America isn’t back

By Giacomo Valentini

On 19 February this year, in his first foreign policy speech in Munich, Germany, newly elected President Joe Biden declared that “America is back, the transatlantic alliance is back”, promising words aimed at marking a major change in tone compared to the four years in office of Donald Trump. Unfortunately, developments since that date suggest that there is more continuity between the two administrations than Biden seems to be willing to admit. Whether it is China, Iran, or Afghanistan, Biden has not significantly changed the course set by his predecessor.

Recent events only confirm this trend. The swift US withdrawal from Afghanistan, culminating in the sudden takeover of Kabul by the Taliban on August 16th, suggests that America might have undergone a fundamental change. It has no more appetite for being the world policeman. The spirit of the post-world-war-two period, of US international engagement and promotion of western values throughout the world, might be finally over. America is not falling back into 1930s isolationism, but it no longer sees itself as the centre of the world international community.

The change has taken place over the past few years, triggered by the most disruptive political development that America has experienced in decades: the presidency of Donald Trump. It was Trump who started the US pullout, both from Syria and Afghanistan. 

During the 2020 presidential campaign, many democrats vowed to reverse Trump’s extreme isolationism, but once in office, has made few changes in the US policy towards China, Iran or Afghanistan. On Afghanistan, he stubbornly ignored his advisers and international allies and pursued a disorderly and ill-thought pullout. Biden has also refused to change course in America’s dealings with China – portrayed in much US press in almost hysterical cold-war-style tones – or Iran, where despite the rhetoric no progress whatsoever has been achieved on a resumption of the Iran nuclear deal.

This change in American attitude seems to be bipartisan. Both on the right and left of the political spectrum, the prevailing winds favour a modern isolationism. While Trump’s brand of extreme isolationism might still be an outlier in the US political landscape, more moderate forms are now prevalent among both Republicans and Democrats. This situation is not likely to change any time soon, despite Biden’s “America is back” reassurance. And even if a future US President were to seek to reverse course, Trump and Biden have inflicted long lasting, possibly irreparable damage to America’s international image.

To be clear, I am not implying that there is no difference between Biden and his predecessor. Under Biden the US has rejoined the Paris Agreement on climate change, and put an end to Trump’s habit of publicly clashing with his partners at G7 or G20 summits. But Biden’s re-engagement is often limited to diplomatic niceties, or aimed at satisfying the most radical wing of his party. There is little indication that Biden is treating foreign policy with the same high level of priority as presidents Obama, Bush, or Clinton. And the fact that Biden has resumed multilateral diplomacy should not distract from the fact that on military issues, the change in attitude has been dramatic.

Partners in Europe and Asia will no longer be able to look at the US as a reliable partner in defense matters. For Europe, a militarily hesitant America might mean serious exposure to Russian military aggression. To Japan and Taiwan, it might suggest a weakened US resolve to intervene in the face of Chinese or North Korean aggression. Trump’s approach to the Iranian nuclear deal, which included punishing European companies dealing with Iran, has suggested to many Europeans that the EU should seek a greater international role for the euro as an international alternative to the US dollar.

All this risks strengthening the arguments of those in Europe and Asia seeking  more independence in foreign and trade policy. But independence always entails the risk of unilateralism, which portends the risk of a fragmentation of the international order that has dominated the world since the end of the second world war.

Allies feel betrayed

This new American isolationism leaves the UK in a bad position at a crucial time in its history, having turned its back on Europe and seeking a new international profile. The Afghan debacle highlighted how totally reliant the UK is on US military support. It should remind even the most bloody-minded UK Brexiters that the past days of UK international dominance are over, in case they had forgotten the lesson of the Suez crisis of 1956. The image of Britain having to sheepishly follow the US moves when leaving Afghanistan will endure.

Europe is also shocked. The reversal will embolden politicians in France and elsewhere who want to step up European military and financial autonomy from the US. German “doves” such as conservative leader and potential future Chancellor Armin Laschet, who had been arguing that the Trump years were just an exception and that trusted Biden’s “America is back,” will have a harder time now defending that position.

Even in areas like the climate negotiations, the impact of Biden’s ill-judged international policy decisions might be felt. Trump caused consternation in Germany when he sought to block the Nord Stream gas pipeline to Russia, just weeks before its completion. The measure has climate implications since without it Germany would not be able to meet its pledges to phase out coal use by the 2030s. Although the Biden administration has reversed the Nord Stream boycott, it nonetheless shows the extent to which a rogue US President can influence climate and energy policies around the world.

