniew Brzezinski, suggesting that NATO should open a dialogue with the SCO.
By this point, the west-to-east shift in the global geopolitical economy was gathering momentum. Failure of the G8 to expand its global economic directorate into a G13 including China, India, South Africa, Brazil and Mexico would propel launching of the BRIC quartet in 2009, signalling the acceleration of multipolarity in the global order. This trend would advance further in the midst and aftermath of the 2007-2009 global financial crisis that forced what became the G7 (with the exiting of Russia from the G8) expanding beyond a G13 into a G20. Nevertheless, expanding global economic ‘club governance’ to include emerging powers was not being accompanied at the level of global security reform within the ambit of the United Nations Security Council (UNSC). This reflected essentially the extent that post-Soviet triumphalism in Washington interacting with NATO expansionism on the one hand, and China’s Eurasian eclipsing of Russia on the other, along with its growing challenge to US global hegemony precluded any of the permanent 5 (P5) members’ consensus on UNSC reform apart from maintaining outdated P5 incumbency. Here again, policy-political stasis in Washington within the Democratic Party, as well as a morally and intellectually bankrupt GOP remains a major impediment to foreign policy-national security new thinking that breaks with post-war, post-Cold War and more recent ‘war on terror’ thinking; standing in the way of a more multilaterally international cooperation-focused grand strategy.
Here, the Washington establishment, including mainstream media and punditocracy remain wedded to zero-sum, win-lose, ‘goodies and badies’ narratives in analysing and critiquing any given foreign policy, diplomatic or national security challenge. All of which is dangerously predicated on American Primacy, as opposed to imagining a more sustainably post-hegemonic leadership posture aligned with addressing major domestic challenges and backlogs. Although the Democratic Party’s impressive social democratic opening shows much promise, this does not coherently register at the policy-political intellectual level of imagining a new grand strategy that breaks with conventional liberal internationalism and its US hegemonic assumptions. Yet, Trump is deliberately and recklessly deconstructing this order into a neo-Hobbesian ‘all against all’, zero-sum Great Game; however, once he is gone a reconstruct, will demand a clean break with Dean Acheson’s ‘Present at the Creation.’ This will definitely not come from Republicans in their extremist ‘end of days’ evangelical rapture about ‘God’s Will’ in search of preferred enemies (think Iran and Cuba)!
With climate change rapidly emerging as the overriding global security threat, a burying of the hatchet and squaring of the triangle between the US, Russia and China will be preconditional to any meaningfully new direction in US foreign policy and national security strategy. A substantially reformed UN and transformed Security Council would have to be afforded centre stage in this new grand strategy. And this implies a major reconciling of the NATO expansion contradiction between Washington and Moscow accompanied by extricating America from the sectarian geopolitical quagmire in the Middle East compliments of the George W. Bush and Donald J. Trump Republican administrations.
Francis A. Kornegay, Jr. is a Senior Research Fellow at the Institute of Global Dialogue associated with UNISA, a member of the JIOR international editorial board and a past fellow of the Woodrow Wilson International Center of Scholars. The views expressed are those of the author and do not represent IGD/Unisa policy