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Foreign Policy

Trump’s Unilateralism Endangers International Stability

Apr 13 , 2018
  • Chen Jimin

    Associate Research Fellow, CPC Party School


Photo Credit: Gage Skidmore

The Trump administration has released three strategic documents so far, namely the National Security Strategy, the National Defense Strategy and Nuclear Posture Review. These reports outline the framework of Trump’s national security strategy, which mainly includes the following core elements.

First, it regards sovereign states as the major actors in international affairs, focusing on strategic competition from great powers. The Trump administration’s perception of the current international security environment was anxious and pessimistic. Its National Security Strategy pointed out that the United States was facing a competitive international security environment. In this context, the main security threats came from three main sets of challengers: the “revisionist powers” of China and Russia, the “rogue states” of Iran and North Korea, and the transnational threat organizations, particularly jihadist terrorist groups. However, the Trump administration mainly keeps an eye on state actors, especially the strategic threats posed by big powers. The National Defense Strategy Report of 2018 stated: “Inter-state strategic competition, not terrorism, is now the primary concern in U.S. national security.” A section in the Nuclear Posture Review was titled “The Return of Great Power Competition”. The Trump administration’s perception of strategic competition from big powers as the main US security concern shapes national security strategy. The focus of the US national security strategy has shifted from fighting terrorism to dealing with big powers.

Secondly, it clearly puts forward “economic security”, focusing on US economic revitalization, maintaining and enhancing US competitiveness. Since it is facing strategic competition from big powers, the United States must promote and consolidate economic strength as the basis of competitiveness. The Trump administration asserted that “economic security is national security”. Therefore, economic prosperity, the trade balance, and technological competitiveness should be the basis for economic security. To this end, the Trump administration will pursue an economic strategy to rejuvenate the domestic economy by reducing regulatory burdens, promoting tax reform, strengthening infrastructure, reducing debts, and supporting education. Meanwhile, it advocates renegotiation of existing trade agreements and opposes unfair trade practices to promote fair and reciprocal economic relationships. In addition, the Trump administration also emphasized the need to increase US competitiveness, maintain its advantages in the field of research and development, and prioritize the development of emerging technologies that are critical to economic growth and security.

Thirdly, it pursues “peace through strength,” highlighting the key role of military power. The Trump administration holds the view that the international community is a self-help system. Sovereign states are the ultimate guarantors of their own security and interests. Therefore, the US must be strong to safeguard its interests and maintain world peace. The 2017 US National Security Strategy pointed out: “Just as American weakness invites challenge, American strength and confidence deters war and promotes peace.” Among the elements of strength, maintaining military superiority is of special significance, “U.S. military strength remains a vital component of the competition for influence.” To this end, the United States should increase military spending, expand its military’s size, and promote the modernization of nuclear forces and infrastructure to ensure strategic deterrent capabilities. “While nuclear deterrence strategies cannot prevent all conflict, they are essential to prevent nuclear attack, non-nuclear strategic attacks, and large-scale conventional aggression,” the report said. Besides, the United States should also strengthen its cooperation with its allies and partners to magnify its strength.

Fourth, it promotes pragmatic diplomacy under the “America First” principle. This can be seen in the attitude of the Trump administration towards international institutions. Its first national security strategy report stated that the United States would continue to participate in and play a leading role in multilateral institutions. However, not all international organizations are treated equally. How they are treated depends on the role they play in safeguarding the national interests of the United States. The US participates selectively in multilateral mechanisms. The United States gives priority to those multilateral agencies that serve its interests. Meanwhile, the United States also says international agencies should abide by the principle of “rights equal to responsibilities”, stating in the NSS that “We will require accountability and emphasize shared responsibility among members. If the United States is asked to provide a disproportionate level of support for an institution, we will expect a commensurate degree of influence over the direction and efforts of that institution.” The primary consideration of US foreign policy is to put American interests first, regardless of whether a policy is harmful to the world.

The goals to be achieved by the Trump administration’s national security strategy are the same as those pursued by his predecessors, that is, to maintain and consolidate US global primacy. However, they are different in their approaches to this end. The Trump administration has made major adjustments in international strategy, which has the following impact on the international political and economic order.

First, the Trump administration regards strategic competition from great powers as an essential feature of international relations and uses military force as the main tool for advancing U.S. national interests. This could lead to an escalation of the “security dilemma” among big countries and thus have a negative impact on the stability of the international security system. The Trump administration regards China and Russia as “competitors”, “rivals” and “adversaries” and considers the competition from a zero-sum perspective. It inevitably worries China and Russia. In addition, the Trump administration’s emphasis on military means to advance its national security strategy agenda is likely to trigger some sort of arms race. Obviously, this is not conducive to the improvement of relations among big powers.

Second, the Trump administration views the current international trading system as a “victim” of free trade and tries to redefine international trade rules through unilateral actions, thus making the current unstable international economic order even worse. The Trump administration has raised economic security as part of national security, which means the US position on economic issues will be tougher and less compromising. Since taking office, President Trump has repeatedly stated that the United States was taken advantage of in the free trade system. Thus, the Trump administration renegotiated trade agreements based on the principle of “fairness and reciprocity,” lets domestic law override the rules of international trade, and increases tariffs to reverse the foreign trade imbalance. The Trump administration has launched a “Section 301 investigation” against China and imposed high tariffs on imported steel and aluminum. The United States under the Trump administration is no longer the defender of the international free trade system. Instead, it is an advocate of trade protectionism, which will shock the system.

Thirdly, the Trump administration’s selective engagement in international mechanisms will erode the authority and stability of the current international order. The Trump administration reduced US funding for international organizations like the UN Population Fund and urged drastic cuts to peacekeeping funds. It also withdrew from existing international mechanisms including the Paris Agreement, UNESCO, and The Global Compact on Migration. Some scholars, like Thomas G. Weiss, a professor of political science at City University of New York, believes that “America First” actually means “America Alone”. Trump’s egoism damages America’s international image as well as global public interests. Its indifference to the voice of the international community not only reflects unrestrained US power, but also indicates the major flaws in global governance, namely, its dependence on America. It also shows it is high time for the international governance mechanism to be reformed. The international community should work together to build a more representative, balanced, and effective global governance system that upholds the principle of achieving shared growth through discussion and collaboration.

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