BEFORE dismissing blithely the high importance of a good and productive relationship with the United States to the Philippines, Filipino policymakers are well-advised to remember that America emerged in the immediate post-Cold War world as the only superpower, not “one of” but the only one.
The conventionally accepted assumption is that first, the demise of the Cold War would beget a multipolar world with power dispersed to new power centers in Japan, Germany (Europe), China and a diminished Soviet Union. Second, it was assumed that the domestic American consensus for an internationalist foreign policy could be safely retired.
Third, that in the new post-Soviet strategic environment, the threat of war would be dramatically diminished.
These assumptions, said Charles Krauthammer in a famous lecture published by Foreign Affairs, are mistaken. He said: “The immediate post-Cold War world is not multipolar. It is unipolar. The center of world power is an unchallenged superpower, the United States, attended by its Western allies.
”The most striking feature of the post-Cold War world is its unipolarity. No doubt, multipolarity will come in time. In perhaps another generation or so there will be great powers equal with the United States, and the world will, in structure, resemble the pre-World War I era. But we are not there yet, nor will we be for decades. Now is the unipolar moment.”
“There is today no lack of second-rank powers. But there is only one first-rate power and no prospect in the immediate future of any power to rival it.
“American pre-eminence is based on the fact that it is the only country with the military, diplomatic, political and economic assets to be a decisive player in any conflict in whatever part of the world it chooses to involve itself. In the Persian Gulf, for example, it was the US, acting unilaterally and with extraordinary speed, that in August 1990 prevented Iraq from taking effective control of the entire Arabian Peninsula.”
Towards a multipolar world
Krauthammer continued: “There is much pious talk about a new multipolar world and the promise of the United Nations as a guarantor of a new post-Cold War order. But this is to mistake cause and effect, the United States and the United Nations. The United Nations is a guarantor of nothing. Except in a formal sense, it can hardly be said to exist.”
Krauthammer concluded his paper as follows: “Can America long sustain its unipolar pre-eminence? There is an imbalance between America’s geopolitical reach and its resources, which implies that unipolarity is unsustainable.
“If America succeeds in running its economy into the ground, it will not be able to retain its unipolar role for long.
“An American collapse to second-rank status will be not for foreign, but for domestic reasons. The notion that we have spent ourselves into penury is simply not sustainable. What created an economy of debt unrivaled in American history is not foreign adventures but the low tax ideology of the1980s, coupled with America’s insatiable desire for yet higher standards of living without paying any of the cost.
“It’s a mistake to view America’s exertions abroad as nothing but a drain on its economy. America’s involvement abroad is in many ways an essential pillar of the American economy. If the United States were to shed its unique superpower role, its economy would be gravely wounded. Insecure sea lanes, impoverished trading partners, exorbitant oil prices, explosive regional instability are only the most obvious risks of an American abdication.
“Foreign entanglements are indeed a burden. But they are also a necessity. The cost of ensuring an open and safe world for American commerce—5.4 percent of GNP and falling—is hardly exorbitant.”
Missteps in Trump’s foreign policy
I quote Krauthammer’s observations at length here because they help to elucidate some missteps in Trump’s foreign policy, and the great importance of Trump’s discussions with allies and Asia-Pacific partners during the unprecedented summitry this week at the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation forum (APEC) in Vietnam, and the Asean and East Asia summits in the Philippines next week.
The most striking spectacle at the APEC forum this week, is that the United States, by dint of Trump’s policies, is being relegated to the sidelines.
Take his decision to withdraw the US from the far-reaching Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP). It has not dented one whit the push for freer trade in the region, especially in Vietnam.
Leaders of the 11 remaining TPP members, representing roughly 13.5 percent of the global economy, are meeting on the sidelines of the APEC summit to seek an agreement in principle that unlike the original accord would not require US involvement. Meanwhile, a 16-member region-wide pact called the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP) is also under negotiation. It encompasses China and India but also does not include the US.
The RCEP is a free trade agreement (FTA) between the 10 member states of the Asean and the six states with which Asean has existing free trade agreements: Australia, China, India, Japan, South Korea and New Zealand.
Prospective RCEP member states account for a population of 3.4 billion people with a total gross domestic product (GDP) of $49.5 trillion, approximately 39 percent of the world’s GDP, with the combined GDPs of China and India making up more than half that amount.
What does this mean for the US?
“As all these countries around the world are moving forward on trade and are getting better deals for their economies, the US is falling behind and that’s a real problem for American companies,” said Adam Sitkoff, executive director of the American Chamber of Commerce in Hanoi.
Nearly a decade after the 2008 financial crisis, Southeast Asia’s commitment to globalization—to weaving its economies ever more tightly into the web of world supply chains, consumer markets and finance—is unshaken.
The administration of former President Barack Obama championed the TPP as a strategy for buttressing US influence and growing markets in Asia Pacific. Many businesses planned their investments in anticipation that the deal would be ratified.
Without the US, the TPP runs the risk of being eclipsed by the 16-member RCEP, which has fewer requirements than the TPP regarding labor rights, intellectual property and environmental protection.
The current 11 TPP countries are hoping the US will eventually return to the pact.
The Trump administration has shifted the US strategy on trade in various ways other than insisting on bilateral deals instead of multi-country arrangements.
Like China, Vietnam started out exporting clothing, shoes and other inexpensive items. Now, it’s the largest mobile phone production base for Samsung, the world’s largest mobile phone maker. The value of Vietnam’s exports of phones and phone parts, computers and other electrical components up to August amounted to 1.6 times the value of its clothing and shoe exports.
“Trade grows very fast in this region and that grows economies,” said Alan Bollard, executive director of APEC’s secretariat and a former governor of New Zealand’s central bank. “Many people have come out of poverty and joined the middle class thanks to that process.”
“We know it’s a complex issue, but there’s generally a feeling we want more trade and more growth,” he said.
In America, the outlook is different.