The new climate of uncertainty created by the Trump-Biden foreign policy turnaround is likely to have negative impacts on global trade, and risks pushing China into an openly anty-Western attitude.

Life in a Multipolar World

By Giacomo Valentini

During the four decades following World War Two, the world was divided between two competing ideologies: capitalism and communism. This bipolar world seemed an immutable reality to many. It was a world where the West was democratic, liberal and capitalist, while the Soviet Bloc followed a model of centralised communism where the state controlled all levers of power and the economy.

Following the fall of the iron curtain, the world appeared to have entered a new phase, a unipolar world where the United States was the “hyperpower” in the words of French foreign minister Hubert Vedrine back in 2002. Everything seemed to confirm what Francis Fukuyama had written in 1992 about the end of history, intended as “the end-point of mankind’s ideological evolution and the universalization of Western liberal democracy as the final form of human government.” Today, however, it looks like such visions of world hegemony were premature: democracy has not superseded other forms of government, and there is no such thing as unipolarity. 

As the years went by after the fall of the iron curtain, it gradually became apparent that the United States was not the world ruler portrayed back in the 1990s. The US has certainly had some major successes in this new world – in 2001 it invaded Afghanistan, and within weeks the Taliban regime was toppled and the Al Qaeda terrorist organisation was rendered ineffective. But the first signs of the US’s inability to have its way in the world came soon after, beginning with the invasion of Iraq in 2003. In restrospect, this  event can be seen as pretty much of a disaster in US foreign policy, heralding the rise of anti-US and Islamist movements throughout the Middle East and sparking turmoil in many countries in the region.

The Iraq invasion and its aftermath showed the world that the American hyperpower was not able to impose its will on distant countries. Regional powers and militia groups were able to hinder US plans. Gradually it became clear that the world was much more complex than it appeared to be in the black-and-white age of the cold war. Even in Afghanistan, after the rapid success, the western presence was not able to bring about lasting change. US troops stayed there longer than in any other war theatre. Their recent pull-out, while not occurring as a result of direct military challenge, confirms to many observers the overall failure of US interventionism, and is further evidence of a return of regional power politics after the cold war years.

The seeds of this fall of US dominance were sowed soon after the demise of the Soviet bloc. During the 1990s the religious, ethnic, cultural divisions that had dominated international politics throughout the past centuries but that the Cold War had suppressed, came back to the fore. With the end of the “capitalism vs. communism” confrontation, what remains is a tumultuous world of constantly shifting alliances based on culture, religion, ethnicity, and economics.

The US geopolitical standing took a further blow when President Obama chose not to intervene in the civil wars in Libya and Syria, instead letting Russia, Turkey, and Iran run the show. In Syria, the US played a secondary role, helping the Kurds in the North. 

The end of any hyperpower illusion came with the rise of China on the world stage. During the two decades following the fall of the iron curtain, China was often put in the same basket as India, Brazil, South Africa, Russia (the BRICS countries) as “emerging economies”, but the reality today is quite different: China has emerged as the clear alternative to the United States on the world stage – economically, politically, and increasingly, militarily. 

No way back to bipolarism

Does this emergence of China as a new superpower mean that we are entering a new cold war? The answer is no, we are not returning to those simple old days. Back then, no other country could stand up to the might of the two superpowers. Pretty much everybody found themselves having to choose on which side they wanted to be. The “non-aligned” movement of countries was never successful in providing a real alternative to this duopoly. Back then, the confrontation was between competing ideologies and was fought mainly through military threats. 

Today instead, China is not an ideologically pure alternative to the west, rather it has embraced a form of state-directed capitalism, and despite having nuclear weapons, it is not a global military power comparable to what the Soviet Union was.

Today the conflict is between liberal democracy and alternative forms of government based on high levels of coercion and authoritarianism, but not by a common alternative vision of society. China’s “pragmatic communism” model does not hold the monopoly of the anti-liberalism camp. India, Russia, Turkey among others are ruled by nationalist leaders. In Europe, Hungary’s mini-dictator Viktor Orban is also strongly focused on ethnic purity when he openly theorises “illiberal democracy” as an alternative to the socio-political model incarnated by the US and Western Europe. In other countries, including Iran and Saudi Arabia, religious factions dominate the political scene. 

