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Tomgram: Michael Klare, A "China First" and "Russia Second" Foreign Policy?

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This article originally appeared at TomDispatch.com. To receive TomDispatch in your inbox three times a week, click here.

In April 2016, with Donald Trump showing remarkable staying power in the presidential campaign, I started thinking about the slogan adorning his product line, the one that he had tried to trademark as early as November 2012 (only days after Mitt Romney lost the presidency), the one that became a crucial punch line at his rallies (along with, of course, the Wall and who would pay for it), and that now is at the heart of his presidency: "Make America Great Again." I wrote then: "With that 'again,' Donald Trump crossed a line in American politics that... represented a kind of psychological taboo for politicians of any stripe, of either party, including presidents and potential candidates for that position." Until Trump, in this tarnished, already aging "new" century of ours, politicians all had to swear fealty to this country as the greatest, most exceptional, most indispensable nation ever and to its fighting forces as the "finest" in history. If there were mantras for the post-9/11 years, those were them, until Donald Trump chucked them all out the nearest window, making himself (though few noted it) the first declinist candidate in -- why not stick with hyperbole since it's The Donald! -- our history.

Now, let me quote myself one more time. In October 2016, as the election campaign ground toward its end, I wrote that "a significant part of the white working class," feeling backed against some wall, seemed ready to send a "literal loose cannon" into the White House. I suspected that they were willing "to take a chance on the roof collapsing, even if it collapses on them." And I concluded: "The Donald represents, as a friend of mine likes to say, the suicide bomber in us all. And voting for him, among other things, will be an act of nihilism, a mood that fits well with imperial decline."

Of course, the candidate who pounded the declinist key all those months has occupied the Oval Office and, three and a half weeks in, it's already clear enough that the situation has "this can't end well" written all over it. Of course, as with all great imperial powers, this, too, must end. In a sense, you could even say that the U.S. has been on the decline since it emerged from World War II wealthy beyond compare and untouched in a world largely in rubble. Or you could say that, of the two great superpowers of the Cold War, the Soviet Union imploded in 1991 in what seemed like seconds, while the United States, so much wealthier and more powerful, began edging toward the exit ramp wreathed in a sense of triumphalism and proudly proclaiming itself the "sole superpower" of planet Earth.

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Now, it looks like a man has been elevated to the White House who truly is a suicide bomber. The question isn't whether he'll explode; it's just who, what, or how much he'll take down with him in the process. So call this officially the American age of decline and check out TomDispatch regular Michael Klare, who has been watching the initial moments of the Trump era closely, and offers his own unique perspective on what an "America First" president actually has to offer, geopolitically speaking. Tom

America Third
Donald Trump Is Giving the Phrase "Multipolar World" New Meaning
By Michael T. Klare

If there's a single consistent aspect to Donald Trump's strategic vision, it's this: U.S. foreign policy should always be governed by the simple principle of "America First," with this country's vital interests placed above those of all others. "We will always put America's interests first," he declared in his victory speech in the early hours of November 9th. "From this day forward, it's going to be only America first, America first," he insisted in his Inaugural Address on January 20th. Since then, however, everything he's done in the international arena has, intentionally or not, placed America's interests behind those of its arch-rivals, China and Russia. So to be accurate, his guiding policy formula should really be relabeled America Third.

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Given 19 months of bravado public rhetoric, there was no way to imagine a Trumpian presidency that would favor America's leading competitors. Throughout the campaign, he castigated China for its "predatory" trade practices, insisting that it had exploited America's weak enforcement policies to eviscerate our economy and kill millions of jobs. "The money they've drained out of the United States has rebuilt China," he told reporters from the New York Times in no uncertain terms last March. While he expressed admiration for the strong leadership of Russian President Vladimir Putin, he decried that country's buildup of advanced nuclear weapons. "They have gone wild with their nuclear program," he stated during the second presidential debate. "Not good!"

