How About A New And Improved MAGA: Make America Global Again?
Four years of “America First” and “truth decay” has made US an international pariah
President Trump might have had noble intentions when he promised to “Make America Great Again” by putting “America First.” However, a dispassionate look at his actual track record — notwithstanding the popular slogans — clearly shows he has failed on both, foreign policy and international trade.
RCEP lands in the Indo-Pacific.
While Trump was conducting a futile trade war with China, the world’s second largest economy was negotiating a major trade deal, the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership or RCEP, with 14 other nations in the Asia-Pacific region. Quite deliberately, the Trump administration early in its term had not only rebranded the Asia-Pacific region as the Indo-Pacific region, but also renamed the oldest and largest of the Defense Department’s unified combatant commands as the Indo-Pacific Command. It was a clear signal that the U.S. was ready and willing to counter China’s enormous and growing influence in the region both, from an economic and military standpoint. Shortly after the rebranding, in an October 27, 2017 article, “Trump’s Indo-Pacific Strategy Challenge,” The Diplomat mentioned three critical issues that this strategy needed to address:
1. Security and regional hegemony: “the administration, together with a network of allies and partners, will focus not just on individual threats like terrorism or North Korea, but the broader challenge that authoritarian states, chiefly China, pose to the rules-based international order such as in the South China Sea.”
2. Economics and trade: “There is no doubt a shared general interest by like-minded counties, including Japan, India, and Australia, to ensure that the Indo-Pacific continues to be a place of growing and shared prosperity by advancing trade and investment.”
3. Democracy and human rights: “Contrary to simplistic notions that advancing democracy and human rights will lead the United States to “lose” countries to China, most Asian states have long recognized the reality that that some sort of balancing of ideals and interests is necessary.”
China calls out the “America First” paradox.
But instead, the Trump administration relied largely on its transparent rebranding strategy, which clearly lacked substance to positively impact its foreign and trade initiatives. More importantly, many elements of the Indo-Pacific strategy clearly conflicted with its domestic “America First” policy. This inexplicable foreign/domestic policy paradox was highlighted by the Chinese government’s mouthpiece, China Daily, which made its own dire prediction back on August 3, 2018 in a report headlined, “‘America First’ policy dooms US’ Indo-Pacific strategy to failure”:
“What really undermines the entire Indo-Pacific strategy is US President Donald Trump’s “America First” policy, which contradicts everything Pompeo tried to sell to the region.
By withdrawing the US from the Paris climate accord, the Iran nuclear deal, the Trans-Pacific Partnership, and UNESCO, and by disdaining the World Trade Organization and the international trade system, Trump has seriously damaged the credibility and leadership of the US in the region.
East Asian economies, which embrace globalization and multilateralism, and are well integrated in the global supply chains, stand to suffer the most from the trade wars being waged by the Trump administration.
Unable to claim the moral high ground and without the power of setting a good example for the region, the US will hardly succeed with its flawed Indo-Pacific strategy.”
Trump’s zero-sum game mindset.
Even if one took China’s prognosis with a large dose of salt, there were other less biased observers flashing warning signs. Nearly two years into the unveiling of the Trump administration’s Indo-Pacific strategy, Jean-Loup Samaan — an associate professor in strategic studies attached to the UAE National Defense College, and former advisor at the French Ministry of Defense and the NATO Defense College — analyzed its progress or lack thereof for War on the Rocks (a foreign policy and national security issues website). His February 11, 2019 commentary titled, “Confronting the Flaws in America’s Indo-Pacific Strategy”
“The Indo-Pacific region is not solely about China’s growth but also about local states becoming more autonomous in their foreign policies and more consequential. The perceived erosion of American credibility in supporting its allies and its inability to provide an alternative to the economic opportunities promised by China logically urge small countries to diversify their options.
More importantly, it is hard for U.S. partners to reconcile Washington’s call to join its Indo-Pacific vision with the constant way Trump’s policies question the U.S. commitment to these partners. The U.S. withdrawal from the Trans-Pacific Partnership has led allies like Japan and South Korea to revive their participation to another project, the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership that does include China. Both the “America First” rhetoric and Trump’s fundamental defiance for multilateralism put the Indo-Pacific approach at odds with reality.
In other words, middle powers like the Gulf countries or small states like ASEAN members may find hedging between the United States and China to be their best course of action but it will be extremely difficult to sustain it if the zero-sum game mindset becomes the driving principle of Washington in the area.”
“America First” v. Indo-Pacific strategy.
