In his State of the Union address, Donald Trump warned grimly of “rivals like China and Russia that challenge our interests, our economy, and our values.” In response, he demanded that Congress give even more money to “our great military” and fund the growth and modernization of the U.S. nuclear arsenal, making it “so strong and so powerful that it will deter any acts of aggression by any other nation or anyone else.” And yet, in a near biblical performance in his first year in office, President Trump inadvertently rolled out a love-thy-enemy set of policies that only enhanced the roles of both of those challengers, favors never imagined by the Robert Mueller Russia investigation.
It’s hardly surprising, then, that last October in Beijing in his speech to the 19th congress of the Communist Party, Chinese President Xi Jinping displayed the sort of confidence that befits a true rising power on planet Earth. With remarkable chutzpah, he anointed his country the leading global force on contemporary political, economic, and environmental issues by declaring, "It is time for us to take center stage in the world and to make a greater contribution to humankind." With the unintended help of Donald Trump, he could indeed make it so.
Two months later in Washington, President Trump launched his National Security Strategy (NSS), an uninspired hodgepodge lacking in either vision or clarity. It did, however, return the U.S. to the Cold War era by identifying China and Russia as the two main challengers to its power, influence, and interests, though offering no serious thoughts about what to do on the subject (except dump more money into the Pentagon budget and the American nuclear arsenal).
In reality, many of Trump’s actions, statements, and tweets in the months before the release of that document provided Beijing and Moscow with further opportunities to extend their influence and power.
On the eve of the anniversary of Trump’s first year in office, for instance, a Gallup survey of 134 countries showed a startling drop -- from 48% under Barack Obama to 30% under Trump -- in global approval of Washington’s role in the world. For a president who values records, that was an achievement: the worst figure since Gallup started recording them in 2007. China, on the other hand, surged to 31% and Russia to 27%. And that was before President Trump referred to various unnamed African nations as “shithole countries.”
Here, then, is a list of favors that Donald Trump has done for America’s latest challengers and how they have reacted on what, after almost two decades of a sole superpower global order, is once again a planet with more than one world power.
Ditching the TPP
On his first day in the Oval Office, as he had promised in his election campaign, Trump abandoned the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) trade deal. Its goal had been to tie 12 Pacific countries -- Canada to Chile, Australia to Japan -- into a complex web of trade rules that would cover approximately 40% of the global economy. Among them, tariffs would be lowered and rules established for resolving trade disputes, the granting of patents, and the protection of intellectual property. One obvious Asian power, however, wasn’t included because the TPP was meant, above all, to limit China’s future economic clout in the region by permanently linking the United States to East Asia. The pact was, in other words, meant to be an economic bulwark against a rising China.
President Obama had worked on the agreement for almost eight years, with House Speaker Paul Ryan and other congressional Republicans granting him fast-track authority to negotiate it. Still, he left office without submitting it for approval to Congress.
Trump’s day-one act was, in fact, a triumph for China. As Michael Froman, the trade representative who negotiated the pact, put it, “After all this talk about being tough on China, for [Trump’s] first action to basically hand the keys to China and say we’re withdrawing from our leadership position in this region is geo-strategically damaging.” Trump argued that he was protecting American workers against competition from low-wage countries like Vietnam and Malaysia which were included in the deal. But in so doing, he ignored the outstanding advantage of becoming part of a Pacific free-trade zone that excluded China, while offering the U.S. and Japan, which generate the globe’s first and third highest gross domestic products, the clout that goes with such a zone.
Washington’s Climate Change Leadership Abandoned
By pulling out of the 2015 Paris climate accord in June 2017, President Trump created another global leadership vacuum -- soon to be filled both by French President Emmanuel Macron and Chinese President Xi. In December 2017, on the second anniversary of the Paris climate accord and in coordination with the United Nations and the World Bank, Macron chaired a One Planet summit of more than 50 heads of state and government, as well as three mega-rich individual sponsors -- Bill Gates, Michael Bloomberg, and Richard Branson -- and assumed the leadership role ceded by Trump and his administration of climate-change deniers.
In opposition to Trump, eight American states, all invested in speeding up the use of electric vehicles, remained committed to the Paris Agreement. So, too, did a private-sector coalition called America's Pledge, which promised to honor the climate goals set in 2015. According to former New York mayor Bloomberg, that pledge group "now represents half of the U.S. economy." In this way, Trump ceded leadership on what may be the single most crucial long-term issue for humanity to the French president and China’s Xi.
