The post-Trump global hangover

Paran Balakrishnan | Updated on February 16, 2021 Published on February 16, 2021

US President Joe Biden’s discovering that unravelling the Trump Effect is a tough and complex task

The ghost of Donald Trump is hanging over global politics. Trump, in his maverick fashion, tossed diplomatic alliances and global treaties into the dustbin like the wrapping paper off an Amazon parcel. He left America’s NATO allies dumbstruck by declaring he would cut back on NATO spending unless the Europeans upped their defence budgets to the 2 per cent promised for decades. “We won’t be suckers any more,” he declared in a rudely undiplomatic turn of phrase.

It could be said President Joe Biden’s the anti-Trump in the best possible way. He can’t fly to Europe to offer an emollient, healing touch. But he’ll be on video-link for the NATO summit with his “America is back” message that begins later today. He isn’t abandoning Trump’s demand that Europe spend more on its own defence but he’ll attempt to assure America’s allies that NATO is indeed still the lynchpin of America’s global defence network

But Biden’s rapidly discovering just how far the world has travelled in the last four disruptive years. In short, the foreign policy transition isn’t going smoothly. The US is viewed with much less trust and looked upon as a potentially unreliable ally. Trump reckoned the US was a global top dog and that allowed him to walk away from any treaty struck before his time, especially if it had been signed by his arch-nemesis, Barack Obama.

Trump exited from Obama’s signature Iran agreement. He was a climate-change denier and sabotaged every effort to implement green policies. Indeed, last November, after he’d already lost the election, he formally pulled the US out of the historic 2015 Paris Climate Accord (though he’d given notice of his intent at the start of his presidency). He also yanked the US out of the World Health Organization (WHO) when it had moved to the international centre-stage fighting the Covid-19 pandemic.

As these were mostly executive actions, it was easy enough to reverse some moves, like quitting the Paris accord, at the stroke of a pen. But Trump’s chaotic presidency has left the world wondering just how much the US can be relied on as the spectre of the Orangeman is still lurking in the background, refusing to go away. Some 74 million Americans, 47.2 per cent of the electoral turnout, voted for the most reckless president in US history even last November. In the event, Biden won the electoral college vote by a comfortable margin.

But in many states, the margin of difference was uncomfortably thin. What’s worse is American voters appear drawn to the loony, right-wing ideas and grievance-laden nonsense Trump peddled. How should US allies react to the possibility Trump or someone else with equally rogue ideas may come to power in 2024?

And of course, the big question in everyone’s minds is: can the US remain the dominant global economic powerhouse, the world’s biggest market everyone’s eager to enter? Inevitably, it looks more likely than ever China will draw level in the not-too-distant future. And the diplomatic and economic chaos sown by Trump means the European Union (EU), driven by Germany and France, is looking to plot a more independent course without fretting about whether they’re upsetting Washington. Already, the EU’s signed a trade-and-investment deal with China which, as commentators noted acerbically, doesn’t even whisper about human rights. Or, to put it another way: don’t ask about the Uighurs.

Turning up the heat on Russia

What’s more, while Biden’s looking to turn up the heat on Vladimir Putin’s Russia, the Europeans are moving to strike more business deals. Biden’s State Department is already sending out warnings it will slap sanctions on many companies involved in the Nord Stream 2 gas pipeline from Russia to Germany.

These firms could find themselves targeted by CAATSA (Countering America’s Adversaries Through Sanctions Act). India’s also in danger of being hit by CAATSA because it bought Russia’s SS-20 missiles and it’s not clear whether the Biden administration will give us a pass on this score even though India’s a more vital than ever partner in the US effort to contain China’s ever-expanding military ambitions.

As the US confronts its own demons, global commentators are suggesting that after 75 years of Pax Americana, we’re about to see a fundamental restructuring and a New World Order. The new Cold War will primarily be led by the US and China. The Middle Kingdom will be a more formidable adversary than the erstwhile Soviet Union ever was because it’s economically much stronger. The third pillar of the New World Order could be the EU as it moves out of the US orbit and acts for its own interests. The only problem with this picture for the EU is the enemy on its doorstep is Russia and it needs the US to deal with that threat.

Concomitantly, while globalisation isn’t about to vanish overnight, protectionism propagated by Trump is also here to stay. The EU and even countries like India will be looking at building national champions. Bear in mind that the world’s 10 largest and most powerful corporations are either American and Chinese. The list has one Korean interloper, Samsung. There are no European tech giants and even Japan’s powerful corporations have been forced to play catch-up.

China’s Belt & Road Initiative has been nowhere as successful as its architects had hoped. Countries like Pakistan and Sri Lanka just don’t have the wide-ranging vision of China’s leaders and have been unable to efficiently utilise the new facilities being created with Chinese money. Pakistan’s new Chinese-built power plants, for instance, have created a situation of excess. There are no buyers for so much new power and more projects are on their way. And everyone knows what’s happened at the Chinese-built Hambantota Port. Still, these projects have created a virtual Chinese economic zone and countries seeking funds will first look to Beijing rather than Washington. Or, to resort to clichés: all roads will lead to Beijing.

What’s certain is the Trump Era combined with the brutal pandemic and rise of more authoritarian regimes will change our world decisively in the coming decade. The impact of the pandemic has been to speed up technological changes that were slowly taking root and turn them into fast-growing saplings quicker than anyone dared to predict. And while Trump’s upending of the US-led world order initially came as a rude global awakening, now many countries are quite happy to cast aside America’s global leadership in all matters and forge their own futures in a multi-polar world. In fact, it may not be Joe Biden, but Amazon, Facebook and Google that will be leading the way into a new world.


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Published on February 16, 2021
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