Is US on the path to isolationism?
It seems that America under Trump is becoming gradually protectionist, reviving the memories and the experiences of the '20s and '30s era of the last century. And this has been brought upon by US policies at home and its bilateral and multilateral relationship in the international context. Trump's executive orders indicate a deliberate effort to delink the US with the rest of the world. His very first pronounced words as the 46th President of the United States were, “From now on it will be America first”. Although it did not take long for Trump to acknowledge that “America first” cannot mean “America alone” he has done everything to further the singular goal of American national interest at all costs. It has not dawned on him yet that in an increasingly globalised world, enlightened self-interest cannot remain circumscribed by national interest alone.
Consequently America's long-term allies have been alienated. He has asked his European allies for protection money to keep NATO going, without realising that it was European lives and its landmass that were put at stake to protect US global geopolitical interest to which the US had committed to fight till the “last West German and last bullet.”
Regrettably, Trump's internal policies are a déjà vu of the 30s. And his foreign policy, both political and trade, is likely to see America being gradually isolated prompting the other existing and aspiring world powers to jockey for geopolitical space around the globe, consigning the world into greater turmoil than what we have endured in the more than two decades since the commencement of the so-called global war on terror, and the younger Bush's re-enunciation of the “new world order.” The concept of a new world order has become outdated by the geopolitical developments around the major conflict zones in the world. Thus, while the US would want the thrust and aim of its foreign policy to dictate events in every corner of the world, there are other powers that stand in its way.
The US' Israel policy, some critics see as being a threat to its own national interest in the long run. And since 1973, many feel that Israel has been a strategic liability for the US rather than an asset. It is proving more so now after two very recent developments—shifting of the US embassy to Jerusalem and the wanton killing by Israeli soldiers of the Palestinian protesters in Gaza who were marking 51 years for Israel's occupation of the West Bank, including East Jerusalem, and the Gaza Strip.
The US decision to shift its capital to Jerusalem has been under fire from most countries. The US move was roundly thumped at the General Assembly with 128 countries condemning the move. The vote was followed by the most undiplomatic outburst of its permanent representative conveying a threat. She said, “The US will remember this day” threatening to withhold US contribution to the UN or to any country that “comes calling.” As usual the US vetoed the Draft Security Council Resolution on protecting the people in Gaza and other Israeli occupied territory of Palestine. In what is described as a moment of diplomatic humiliation Nikky Haley was the only person who voted for a counter resolution, which the US had submitted criticising Hamas, with the US' allies abstaining.
No other development in recent times exposes the gradual isolation of the US than these two epic events at the UN.
On the other hand, from some very important international and commercial deals that the US has signed, Trump wants outsized benefits. He wants to rewrite NAFTA, a deal which was designed to make North America more competitive in the international market. Instead he wants to engage in bilateral rather than the trilateral arrangement that it is. It has slapped a 25 percent duty on steel imports from Canada, begetting reciprocal action from Canada.
The US and China are on the verge of a trade war with US slapping USD 50 billion duty on Chinese goods. This is reminiscent of the '30s when the US Congress imposed the highest tariffs in 50 years resulting in the stifling of foreign trade and shrinking of foreign markets.
As for the Trans-Pacific Partnership, the other 11 members of the TPP have vowed to recalibrate their policies and go ahead without the US after it decided to leave the multilateral trade partnership at the toe end of 2017. The regional agreement has been renamed Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement for the Trans-Pacific Partnership (CPTPP).
The US has reneged on its commitment to mitigate the consequence of climate change by withdrawing from the Paris Climate Accord, thereby endangering the lives of Americans more than others.
Obviously, the rest of the world will have to prepare to go it alone, without the US in many areas. The looming trade war, particularly for small countries like Bangladesh, will have serious consequences. As for the US, increasing intolerance and isolationist tendencies may hold for some time but not perpetually. It may be relevant to mention that as a consequence of the Smoot-Hawley Tariff Act of 1930, real national income in US fell by 36 percent, unemployment increased from 3 percent to over 25 percent, more than 40 percent of all banks were permanently closed, and international investment and trade declined dramatically. Trump's trade policies portend such a possibility.
Brig Gen Shahedul Anam Khan, ndc, psc (Retd) is Associate Editor, The Daily Star.