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America’s retreat will outlast Donald Trump

US foreign policy

America’s retreat will outlast Donald Trump

Until now, the security of Europe and east Asia has depended on US leadership

© FT montage/Getty

Beijing’s display of martial might on the 70th anniversary of Communist rule was a sobering moment. The line-up of sophisticated weaponry, including a new intercontinental ballistic missile, said a good deal about China’s great power ambitions. Europe was looking the other way as the tanks trundled through Tiananmen Square. For now, second-guessing the fortunes of US president Donald Trump is the only game in town.

Mr Trump has broken the rhythm of history. We expect threats to the established order to come from rising powers. China is no different, though it has become very big, very fast. The assault on the postwar Pax Americana, however, has been led by, well, America. When Europeans fret about another war breaking out they have usually been looking at Mr Trump’s Twitter account.

The White House decision to pull US troops out of northern Syria and leave their Kurdish allies to face an invading Turkish army fits this bill. The Kurds have been the west’s most reliable allies in the fight against Isis and other jihadi groups. Mr Trump has decided that America owes them nothing. Washington, its allies are reminded again, cannot be trusted. How will things look when Isis fighters start breaking out of the detention centres that are at present guarded by the Kurds?

There is little purpose in searching for a grand strategy in Mr Trump’s foreign policy. His worldview is shaped by a set of emotional impulses. Looking for a framework is like searching for symmetrical patterns in a bowl of spaghetti.

This is the president, after all, who lionises North Korea’s Kim Jong Un, a dictator upon whom he once threatened to rain “fire and fury”. Iran’s Hassan Rouhani has replaced him in the line of fire. But you never know. Would anyone be that surprised if the Iranian leader tipped up as a guest at the White House?

We do know that Mr Trump starts from an assumption that the US can do as it pleases. Multilateralism is a globalist plot against the US, and trade sanctions are a good way to browbeat friends and adversaries alike. In the manner of Queen Victoria’s Lord Palmerston, the president has no time for permanent alliances. More encouragingly, although Mr Trump is careless about inflaming global tensions, he is wary of wars of choice.

With the odd exception — Israel and Hungary come to mind — “America First” is the very definition of dangerous for most friends and allies. The security of Europe and east Asia has been embedded in alliance and treaty systems operating under US leadership. Prosperity has rested on multilateral rules designed mostly in Washington.

Take away the glue of a US security guarantee and the systems begin to dissolve. Russia and China loom larger as regional threats, and allies are more likely to fight among themselves — witness the escalating dispute between Japan and South Korea about war reparations. Remove US backing for international trade rules and globalisation begins to go into reverse.

So no one should be surprised by the fierce foreign attention focused on the drama now unfolding in Washington. For most nations the biggest geopolitical event already visible on the near horizon is the 2020 US presidential election. Were the European foreign policy establishment to be given a single wish to make the world a safer place, it would be Mr Trump’s departure.

Watching Joe Biden and Elizabeth Warren in the Democratic debates, Europeans had allowed resignation to set in. Mr Biden’s time had passed; Ms Warren, a social democrat by European lights, seemed too leftish for the US. Maybe a second term for Mr Trump was preordained. That would give him the time to finish off the postwar order.

The impeachment proceedings, centred on Mr Trump’s attempts to strong-arm the president of Ukraine, have lifted spirits. Even if the Senate cannot be persuaded to convict the president, the process of disclosure and his increasingly erratic pronouncements could lose him the White House. Couldn’t it? Ms Warren lately seems to be shrugging off the charges that she is a dangerous Marxist. Perhaps impeachment is the get-out-of-jail-free card.

Real life, sadly, is not like that. Most Europeans will tell you that the world has had a Trump problem, not an American one. To the extent that this president’s behaviour has been uniquely capricious, they have a point. But the clock cannot be turned back to an era that was passing before Mr Trump reached the White House.

The Pax Americana was lost to the flames of Afghanistan and Iraq, to the economic weaknesses exposed by the global financial crisis, and to the unprecedented speed of China’s rise. Barack Obama understood this when he sought to recast US leadership as that of a convening power. Mr Trump’s bellicose unilateralism has greatly accelerated America’s retreat, but the direction of travel had already been set.

The world should be safer without Mr Trump. But, to my mind, three things can be said with confidence about his successor. The next president — she or he, in 2020 or 2024 — will not halt the country’s turn inwards. The protectionist tilt will harden, above all when it comes to technology-rich industries. And the US will be far more attentive to vital national interests before expending blood and treasure overseas. Impeachment, successful or otherwise, will not solve anyone else’s problems.

philip.stephens@ft.com

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