Then in May 2020, Brookings put out a more detailed analysis called, “The Trump administration and the ‘Free and Open Indo-Pacific’” It acknowledged “notable areas of continuity between the Trump administration’s Indo-Pacific concept and the Asia policies of previous administrations.” However, it noted:
“…obvious incongruities between the president’s instincts — as encapsulated by his “America First” slogan — and the ambitions of the administration’s Indo-Pacific strategy have undermined its implementation.
Rather than rallying a more unified collective strategy to preserve regional openness and stability, the administration has often alienated needed partners with confrontational rhetoric that is aimed at allies and adversaries alike. The president has frequently berated regional allies over issues ranging from host nation support costs to trade. The administration’s heavy reliance on sanctions and tariffs has created discrete winners and losers on the economic front, as opposed to a long-standing American focus on building broad-based prosperity. And inconsistent adherence to U.S. values and principles, including praising authoritarian leaders and shying away from critiques of regional human rights abuses, has weakened American soft power.”
And Brookings’ analysis concluded: “The principal weakness of the administration’s approach thus far is that by attempting to marry strategic competition with the nationalism of the president’s America First vision, it has muddied the waters of U.S. strategy.”
RCEP puts U.S. on backfoot.
Some experts have downplayed the impact of the RCEP on global trade. William Reinsch, a trade expert at the Center for Strategic and International Studies — who served for 15 years as president of the National Foreign Trade Council — said, “Its symbolic value has always exceeded its actual value.” However, Reinsch conceded that RCEP “could have consequences in the long term.” In its analysis, Foreign Policy magazine said:
“The RCEP will reduce tariffs over a 20-year period, streamline customs procedures, and replace a number of bilateral trade agreements in the region with one set of rules. The pact establishes the Asia-Pacific as the world’s largest trading bloc, bigger than the European Union or North America, accounting for $26.2 percent of global output — some 30 percent of the global economy.”
Unfortunately, throughout its term, the Trump administration avoided seeing the forest for the trees on trade policy and, by extension, on its foreign policy as well. It’s not too late for the new Biden administration to do a course correction to Trump’s Indo-Pacific strategy. In order to make it work — both, from an economic and military standpoint — this is an imperative, given the realpolitik of the 21st century’s most critical region. Former U.S. Ambassador Kurt Tong, partner at the Asia Group, recently told Yahoo Finance that the new agreement puts the U.S. “on the backfoot in Asia.” However, Yahoo Finance warned, “Tong, who helped craft the original TPP, said Biden is unlikely to negotiate Washington’s return, with strong opposition against the pact back home.”
The whole is greater than the sum of its parts.
This domestic opposition to the TPP, or now the CPTPP — Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement for Trans-Pacific Partnership — also known as TPP11 or TPP-11, needs to be revisited in the light of China’s RCEP deal. President-elect Biden might seek to do a number of bilateral trade deals, à la Trump, but these can prove to be more arduous, time consuming and disappointing than a consolidated deal like CPTPP that’s already been re-negotiated. It’s been suggested that Biden pursue a bilateral agreement with India, the other Asian giant, which opted out of the RCEP. But as the old adage goes, the whole (CPTPP) is greater than the sum of its parts (several bilateral trade deals). Especially given that RCEP is now a reality, the U.S. needs to rejoin CPTPP and Biden must convince India to sign on as well. This is in our long-term economic interests. For our long-term national security interests, we must also consider expansion of NATO to include key Indo-Pacific nations.
Make America Global Again.
The bottom line is that the Biden administration needs to transform Trump’s inward-looking MAGA philosophy back to a more outward-looking MAGA — Make America Global Again. As the world’s only superpower, we cannot afford to be isolationist. Four years of Trump’s brand of “America First,” based on a false sense of nationalism as opposed to national interests, has rendered us as an international pariah. Pew Researchreported in mid-September, “Since Donald Trump took office as president, the image of the United States has suffered across many regions of the globe.”
More disturbingly, the constant stream of lies that emanate from the highest levels of our executive branch — “truth decay” as former President Obama calls it — is a major problem not only in our domestic politics, but also in our international relationships, especially with our long-standing allies. Biden’s premier task is to restore decency, honor and integrity in the executive branch — make our word our bond across the globe. Yes, Make America Global Again because it impacts our leadership on various issues and relationships worldwide — allies, democracy, dictatorships, economics, trade, human rights, immigration, national security, pandemics, et al. — that have suffered great harm in the past four years. So, while it’s incumbent upon Biden to “build back better;” he must return the United States to being regarded as that “shining city on a hill” by people across the globe.