At the meeting, Macron, the 39-year-old former investment banker, hailed the progress made so far and insisted that it was possible to create alternatives to a fossil-fuel driven global economy by expediting the steps already taken even without the United States. He then proceeded to take a jab at the American president by awarding 18 climate scientists -- most of them U.S.-based -- multimillion-euro grants to move to France for the rest of Trump's term; that is, to a country that valued their work.
Four weeks later, the French president and his wife Brigitte flew to Beijing where they were effusively welcomed by Xi and his wife, Peng Liyuan. The Chinese president recalled that France had been the first Western power to establish diplomatic relations with the People's Republic of China and that his country now stood ready to work closely with France to enhance cooperation not just on climate change but on China’s expansive almost-trillion-dollar One Belt One Road initiative, an infrastructure and transportation project meant to link the vast Eurasian landmass in a great economic web whose heart would lie in Beijing. (These days, the only trillion-dollar “initiatives” out of Washington involve building up its national security state, the military, and the nuclear arsenal further.) This was the sort of global project that once would have been a natural for the U.S. No longer. Macron reacted enthusiastically, adding that "France would like to take an active part in the Belt and Road Initiative" since "the new roads cannot only go one way."
So from climate change to global economic integration, the U.S. was being left out in the cold. The way was now open for China -- which as early as September 2013 had begun taking groundbreaking action to clean its highly polluted air, in part by cutting the country’s massive industrial use of coal -- as it pursued a global leadership role being ceded to it by the Trump administration.
China’s One Belt One Road Initiative
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By the time President Xi formally launched the One Belt One Road initiative (OBOR) in September 2013 along the centuries-old Silk Road that once connected Europe to China, the cargo train service that linked Yiwu (a center for more than 70,000 wholesale suppliers and manufacturers southeast of Shanghai) to European destinations was already a year old. Its first test run to Duisburg, Germany, had taken place four years earlier. Traveling through Kazakhstan, Russia, Belarus, Poland, Germany, Belgium, France, and Spain, those freight trains took 17 days to cover about 7,700 miles, cutting in half the cost of shipping by sea (which took twice as long) and by nine-tenths the cost of airfreight (which took just three days). As the new initiative develops, it is expected that, by 2020, more than 7.5 million containers will leave cities like Yiwu for European destinations.
In short, when it comes to the economic future, Washington is losing out to Beijing. In the future, according to Chinese plans, OBOR projects will link China, Southeast Asia, South Asia, Central and Western Asia, parts of the Middle East and East Africa, and Central and Eastern Europe. It will involve the construction of oil and natural gas pipelines, highways, rail lines, deep-water ports, and power plants, among other things. Financing will significantly come from Chinese banks, joint-venture funds, and -- another major Chinese initiative -- the Asian International Investment Bank.
Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen encapsulated a widely held view when he commented that “other countries have lots of ideas but no money, but with China when it comes up with an idea, it also comes up with the money.”
Last May, addressing a gathering of nearly 70 national leaders and heads of international organizations in Beijing, President Xi pledged $113 billion in extra funding for the initiative and urged countries across the globe to join hands with him on the project. “We have no intention to form a small group detrimental to stability,” Xi said. “What we hope to create is a big family of harmonious coexistence.” Though invited to that assembly, the United States and India stayed away. U.S. Defense Secretary James Mattis caught the spirit of the American moment when he said, “In a globalized world there are many belts and roads, and no one nation should put itself in a position of dictating ‘One Belt, One Road.’” But these days, the U.S. is offering neither belts nor roads to anyone.
According to The Economist, 86% of OBOR projects already underway use Chinese contractors, which allows China to employ the excess capacity it built up in steel and cement during its rapid industrialization phase. Beijing has, for instance, committed $46 billion to a China-Pakistan Economic Corridor that will involve upgrades to pipelines and highways linking western China to Pakistan’s deep-water port of Gwadar on the Arabian Sea. Gwadar is less than 400 miles from the Strait of Hormuz, a crucial passageway for oil tankers. That means crude oil sent from Persian Gulf ports to China will soon begin arriving on Chinese soil by pipeline after a drastically curtailed sea journey, resulting in steep savings in time and expense.
Beijing’s drive to have a footprint abroad and extend the OBOR concept beyond Eurasia, particularly to Africa, has been impressive. Between 1976 and 2016, for instance, China built five major railway lines in Africa, deploying 50,000 Chinese workers to complete the 1,150-mile Tanzania-Zambia Railway. Eight more rail projects are now underway.
At the recent World Economic Forum in Davos, Chinese officials even played up a potential OBOR project linked to a climate-change-influenced future -- a “Polar Silk Road” that, according to the New York Times, “would link China to Europe and the Atlantic via a shipping route past the melting Arctic ice cap.” In this context, Donald Trump’s America First policies should be considered a truly “big league” bow to the rise of China.