Because of this more complex picture, our world is not a repeat of the bipolar one we left behind with the fall of the iron curtain, and though the US and China stand out among other minor powers, neither of them is powerful enough to carve up spheres of exclusive influence: even if Europe is obviously in the western camp, several EU countries have kept open dialogue and even made deals with China and Russia, sometimes in the face of US criticism; India has developed a rivalry with China – ranging from border disputes to accusations of using technology for spying and social control – but this has not made the Indians fall into the US’s lap; elsewhere, regional powers including Russia, Turkey, Iran, are engaging in a constant ballet of shifting tactical alliances. 

The risk of inflating the US-China rivalry

Even so, the US has chosen a confrontational attitude towards China. It is a strategic decision that spans presidencies, started under Trump and so far maintained under Biden. The US approach goes beyond considering China as the main US rival in the world, to treating it as an enemy to contain, much like it treated the Soviet Union. There are undoubted domestic policy considerations behind such an approach, but geopolitically, it is counterproductive and dangerous. It raises the risk of a regional military confrontation, for example in the sea of Taiwan, and causes unnecessary economic damage to both countries. It negates decades of constructive engagement with China, which started with President Nixon’s ping-pong diplomacy

President Obama wanted to engage with China with initiatives such as the Trans-Pacific Partnership, to create a high level of economic “entanglement” between China and the rest of the world. It was US and Chinese cooperation that helped bring about the Paris Agreement, a major breakthrough in climate diplomacy. The new approach introduced by Trump – and currently followed by Biden – negates this constructive approach, favouring a rivalry which is bound not to benefit either side. 

In a multipolar world, the benefits of this rivalry are most likely to flow to the middle-sized powers, who can use US-China bickering to their advantage. A result of this is a more complex, dangerous world in which risks of nuclear annihilation may be lower than those associated with the Cold War, but where regional conflicts are as likely as ever to flare, as countries compete for supremacy in their respective regions.

In a multipolar world with many regional powers, world governments need more than ever to work together constructively to promote peace and stability and fight common threats. This could establish a new world order based on respect and limited trust, intended as the first steps towards a more constructive way of running the planet.  

Los Angeles, March 2021

Geopolitics in the Trump Era

The media have given scarce coverage of the renaming in late May of the US Pacific Command (PACOM) to “US Indo-Pacific Command” (INDOPACOM). The change was generally reported as a largely symbolic gesture, mainly underscoring the growing importance of India on the international scene.

But there is more to this change than simple symbolism. The PACOM already covered a vast area, including all the Pacific rim. The new designation extends the coverage to large sections of the Indian Ocean, making it by far the largest US command zone. It should be considered in the context of broader developments in the region and in Washington.

The US sees a dual threat coming from China. The country is seen as a commercial and economic threat, but also as a possible future military one, too. By extending PACOM to include India, the US is bringing another emerging power into the South Pacific game. India shares US concerns about Chinese assertiveness in the region and beyond.

The US security community has long been concerned with growing Chinese claims on sections of the Southern Pacific Ocean, putting pressure on US allies such as Japan and the Philippines. This was already becoming an issue under the Obama administration, but the Trump administration has gone further than its predecessor, reassessing the geopolitical threats to the US and putting China at the top of the list of its concerns, followed by Iran as a distant second. The Trump administration does not consider Russia to pose a major threat to US international interests.

Read in these terms, US ouvertures to North Korea could be interpreted as an attempt to strip China of a military buffer, potentially bringing the US army closer to the Chinese border. At the very least, the signs of warming US-North Korea relations are a thorn on the side of China.

Announcing INDOPACOM on 31 May, US Defense Secretary James N. Mattis made it clear that the inclusion of India served an anti-China agenda. He said the new area of responsibility seeks to strengthen country bonds across “a region open to investment and free, fair and reciprocal trade, not bound by any nation’s predatory economics or threat of coercion, for the Indo-Pacific has many belts and many roads,” an unambiguous reference to China’s “One Belt, One Road” policy for the region.

This ties in with the second type of perceived Chinese threat – the economic one. The US is targeting China through steep import tariffs on a variety of Chinese goods. While imports from China are indeed impacting the US market, the sanctions will almost certainly damage the US economy at least in the short term. But on broader terms, they add to US pressure on China at a time when Chinese economic and possibly political expansion is becoming more and more an issue. As in all wars, the US believes it can inflict more damage on China than the damage the trade war will cause the US. And as seen above, the new US approach is also targeted at China’s “One Belt, One Road” initiative – another economic front on which China risks losses.

The other big geopolitical area where the Trump administration is deploying a new approach is the Middle East. The drivers appear to be both economic and ideological.

