A Self-Absorbed America Means Disorder for the World
from Greenberg Center for Geoeconomic Studies

A Self-Absorbed America Means Disorder for the World

Supporters of Republican presidential candidate and former U.S. President Donald Trump gather, ahead of Super Tuesday, in Huntington Beach, California, U.S.
Supporters of Republican presidential candidate and former U.S. President Donald Trump gather, ahead of Super Tuesday, in Huntington Beach, California, U.S. Aude Guerruci/Reuters

The dam holding back chaos in U.S. foreign policy is cracking.

Originally published at Foreign Policy

March 4, 2024 11:47 am (EST)

Supporters of Republican presidential candidate and former U.S. President Donald Trump gather, ahead of Super Tuesday, in Huntington Beach, California, U.S.
Supporters of Republican presidential candidate and former U.S. President Donald Trump gather, ahead of Super Tuesday, in Huntington Beach, California, U.S. Aude Guerruci/Reuters
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Current political and economic issues succinctly explained.

Whatever the next year holds, the world owes U.S. President Joe Biden a debt of gratitude for the past three. Against rather long odds, he has managed to hold back the chaos that has long been flooding into U.S. politics. But the Biden dam is cracking, and the next year—and likely the years beyond—promises to be a maelstrom for U.S. foreign policy.

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Last week, the U.S. Senate ended its well-intentioned charade of trying to pass a double-barreled bill that would tackle the crisis at the border with Mexico while also approving some $60 billion in critically needed support for Ukraine in its war against Russia. Despite unprecedented concessions from Democrats to permit much harsher measures against asylum-seekers, the bill was dead on arrival the moment that presumptive Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump denounced it as a “great gift to the Democrats, and a Death Wish for the Republican Party.” The bill’s defeat means that chaos on the border will certainly continue, likely boosting Trump election prospects in November.

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The bill’s failure was also the clearest sign yet that Biden is losing his grip over the direction of U.S. foreign policy, and other countries are taking notice. George Haynal, the veteran Canadian diplomat, wrote last week that “the hard new reality is that the U.S. political system is rapidly mutating into a far less benevolent partner.” The choice of words is instructive: The problem is not just a particularly pernicious leader like Trump, but a “political system” that is churning out similar figures by the dozen. It is wishful thinking to believe that U.S. extremism is some passing fad.

The consequences are difficult to predict, and the future may lurch back and forth between reassuringly normal and shockingly radical. A government shutdown due to Congress’s inability to pass simple spending bills looms again in early March. The Senate is trying to regroup to pass stand-alone support for Ukraine, Israel, and Taiwan without the border provisions, but the prospects in the shambolic House are highly uncertain. Even military support for Israel, a perennially bipartisan issue, has gotten sucked into the dysfunction and is now in doubt. It has become impossible for other countries to make decisions based on expectations about what the world’s most powerful country will do.

In many respects, 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 the Congress refused; the ensuing chaos in Europe and East Asia produced another world war. Today, the United States still has the capacity to lead, but it is oscillating between constructive engagement and destructive withdrawal. Meanwhile, other countries, such as Russia and China, actively work to push the United States aside.

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For Europe, the best outcome over the next several years may be a United States that, while not actively isolationist, is less and less willing or able to play a global leadership role. In the wake of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine two years ago next week, Europe has moved faster than many had anticipated to become a more coherent and united actor. Earlier this month, the European Union passed its own $54 billion aid package for Ukraine that should at least maintain the current stalemate with Russia. At the annual Munich Security Conference this week, expect to hear a lot of talk about how Europe needs to do more, especially on defense, to make up for U.S. fecklessness.

A Trump victory in November would be more destructive. J.D. Vance, the Trump acolyte and Republican senator from Ohio, plans to use his first visit to the Munich conference to accuse the Europeans of “turning NATO effectively into a welfare client of the United States.” He will warn that, even if the Senate can pass another military aid bill, “there is clearly not an appetite for more blank checks for Ukraine.” Many believe Trump will abandon the alliance entirely if he returns to the White House. Trump himself over the weekend said that he would refuse to defend European NATO allies from Russia if they fail to raise defense spending sufficiently. “In fact, I would encourage [the Russians] to do whatever the hell they want,” he warned—a barely veiled invitation for Russia to attack another European country. Veteran European observer Anne Applebaum said such threats will reverberate far beyond Europe: “Once Trump has made clear that he no longer supports NATO, all of America’s other security alliances would be in jeopardy as well. Taiwan, South Korea, Japan, and even Israel would figure they can no longer count on automatic American support.”

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The United States’ neighbors, Canada and Mexico, would be no better off. Trump is reported to be considering a 10 percent “universal” tariff on all imports; Mexico and Canada, which send around three-quarters of their exports to the United States, would be the hardest hit. They may hope for special treatment under the U.S.-Mexico-Canada Agreement negotiated by the first Trump administration, but there are no hints of such an exemption; Trump’s tariffs on steel and aluminum, for example, targeted both Canada and Mexico. The latter also faces credible threats that the border will again be closed, as it was during the COVID pandemic. And Trump has made no secret of his loathing for Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau.

In other parts of the world, chaos in the U.S. political system could lead to policies that are far more belligerent and aggressive. 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 Law to boost U.S. competitiveness—were motivated by a shared fear of China. The Biden administration is trying to find a balance; U.S. National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan said last month that while the United States will continue to compete vigorously with China, “we’re also keenly aware that the United States and [China] are economically interdependent and share interests in addressing transnational problems and reducing the risk of conflict.”

Many Republicans, however, are calling for far more aggressive action. Trump is floating a 60 percent tariff 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 cut economic ties with China. Expect as well more vocal U.S. support for an independent Taiwan and a more assertive military posture in Asia. Whereas the United States is likely to pull back from Europe, those in Beijing hoping for a quiet U.S. withdrawal from Asia are likely to be disappointed.

A Biden victory in November would forestall the worst of these outcomes, though it is likely to be accompanied by a loss of the Senate that would leave the administration even weaker than it is today. And it would bring little certainty that the threat of Trump-style extremism had passed once and for all. Barring a landslide electoral defeat—which seems impossible, really, given the current close divide in the U.S. electorate—the Republican Party seems poised to double down on Trumpism for many years to come.

For the rest of the world, the fallout of U.S. foreign-policy chaos is unpalatable: expensive and provocative rearmament in Europe and Japan, acceptance of expanding 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 no longer has their back. Perhaps if Biden is reelected, the pieces of the old order can be stitched together long enough for the fever to break in the United States body politic. But such a benign outcome is facing longer and longer odds.

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