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American power, where art thou?

By Isaac Kfir

The US is the world’s premier military power. It has the largest nuclear arsenal, the most advanced military equipment, and bases around the world. Its annual defence budget is over US $600 billion, dwarfing all others.

However, whether Washington gets the right outcomes from its use of coercive military power and ‘soft’ power is another matter. For the US, as for other nations, the ‘right’ outcome is one that’s favourable to its national interests and unfavourable to those of competing states.

Across the world, US diplomatic stock is in decline. A survey by the Pew Research Centre has found that global confidence in the US stands at 22 per cent, down from 67 per cent in the final years of the Obama administration.

In Latin America, past American policies have left a legacy of distrust. The region has substantial Chinese economic penetration: in 2002, China’s share of Latin American trade was 2 per cent; by 2010, it had risen to 11 per cent. Over the same period, America’s share dropped from 52 per cent to 39 per cent. By 2016, China had become the main trading partner of Brazil, Chile, Peru and Venezuela.

Beyond trade, there is also recognition that US initiatives in the region have caused more harm than help. Plan Columbia, a 15-year-long US-led effort to prevent drug trafficking and violence in the South American nation, ended up pushing cocaine production to neighbouring states, not to mention risking the health of Columbians in the course of fumigating millions of hectares of coca.

American influence is also declining in Africa, with a recent drop in bilateral commercial activity. From 2008 to 2015, African exports to the US fell from $113 billion to $26.5 billion. Meanwhile, in the two years from 2014 to 2016, US exports to the continent fell from $38 billion to $22 billion. By comparison, Chinese exports to Africa stood at $102 billion in 2015.

Until September this year, Trump had yet to nominate an Assistant Secretary of State for African Affairs, and the National Security Council still doesn’t have a director for African Affairs. This accords with the fact that the administration is cutting aid to Africa by 35 per cent as well as eliminating the African Development Foundation, an agency which provides grants to small African business to acquire capital and technical support. Many Africans would also recall that President Trump mispronunciation of Namibia as Nambia in front of an audience of African leaders.

In Western Europe, Washington’s stock is extremely low. More than a million Britons demanded that Trump’s state visit to the UK be cancelled. On top of that, Trump has had several poor visits to the continent beginning with his maiden trip, which included an awkward handshake with President Macron and shoving the Prime Minister of Montenegro. On the security front, Germany’s Angela Merkel has noted that ‘The era in which we [Europeans] could fully rely on others is over to some extent.’ And Europe has made it clear that it rejects Trump’s decision not to certify the Iran nuclear deal, and his rejection of the 2015 Paris Climate Accord.

In the Middle East, the Americans have done nothing to mediate tensions within the Gulf Cooperation Council. King Salman has visited Russia (the first Saudi king to do so), leading to an oil agreement, weapons purchases and other joint ventures. The US has aggravated the Israeli–Palestinian conflict by appointing David Friedman, who cast doubt on a two-state solution, as Ambassador to Israel, while Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has been emboldened by Trump’s election victory to extend Israeli settlements. In Iraq, the real powerbroker is Iran. When Secretary of State Rex Tillerson suggested that Iraq disband Iranian-backed militias, Prime Minister Abadi not only rejected that option but said that the militias ‘should be encouraged’. Tillerson thus exhibited a fundamental misunderstanding of the relationship between Iraq and Iran.

In South Asia, Pakistan fosters instability through its sponsorship of insurgent and terrorist groups in Afghanistan and Kashmir. Trump has criticised Islamabad, but like his predecessors, he hasn’t cancelled US military aid to Pakistan. For their part, the Pakistanis claim that American ‘ineptitude’ in Afghanistan led to the Taliban controlling around 30 per cent of the country. The war of words will continue, but the US won’t effect any meaningful change in Pakistan, which will continue to decry the ‘trust deficit’ between it and the US.

There’s very little US engagement in Southeast Asia. Across the region, democracy is under assault: Thailand’s military junta is in firm control of the country; Myanmar is engaging in what the UN has described as ethnic cleansing of the Rohingya; in Cambodia, Prime Minister Hun Sen has established an autocratic regime that doesn’t tolerate any dissent or opposition; in the Philippines, President Duterte has undermined core institutions such as the Human Rights Commission whose budget was cut from $17 million to just $25. And yet there’s no US engagement on those issues.

In East Asia, which is falling into China’s sphere of influence, many South Koreans view Trump with suspicion and concern, fearing they would bear the brunt of war on the peninsula. In the South China Sea disputes, one suspects that none of the parties expects the US to help mediate or even come to their aid should tension flare up. And regional leaders are aware that Trump had initially planned to skip the East Asia Summit in the Philippines on 13 November this year.

Trump’s decision to walk away from the Trans-Pacific Partnership was criticisedacross the region. The 11 nations within the TTP have continued their trade negotiations, reaching an agreement on the ‘core elements’ of what is now called the comprehensive and progressive agreement for Trans-Pacific Partnership following the APEC meeting in Danang.

Moreover, China’s $900 billion “One Belt, One Road” infrastructure has won Beijing plaudits across a region that has witnessed US disinterest and disloyalty.

Trump’s recent, off-script tirade at the APEC Summit in Vietnam has not endeared him and the United States to regional leaders, and there were obvious concerns with his ‘great relationship’ with President Duterte. Trump also laughedat Duterte’s description of journalists as “spies.”

In Australia, defence policy rests on the country’s relationship with the US. When the US has gone to war, the Australia Defence Force has never been far behind. The 2016 Defence White Paper emphasised both regional and global security, but the country has been preoccupied with the latter at the cost of the former.

However, Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull is bringing the ASEAN–Australia Summit to Australia in March next year. Australia has also committed to providing security for the APEC meeting in Papua New Guinea, primarily because there was concern that China would be more than happy to fill the gap. These engagements show that Australia is slowly returning its focus to its region. And not a moment too soon, as the region faces a plethora of challenges.

Successfully engaging in our region demands that we reconsider some of our distant commitments, whether in the Middle East or South Asia and assess whether we’re getting the right outcomes from our investments.

The US certainly isn’t.

Originally published by: APPS Policy Forum on 17 Nov 2017