On the economic side, US shale oil development has lead to a revision in American approach to world oil policy. With few concerns for its domestic supplies, the Trump administration is using US economic, military and diplomatic might to “redefine the rules” on the international oil market.

The Trump administration has been quick at forging a close working relationship with Saudi Arabia. The Saudi leadership appears to be accepting the emergence of US prominence in oil, on the understanding that the US will never become a major exporter, and will thus leave Saudi dominance of the world market intact.

US relations with Saudi Arabia also support another prong of US foreign policy – a renewed “friendship” initiative towards Israel. The motivations behind such friendship are ideological, but tie in nicely with the geopolitical commonality of interests between Israel and Saudi Arabia – motivated by the common perception of a threat from Iran.

By withdrawing from the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), the US has clearly taken sides in the broader Middle East conflict opposing the Sunni and the Shia factions of Islam. Unlike previous sanctions against Iran, the Trump administration’s are targeted at destroying the Iranian economy, attempting to form an “cordon sanitaire” around the country. European banks and oil companies have also begun severing economic ties with their Iranian partners, under the threat of serious US fines if they fail to do so. India is also reported to be cancelling oil contracts with Iran.

In this broad geopolitical picture, Russia and Europe do not appear to play a central role for President Trump.

US relations with Russia are ambivalent, with the Trump administration adopting a usually friendly attitude, with Congress instead showing much greater concern at Russian activities – especially its suspected meddling in the US political process and its aggressive policy of annexation of neighbouring territories.

EU-US relations began cooling already during the Obama administration. Asia was identified as being America’s emerging  focus of interest, with Europe seen as a trusted and reliable ally. The Trump administration has brought a dramatic change to this:

  • Trump has distanced himself from the traditional US commitment to NATO, even airing the possibility of withdrawing its 35,000 troops stationed in Germany
  • The US has withdrawn from the Iranian nuclear deal, which had been crafted with crucial EU cooperation
  • The US has imposed tariffs on imported European steel and aluminum, ostensibly as part of its strategy of preventing Chinese exporters from bypassing the tariffs it imposed on them
  • It has withdrawn from the Paris Agreement on climate change, another European pet project, seen as heralding  a new way of tackling complex international problems in a multilateral and inclusive manner.

European reactions

Among European leaders, there is a genuine feeling of betrayal and indignation. Chancellor Angela Merkel recently warned that the trade conflict risks escalating into full-blown war if the car sector becomes targeted. On climate, the EU is attempting to fill the void left from the breakdown of the US-China “axis”, and also to forge a new, more distributed network of “climate leaders”. On Iran, the EU is finding it much harder to forge a strategy to replace the US.

But do not expect a rapid, decisive European response to these changes in US policy. In most policy areas, EU decision making is based on lengthy consultations between its members, a complex and time consuming process.

But an EU reaction is nonetheless underway: trade is one of the rare areas where the European Commission has extensive powers to take rapid action. It has done so with the immediate launch of counter-tariffs in response to the US decision in June to impose tariffs on steel and aluminum imports from Europe.

In the area of defence, Trump’s criticism of NATO has accelerated an already existing project to forge a European defense initiative based on developing a common military procurement market and close military coordination between the EU’s national armies. Attempts to establish a joint European defense and military arrangement, put on hold in the 1950s and restarted in the 1990s in light of the end of the Cold War, have been proceeding at glacial speed. Trump has provided the magic wand allowing for much more rapid progress.

For the longer term, the EU will have to deal with a world where trade conflicts risk becoming more common. This is partly due to a reaction by voters in many countries to post-WW2 internationalism. The EU does not want to become a relic of the past internationalist era. It has the chance of instead showing the way towards a new internationalism.


It is to be expected that over time, the international order will adjust to the new US policy. Europe will do its best not to find itself wrong-footed again by future unexpected changes in US policy. It is too early to determine if and how the Europeans will beef up their common foreign policy abilities – for example by giving the EU High Representative for Foreign Affairs more autonomy in forging and representing EU foreign policy. But European governments are never again going to take US support for granted.

China’s response might be more predictable. The country is likely to conclude that the US will never be a reliable partner. It will thus continue to pursue its own pattern of geopolitical alliances and international power peddling.

In the long run, the Trump message to the world is: don’t count any longer on the US as a guarantor of world stability. Emerging economic powers in Asia, Africa and Latin America are listening.

Giacomo Valentini, 6 july 2018