“America is a great power, today the only superpower, we accept that. We want to and are ready to work with the United States “said Vladimir Putin. “ The world needs such strong nations like the US. But we don’t want them constantly getting mixed up in our affairs, instructing us how to live, preventing Europe from building a relationship with us.”
Putin was talking last June about the US election. He was asked about Donald Trump and described him with a Russian word which can be translated as colourful or gaudy. He had used the same word before to describe the then-Republican nominee, leading Trump to declare “It’s a great honour. When people call you brilliant, it’s always good, especially when the person heads up Russia.”
Trump, in the course of the election campaign, went on signal that he would accept the Kremlin’s annexation of Crimea, would not necessarily defend the Baltic states against Russia, questioned the usefulness of Nato and warn allies Japan and South Korea they cannot depend on America to defend them against China and North Korea. American troops from the region may well be withdrawn and Tokyo and Seoul should, if necessary, get themselves nuclear weapons, he added. The man who wanted to be next President of the United States indicated that he was not too bothered about nuclear proliferation in East Asia or, indeed, anywhere else.
Five months on, Trump is preparing to move into the White House after the most staggering result in America’s presidential elections in a hundred years and Putin may well be musing on just how much longer America will remain the world’s only superpower. The Russian President has every reason think that the new America will be willing to accept a relationship between Europe and Russia very much to Moscow’s advantage.
We are witnessing a fundamental shift in international relations overturning well established notions. Two and half decades ago, Francis Fukuyama held in The End of History that we are seeing not only the end of the Cold War and the withering of the communism, but the acceptance of liberal democracy as the ultimate and most gratifying form of human government. After the election of a man like Trump following a toxic and dishonest campaign, states criticised for being authoritarian are only too keen to point out the pitfalls of the Western system.
“America is terribly ill” wrote Yan Peng, vice president of a state run research centre in China in The People’s Daily, the flagship newspaper of the Communist Party. “The election would be remembered as a page of dirt, chaotic and poor performances.” Gleb Pavlovsky, a former political consultant for the Russian government was sure “they are drinking champagne in the Kremlin, for two reasons, one political, the other psychological”.
The European Union was already under severe pressure, he pointed out, with the financial and refugee crisis followed by the blow of Brexit : but any move by Trump to row back American power abroad would mean that not only would Western Europe not be buttressed at a time of need, but the West’s position in the international status quo would start to unravel.
It is difficult to predict the specifics of the new administration’s policies. In a public letter eight months ago attacking Trump, senior Republican security experts charged that his vision of the country’s influence and power in the world was “wildly inconsistent and unmoored in principle” shifting “from isolationism to military adventurism within the space of one sentence”.
The vision, since then, has focused more on isolationism, with military action limited to combatting Islamist terrorist groups like Isis although he seems to be prepared to leave much of that to Russia in Syria. The wars he is likely to fight are trade wars and America is hardly going to spread influence around the world peering from being tariff walls.
Isolationism is not, of course, new in the US. In the 1930s, as Europe moved towards war, Congress passed a series of Neutrality Acts. This helped embolden Hitler and the Germans, and their sympathisers in the States made considerable effort, covertly and overtly, to aid the isolationist movement. Even in 1939, as Germany invaded Poland and Britain and France declared war, President Roosevelt, knowing he had to follow the prevailing mood in the Senate and House of Representative, was having to say in a speech that he would do all he could to keep America out of the war.
Vladimir Putin is obviously no Adolf Hitler. But it would be understandable for Moscow to test American reaction with an incident or two in Eastern Europe in the next few months. Nato has been making a lot of pronouncements about countering Russian aggression in the Baltics and Ukraine and holding military exercises in the region. Some Western politicians, especially the British, have been increasingly noisy on the issue. But Nato, without American muscle, is nothing much for Moscow to worry about.
In 1949, less than two decades after the Neutrality Acts, the British historian Robert Payne wrote of the US “She bestrides the world like a Colossus, no other power at any time in the world’s history has possessed so varied or so great an influence on other nations”. A retreat into isolation now would not be reversed so quickly. China would use the absence of American military power in the Pacific to expand its hegemony. The South-East Asians nations, possibly with India as a nuclear-armed ally, would try to counter that. The Latin American states would emerge further from the shadow of the US. The European Union, reformed, would continue to be a formidable trading block and Russia would reclaim its place as a superpower.
The presidency of Donald Trump may see ensure that the American Century, which began at the end of the Second World War, is now over.
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