Expert Speak Raisina Debates
Published on Nov 21, 2018
To punish China, isolate Iran and forgive Russia. This is the new US foreign policy doctrine.
What does the United States want?
Read all the curated essays from Raisina Scrolls here

China, Iran and Russia: this is the geopolitical triangle that has firmly emerged under Donald Trump. All three are being made to feel that the United States remains the center of international commerce. They each challenged US authority — and are now suffering the consequences.

The US is at trade war with China. Washington has to date penalised Chinese exports worth $250 billion. This has set off alarm bells in Beijing. The country was not prepared for such a reaction at this stage of their economic development. Its export-driven economy remains vulnerable.

The Chinese are therefore keen to negotiate a solution, but assume (with some justification) that Trump will demand more if they concede without a fight. While the US under Obama tried to understand the Chinese, the anthropological burden is now on China.

China is surprisingly inept at understanding the West. The counter-sanctions underlined, if anything, just how little they buy from the United States. Beijing has signaled willingness to correct the Sino-American trade imbalance, according to The Washington Post. All they ask is that this happens quietly to avoid a loss of face. But Trump wants China to lose face. That is part of the point — as it was when the Chinese invited President Obama to Beijing and failed to roll out the red carpet in September 2016. Trump wants the world to see.

What happened? A Washington insider put it this way:

The war between the ‘Ikenberrians’ and 'Mearsheimians’ is over and the latter won.

He was talking about two foreign policy schools, each named after a scholar-sage, G. John Ikenberry and John J. Mearsheimer.

Ikenberry has argued that if China grows within the established institutional frameworks it will, eventually, become the custodian of a liberal world order. Therefore, the West would be advised to clear a place in the sun for Beijing. China’s leader Xi Jinping did his best to come across as a liberal internationalist when he spoke to billionaires in Davos last year.

Mearsheimer, on the other hand, views China as an autarchy that has sapped the West of vitality by making common cause with the Davos elites. Together they transferred the technology and production capacity — sources of Western prosperity — to China. He sees in China a strategic rival that must be balanced.

This view is today dominant in Washington because China committed two major blunders. First, it took advantage of Obama’s wavering and fortified contested islets in the South China Sea, contrary to assurances. Second, it announced ambitions to strip the West of its leadership in High Tech in the “Made in China 2025" strategy. That woke up even the Europeans.

Many in Europe had forgotten that China is a non-democracy which practices mercantilism in a nominally free trade system. Through hidden subsidies, artificially low currency and restrictive home markets, China has been able to enjoy the best of both worlds. The country played small while it grew to be a juggernaut.

Western elites made this development a virtue of necessity, because cheaper consumer goods masked wage stagnation in Europe and America. (Many workers made the same as before but could buy more consumer goods for their wages.) If the US continues to increase pressure, China may be forced to open its markets, but this in turn could also lead to price increases and political instability in the West.

American foreign policy has undergone a change of hands under Trump. Under Obama’s ‘managed decline’ foreign policy, they sought to breathe new life into the Nixon Alliance between the United States and China. They even spoke in hushed voices of recreating a strategic partnership with Iran. In Trump’s foreign policy it is not enough for Iran to abstain from nuclear weapons — Teheran must also be denied hegemony in the Middle East.

Under Obama, Russia was an irrelevant irritant, a “medium-sized dog with big dog attitude,” to borrow Wikileaks’ famous description of a Swedish foreign minister. But the Trump administration sees Moscow as a natural partner. Of course, Russia must make amends to put an end to the sanctions that are hobbling its economy, but there is a way out because the Americans are eager to avoid an actual alliance between Beijing and Moscow.

What can be gleaned from all this? First, Trump is using the US central role in the world economy to strategic effect. The US president remains opposed to ‘humanitarian’ wars and lacks patience with abrogating allies. For instance, Turkey received the economic version of a slap when it intransigently refused to hand over an innocent American jailed in Turkey. American countermeasures shook Turkey’s economy this summer, and showed other NATO Allies that the Trump administration views the alliance more as a community of interests than as a community of values. Those allies who renege on the promise to spend two percent of GDP on defense by 2024 may face a nasty surprise.

Second, the US is now investing in the US Navy. Trump has announced plans to build 40 new warships over the next five years, although that seems unrealistic. The goal is nevertheless a 355-ship navy, capable of absorbing losses in a potential conflict with China.

In this, as well as in President Trump’s address to the UN General Assembly in September, the fingerprints of Steve Bannon are clearly discernable. The former Chief Strategist may have left the White House but Bannon seemingly retains influence with the President.

Third, looking beyond the tagline, “We reject the ideology of globalism and accept the doctrine of patriotism,” the speech was remarkable for its detail and candor, making it arguably the most significant foreign policy address given by a US president for some time.

Things have changed in Washington. Among those who study and determine the contours of US foreign policy, it is hard to find anyone who has not read Graham Allison’s book Destined for War: Can America and China Escape Thucydides’s Trap? — which foreshadows war between the United States and China.

Trump’s opponents trust the Democrats to use electoral gains and the Mueller investigation to force Trump from power. “Gone by April,” they say. Perhaps, but Trump will have put the United States on a new foreign policy course. Because nowadays “all” are Mearsheimians.

The views expressed above belong to the author(s). ORF research and analyses now available on Telegram! Click here to access our curated content — blogs, longforms and interviews.


Asle Toje

Asle Toje

Asle Toje is a Norwegian Foreign Policy Scholar and Columnist. He is a member of the prestigious five-member Norwegian Nobel Committee and he recently edited ...

Read More +