25 May 2019
The US, under Donald Trump, has not been entirely isolationist; it remained active and aggressive on certain global issues of its choosing. Photo: Reuters
The US, under Donald Trump, has not been entirely isolationist; it remained active and aggressive on certain global issues of its choosing. Photo: Reuters

Under Trump, US in state of ‘abdication’ rather than ‘isolation’

Under President Donald Trump, the United States has been giving an impression that it is adopting an “isolationist” approach to world affairs, under which Washington is putting the interests of the American people above everything else in its foreign policy.

However, judging from what the US has done over the past 12 months, it seems to us that the term “isolationism” is not exactly accurate when it comes to describing the change in US diplomatic policies.

For example, as compared to former president Barack Obama, who was talking tough but hardly following through over the Syria issue, Trump has appeared to be a lot more determined and proactive.

In fact the “Operation Inherent Resolve”, a military operation of a limited scale ordered by Trump and carried out by the US expeditionary force last April, has proven instrumental in defeating the Islamic State (IS) in Iraq and Syria.

And recently, Washington took another major diplomatic initiative by officially recognizing Jerusalem as the capital of Israel. And even though the decision has sparked a widespread backlash in the Islamic world, it has only slightly delayed Vice President Mike Pence’s scheduled trip to the Middle East.

As we can see, the US under the Trump administration has not been entirely isolationist, and remained active and aggressive on certain issues.

Perhaps Richard N. Haass, president of the Council on Foreign Relations headquartered in New York City, can help understand the changes in the diplomatic approach after Trump took office.

In his new book “A World in Disarray: American Foreign Policy and the Crisis of the Old Older”, Haass points out that “abdication” rather than “isolation” is more suitable in describing America’s current situation, under which Washington is retrenching and retreating in global affairs not because of the growing threat or rise of another rival power, but because it has chosen to do so.

The problem is, if the US is abdicating its commitments to international affairs, then who is qualified and powerful enough to fill that “vacancy”? Undeniably, China is quickly rising to global prominence under President Xi Jinping in recent years.

However, in our opinion, the rising economic and political influence of China can at best allow Beijing to have a bigger say in world affairs. Despite its aspiration, it may still be incapable of assuming global leadership.

If so, what would happen to the world when the US is withdrawing from its international commitments and no other power is strong enough to assume global leadership?

Perhaps what Haass says in his book can provide us with some insights. According to him, today’s global trend is likely to be “one of declining order”. The geopolitical crisis, amid the hot global financial markets, could also be escalating.

This article appeared in the Hong Kong Economic Journal on Jan 5

Translation by Alan Lee

[Chinese version 中文版]

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