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A Self-Centered America Means Disorder for the World

A Self-Centered America Means Disorder for the World


Whatever the year ahead, the world owes US President Joe Biden a lot for the past three years. Against all odds, he managed to contain the chaos that has long engulfed American politics. But the Biden dam is cracking, and next year, and likely the years beyond, promise to be a whirlwind for American foreign policy.

Whatever the year ahead, the world owes US President Joe Biden a lot for the past three years. Against all odds, he managed to contain the chaos that has long engulfed American politics. But the Biden dam is cracking, and next year, and likely the years beyond, promise to be a whirlwind for American foreign policy.

Last week, the U.S. Senate ended its well-intentioned charade of trying to pass a two-pronged bill that would address the crisis at the border with Mexico while also approving some $60 billion of essential aid to Ukraine in its war against Russia. Despite Democrats' unprecedented concessions authorizing much tougher measures against asylum seekers, the bill was dead on arrival as presumptive Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump denounced it as a great gift to Democrats and a death wish for the Republican Party. The bill's defeat means chaos at the border is sure to continue, likely boosting Trump's election prospects in November.

The bill's failure is also the clearest sign yet that Biden is losing his grip on the direction of U.S. foreign policy, and that other countries are taking notice. George Haynal, the veteran Canadian diplomat, wrote The harsh new reality this past week is that the American political system is rapidly transforming into a far less benevolent partner. The choice of words is instructive: the problem lies not just with a particularly pernicious leader like Trump, but with a political system that produces dozens of similar numbers. It would be illusory to believe that American extremism is only a passing fad.

The consequences are difficult to predict, and the future could oscillate between reassuring normality and shocking radicality. A government shutdown due to Congress' inability to pass simple spending bills looms again at the beginning of March. The Senate tries to come together to adopt stand-alone support for Ukraine, Israel and Taiwan without the border provisions, but the prospects in this chaotic house are very uncertain. Even military support for Israel, always a bipartisan issue, has become embroiled in dysfunction and is now in doubt. It has become impossible for other countries to make decisions based on expectations of what the most powerful country in the world will do.

In many ways, we are living in the most unpredictable international political order in a century. In the 1920s, the United States had the capacity to provide global leadership, but Congress refused; the ensuing chaos in Europe and East Asia caused another world war. Today, the United States still has the capacity to lead, but it oscillates between constructive engagement and destructive withdrawal. Meanwhile, other countries, such as Russia and China, are actively working to sideline the United States.

For Europe, the best outcome over the next few years may be a United States which, while not actively isolationist, is increasingly unwilling or able to play a global leadership role. Following Russia's invasion of Ukraine two years ago next week, Europe has moved more quickly than many expected to become a more cohesive and united player. Earlier this month, the European Union pass its own $54 billion aid package for Ukraine that is expected to at least maintain the current standoff with Russia. At the annual Munich security conference this week, expect to hear a lot of talk about the need for Europe to do more, particularly on defense, to make up for American recklessness.

A Trump victory in November would be even more destructive. JD Vance, Trump acolyte and Republican senator from Ohio, plans to use his first visit to the Munich conference to to accuse the Europeans to make NATO a client of US welfare. He will be warn that, even if the Senate could pass another military aid bill, there is clearly no appetite for more blank checks for Ukraine. Many believe Trump will abandon the alliance altogether if he returns to the White House. Trump himself said over the weekend that he would refuse to defend Europe's NATO allies against Russia if they failed to increase their defense spending enough. In fact, I would encourage [the Russians] do whatever they want, he warned, a thinly veiled invitation for Russia to attack another European country. Senior EU observer Anne Applebaum said such threats resonate well beyond Europe: Once Trump makes it clear that he no longer supports NATO, all other security alliances in the Americas would also be at risk. Taiwan, South Korea, Japan and even Israel reportedly believe they can no longer count on automatic support from the United States.

The United States' neighbors, Canada and Mexico, would not fare any better. Trump is reported consider a universal tariff of 10 percent on all imports; Mexico and Canada, which send about three-quarters of their exports to the United States, would be hardest hit. They can expect special treatment under the United States-Mexico-Canada agreement negotiated by the first Trump administration, but there is no indication of such an exemption; Overrides tariffs on steel and aluminum, for example, target in Canada and Mexico. They also face credible threats of border closure, as was the case during the COVID pandemic. And Trump has not hidden his hatred towards Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau.

In other parts of the world, chaos in the American political system could lead to far more bellicose and aggressive policies. Take China, for example. The Biden administration's most notable bipartisan successes – the $280 billion CHIPS and Science Act to restore domestic semiconductor production and the $1.2 trillion bipartisan Infrastructure Act to boost state competitiveness -United – were motivated by a common fear of China. The Biden administration is trying to strike a balance; US National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan said last month that although the United States would continue to compete vigorously with China, it was also keenly aware that the United States and [China] are economically interdependent and share interests in resolving transnational problems and reducing the risk of conflict.

Many Republicans, however, are calling for much more aggressive action. Trump imposes 60% tariffs on all Chinese imports, which would be close to an act of economic warfare. A bipartisan Senate committee has proposed a broader range of measures to sever economic ties with China. Also expect more vocal US support for an independent Taiwan and a more assertive military posture in Asia. While the United States is expected to withdraw from Europe, those in Beijing hoping for a quiet U.S. withdrawal from Asia may be disappointed.

A Biden victory in November would prevent the worst of these outcomes, although it would likely be accompanied by a Senate loss that would leave the administration even weaker than it is today. And it would provide little certainty that the threat of Trump-style extremism will be averted once and for all. Barring a crushing electoral defeat, which seems truly impossible given the current division of the American electorate, the Republican Party appears poised to double down on Trumpism for many years to come.

For the rest of the world, the consequences of American foreign policy chaos are unpleasant: costly and provocative rearmament in Europe and Japan, acceptance of the expansion of Russian and Chinese spheres of influence, and a global economy that will continue to fracture. Other countries will have no choice but to hedge their bets and start preparing for a world in which the United States will no longer support. Perhaps if Biden is re-elected, the pieces of the old order can be put together long enough for fever to break out in the American body politic. But such a benign outcome is fraught with increasingly long-term difficulties.




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