Meanwhile, in the Middle East...
What about that other great power highlighted in the Trump National Security Strategy’s return to the Cold War? Russia, a petro-state with an economy the size of Italy’s, is no longer exactly the “evil empire” of the Soviet era. Still, Russian President Vladimir Putin has three strong cards in his hand: a rehabilitated, enlarged military backed by a robust defense industry; the second highest oil output in the world at a time when oil prices are climbing; and the all-purpose Rosatom State Atomic Energy Corporation which offers the nuclear industry’s entire range of products and services, and runs all of Russia’s 360 civilian and military nuclear facilities. Those assets are capped by Putin’s 18 years in high office, which have enabled him to see the fruition of his policies in a way no American president could.
By using Russian forces to intervene in the Syrian civil war in September 2015, Putin helped turn the tide in favor of Syria’s autocratic president, Bashar al-Assad. His alliance with Assad had three dimensions: Syria’s historic links to the Soviet Union in the Cold War era; the Kremlin’s desire to have a naval facility in the Mediterranean after the loss of such a port in Libya when Muammar Gaddafi fell in 2011; and his doctrine that any group that takes up arms against an internationally recognized government is a terrorist organization.
Having acquired a key, if brutal, role in the Syrian civil war, Putin proceeded to coopt not only Iran, a traditional ally of Syria, but also Turkey, a NATO member initially opposed to the Assad regime. Later, when Putin made a congratulatory call to Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan for aborting a July 2016 military coup attempt against his government, Erdogan agreed to join him in working toward a peace deal in the Syrian civil war.
Today, while the Trump administration’s input in the Syrian crisis diminishes, the Kremlin’s influence has become yet more dominant. Washington, which used its air power and 2,000 troops on the ground to support a Kurdish-led force of fighters in Syria against the militants of the Islamic State, now finds itself dangerously at odds with Ankara. An ardent Turkish nationalist, Erdogan considers irredentist, ethnic Kurds “terrorists” and recently sent his planes and tanks against some of them in northern Syria. Washington has been largely reduced to reacting to the Kremlin’s moves in the region.
A confident Putin has been busy wooing other U.S. allies in the region. In 2016, to shore up the price of a barrel of oil, which had dropped to a dismal $30, Saudi Arabia pressed other Organization of the Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC) members to cut overall output. For such a strategy to succeed, however, non-OPEC oil producers needed to cooperate. Being the largest among them, Russia was the key player and Putin, as eager as the Saudis to see prices rise, agreed. A year later, when those reductions were set to expire, Riyadh argued for their extension to December 2018. Again, Putin backed the move. As a result, prices are now in the $60 range.
Unsurprisingly, King Salman became the first reigning Saudi monarch to visit Moscow last October. While there, he signed 15 cooperation agreements covering oil, military affairs (including a $3 billion arms deal involving, among other things, the purchase of Russian S-400 anti-aircraft missiles), and even space exploration. By doing so, the Saudi monarch broke the monopoly the U.S. (and other western nations) had on supplying advanced weaponry to the kingdom. Significantly, while insisting that any peace settlement in Syria should maintain that country’s territorial integrity, he did not repeat his government’s call for Assad to step down.
Before establishing a rapport with the Saudi monarch, Putin had also managed to attract the interest of Egypt, another long-standing ally of Washington and the recipient of more than a billion dollars in U.S. military aid annually since 1987. In October 2016, more than 500 Russian and Egyptian paratroopers even took part in joint counterterrorism exercises in the desert near Alexandria.
The flirtation between the two countries, which started in 2014 when General Abdel Fattah al Sisi visited the Kremlin, gained momentum during Sisi’s second trip to Moscow six months later after being elected president. During the Trump presidency, it has only grown stronger. In 2017, Rosatom agreed to build Egypt’s first nuclear power plant in El Dabaa, 80 miles northwest of Cairo, which is scheduled to cost $21 billion. Eighty-five percent of that will be provided to the cash-strapped Egyptians by Rosatom, which can afford it since its total orders last year, domestic and foreign, amounted to $300 billion.
And so it goes. Though powerful and wealthy, the United States looks ever more alone. Whether in its fruitless wars, in its remarkable focus on military power, in its dismantling of the State Department, in its urge to build walls of every kind and shut so many people out, in the president’s insulting tweets, comments, and phone calls, even in the “Trump slump” in tourism, American isolationism -- that well-worn phrase -- is acquiring new meaning. While chanting his mantra of “America First,” Donald Trump has so far followed policies that have only eased the way for the Chinese dragon to roar past Uncle Sam, with the Russian bear not far behind.