Judging by such comments, you might imagine that Donald Trump would have entered the Oval Office with a strategic blueprint for curbing the geopolitical sway of America's two principal potential great power rivals. Presumably, this would have entailed a radical transformation of the strategy devised by the Obama administration for this purpose -- a two-pronged effort that involved the reinforcement of NATO forces in Eastern Europe and the "rebalancing" of U.S. military assets to the Asia-Pacific region. Obama's strategy also envisioned the use of economic pacts -- the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership and the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) -- to buttress those military measures. But Trump had made known his disdain for NATO and the TPP, so it was reasonable to assume that he would arrive in Washington with an alternative plan to ensure America's primacy on the global strategic chessboard.

As President Trump has made clear in recent weeks, however, his primary strategic priorities do not include the advancement of America's status in the race for global strategic preeminence. Instead, as indicated by the outline of his "America First Foreign Policy" posted on the White House website, his top objectives are the extermination of what he calls "radical Islamic terrorism" and the enhancement of America's overseas trade balance. Just how vital these objectives may be in the larger scheme of things has been the subject of considerable debate, but few have noted that Trump has completely abandoned any notion that the U.S. is engaged in a global struggle for power and wealth with two potentially fierce competitors, each possessing its own plan for achieving "greatness."

And it's not just that Trump seems to have abandoned the larger geopolitical playing field to America's principal rivals. He appears to be doing everything in his power to facilitate their advance at the expense of the United States. In just the first few weeks of his presidency, he has already taken numerous steps that have put the wind in both China's and Russia's sails, while leaving the U.S. adrift.

Trump's China-First Foreign Policy

In his approach to China, Donald Trump has been almost exclusively focused on the issue of trade, claiming that his primary goal is to combat the unfair practices that have allowed the Chinese to get rich at America's expense. It's hardly surprising, then, that his nominee as U.S. trade representative, Robert Lighthizer, is an outspoken critic of that country's trade behavior. "It seems clear that the U.S. manufacturing crisis is related to our trade with China," he told Congress in 2010. But while trade may be an important part of the U.S.-China relationship, Trump's single-minded fixation on the issue leaves aside far more crucial political, economic, diplomatic, and military aspects of the Sino-American competition for world power and influence. By largely ignoring them, in just weeks in the Oval Office, President Trump has already enabled China to gain ground on many fronts.

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This was evident in January at the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland. While no senior representative of the soon-to-be installed Trump administration even put in an appearance, China was represented by no less than President Xi Jinping himself, a first appearance for a Chinese head of state. In a major address, denouncing (no names mentioned) those who seek to turn away from globalization, Xi portrayed China as the world's new exemplar of free trade and internationalism. "Say no to protectionism," he insisted. "It is like locking yourself in a dark room. Wind and rain are kept out, but so are light and air." For many of the 1,250 CEOs, celebrities, and government officials in the audience, his appearance and remarks represented an almost mind-boggling shift in the global balance of political influence, as Washington ceded the pivotal position it had long occupied on the world stage.

Six days later, on his first weekday in office, President Trump appeared to confirm the Chinese leader's derisory comments by announcing his intent to withdraw from negotiations for the Trans-Pacific Partnership, thereby abandoning U.S. leadership in efforts to vastly augment trade in the Asia-Pacific region. From Trump's perspective, the 12-nation trade deal (which included Australia, Malaysia, Japan, and Vietnam, while carefully excluding China) would harm American workers and manufacturers by facilitating exports to this country by the other participants (a view shared by some on the left). At the same time, however, many in Washington saw it as bolstering American efforts to limit Beijing's influence by increasing trade among the prospective TPP member states at China's expense. Now, China has an unparalleled opportunity to reorganize and potentially reorient trade in the Asian region in its direction.

"There's no doubt that this action will be seen as a huge, huge win for China," said Michael Froman, the trade representative who negotiated the TPP under President Obama. "For the Trump administration, after all this talk about being tough on China, for their 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."

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Tom Engelhardt, who runs the Nation Institute's Tomdispatch.com ("a regular antidote to the mainstream media"), is the co-founder of the American Empire Project and, most recently, the author of Mission Unaccomplished: Tomdispatch (more...)
 

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