How Trump is achieving the impossible

Dr. Azeem Ibrahim

Published: Updated:

In the late 5th Century BCE, in the aftermath of the Greco-Persian Wars, a defensive coalition of Greek city-states was formally agreed as a bulwark against the common enemy to the east.

Sparta did not wish to join this coalition, but the other major regional power at the time, Athens, did. To its contemporaries, this Delian League – as it is often called –, was formally a voluntary agreement between equal partners. Historians, however, remember the League as the Athenian Empire.

In the aftermath of WW2, the United States, the world’s foremost economic power and the military leader of the Western front, organised and funded a number of international institutions, which would govern a myriad of aspects of global politics, especially outside of the Soviet Union and its sphere of influence.

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Among these institutions are the United Nations (UN), the World Bank, the International Monetary Fund (IMF), and the North-Atlantic Treaty Organisation (NATO), as well as a number of other institutions, which have evolved over time from this institutional setup, such as the World Trade Organisation (WTO).

Today, we prefer to think of these institutions as organisations of formally equal, voluntary members, which operate on the basis of consensus and mutual interest. It is a politically convenient ruse both for Washington and for the leadership of the countries within the American sphere of influence.

Historians, however, will remember these institutions as merely facets of the American Empire. It took a catastrophic war for the Athenian Empire to be dismantled by Athens’s historical Greek rival, Sparta. The American Empire, however, is being dismantled before our very eyes by just one man: the President of the United States, Donald Trump.

The Trump administration has unleashed an unrelenting attack on all these pillars of American power. The most visible of their victims has been American diplomacy

Dr. Azeem Ibrahim

American domination

American economic domination of the world has been on the wane for decades, as the rest of the world recovered and rebuilt in the wake of WW2. That much was always inevitable.

The major turning point, however, came after 1978 and throughout the ‘80s, when Deng Xiaoping, the new paramount leader of the People’s Republic of China, overturned the established Maoist consensus, and put China on the path to capitalism, and its inevitable rise on the world stage.

Up to that point, and for several centuries prior, China had been, in the words of Napoléon Bonaparte, “a sleeping giant.” He also advised, “Let her sleep, for when she wakes she will move the world.”

But China is now awake. Nevertheless, China rose within the global rules established by the United States, and has been, with a few exceptions on currency manipulation, capital controls, and illicit technology transfers, a reasonably good citizen of the American Empire.

And even as China has increasingly challenged the United States’ position as the economic heart of the Empire, the Empire itself has continued to be underpinned by American diplomatic leadership, and uncontested military domination. That is, until now.

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The Trump administration has unleashed an unrelenting attack on all these pillars of American power. The most visible of their victims has been American diplomacy.

Trump routinely tears up international commitments his country has made under previous administration, such as the Iran nuclear deal, or even more significantly, the Paris Accords on climate change – and with it, he tears up America’s credibility as a reliable international player.

But he also keeps starting fights with America’s closest allies, such as Canada and the Western European nations, for no obvious reason other than to “shake things up” and entrench an “Us vs. Them” mentality in his domestic political base, and give them something to cheer about.

Intimidating countries

Then there is the slew of instances where the administration will pressure and intimidate friendly countries for all manner of absurd purposes, from embassies to Israel to the corporate interests of baby formula manufacturers, of all things.

To say nothing of the fact that the State Department continues to see severe shortages of diplomatic staff a year and a half into the Trump administration. American diplomacy has gone from hegemonic to laughing stock in just 18 months.

On the economy, Trump has passed a budget with a trillion dollar deficit in a boom, fundamentally breaking the fiscal foundation of the American economy, and then proceeded to start an international trade war with virtually everyone on a scale never seen before in modern history.

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“The stock market is booming”, or at least it may continue to do so for a short while, but as America’s allies are, rather sensibly, reorienting their economies towards China, all the President will have achieved by the next decade is to ensure that China alone emerges as the undisputed economic leader of the world.

Trump has raised military spending. So at least the US will not be running out of bombs any time soon. But then, the United States has not been able to use those bombs to any good effect since the war in Kosovo in 1998.

Strategic objectives

American military operations in the past two decades have failed spectacularly to achieve American strategic objectives. And Trump’s apparent inability to do any kind of strategic thinking at all is likely to only make matters worse. Meanwhile, resurgent Russia, China and Iran are successfully challenging American might in their own regions with impunity and on a shoestring, by comparison.

So this, of course, is the perfect time for the American President to start dismantling America’s “obsolete” Delian League, NATO. One thing no sane American should want is a Germany that can stand on its own two feet militarily, without any American help or support.

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But Trump seems hellbent on making sure that Germany becomes militarily autonomous, seemingly with no understanding that doing so while also shredding up every other basis of trans-Atlantic friendship will make a geopolitical rival out of America’s closest and most natural allies in Europe.

As Trump also continues to hollow out the institutional order at home as well, as he plays fast and loose with the constitution, the United States will soon amount to little more than a very big, very well armed, very angry military, in a world it no longer understands and no longer cares to, at a time when it is having a cultural identity crisis.

In that, the United States may soon become the greatest threat to world peace and security. But in any case, the American people may yet suffer the most as a consequence, even as their Empire is being destroyed from within, by just one man.
Azeem Ibrahim is Senior Fellow at the Centre for Global Policy and Adj Research Professor at the Strategic Studies Institute, US Army War College. He completed his PhD from the University of Cambridge and served as an International Security Fellow at the Kennedy School of Government at Harvard and a World Fellow at Yale. Over the years he has met and advised numerous world leaders on policy development and was ranked as a Top 100 Global Thinker by the European Social Think Tank in 2010 and a Young Global Leader by the World Economic Forum. He tweets @AzeemIbrahim.

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