Donald Trump’s darkening view of the world and America’s place in it is leaving the United States even more isolated, embracing a vision that few of our allies or even our friends seem prepared to buy into — a process fraught with enormous danger for both the immediate and long-term future.
If the United States is going to embrace sovereignty over collectivism, the rest of the world is clearly, apart from a handful of rogue nations, lining up behind the reality that if we don’t band together in some fashion, we will all die separately.
Effectively, what broad swaths of the world clearly seem to have been conveying this week from the podium of the UN General Assembly is that a sovereignty-first foreign policy will lead many of these nations to their own form of don’t-get-mad, get-even diplomacy. And the United States will simply be left out of a growing consensus of the value of condominium over confrontation. Which is, after all, what the United Nations is all about, while the Trump vision of the world and America’s role in it carves an even greater chasm between us and virtually everyone else.
Now it is likely that regional groups must take up the slack — the European Union, or ASEAN in Asia, the Africa Union and African Development Bank in Africa and Mercosur in Latin America or the North American Free Trade Agreement, with the latest round of talks to revamp that pact kicking off Friday.
Such organizations would effectively fill the long traditional role the United States now appears to be abandoning, providing a leadership foundation in their parts of the world, dealing with issues and seizing opportunities that the major powers no longer seem capable of handling and moving toward at least regional agreements for free trade and fewer barriers.
“We are working on a united African model,” Akinwumi Adesina, president of the African Development Bank, told me in a telephone interview from Abidjan, Ivory Coast.
“Already each of (Africa’s) regional economic entities have plans for regional integration. We are integrating stock exchanges from Casablanca to Johannesburg. The walls are coming down faster than people think,” Adesina said. “By 2018, the African Union expects to conclude the African Free Trade Area.”
And it expects to be negotiating pacts with a number of other regional groups as well as China.
Still, at least for the moment, the United States is being left behind. At the very moment Trump was ditching the Trans-Pacific Partnership trade pact — an effort to isolate China — the ASEAN countries of Southeast Asia were expanding their free trade agreements with China and Hong Kong.
None of these regions is moving toward as strong a political and economic union as Europe, largely because some Asian and African nations have only in the last century won their own freedom from colonial rule.
Asian nations aren’t yet willing to give up their hard-won sovereignty in the way that European nations have done. Still, if the United States continues its pullback from confrontation with Asian nations, that dynamic could change toward greater integration in the political sphere as well.
Yet Trump appears fully ready to remain on the outside of so many of these new global dynamics — a place he seems happy to take the United States — on the sidelines while these new combinations find willing partners from other regions.
Adesina pointed out that in 2008 US exports to Africa totaled $113 billion. By 2015 this figure had declined to $26.5 billion. Yet in 2015 Chinese exports to Africa reached $102 billion. “China has become the main trading partner of Africa,” he observed.
“China is ahead of everybody else in Africa today,” Adesina said, proceeding to detail the scale of investments by China and a host of other nations, headlined by China’s $60 billion initiative, followed by Japan with $30 billion.
“These parts of the world are interested in expanding their investment in and support for Africa,” he said. But thus far, nothing from the Trump administration. “Americans come with notebooks, China comes with checkbooks,” Adesina concluded.
Both Asia and Africa are feeling the vacuum in Washington. As The New York Times reported, the State Department’s Africa bureau was initially told to slash its delegation of 30 top diplomats it would send to the UN General Assembly sessions in New York to 10 and then to reduce that number to three, while the South and Central Asia bureau saw its delegation go from 30 to 10 to seven.
At the State Department, there is still no assistant secretary of state for African affairs or principal deputy. And in the Bureau of East Asian and Pacific Affairs, all the top officials are either holdovers from the Obama administration or “acting.”
In short, whether by inaction or design or both, the United States has already gone a long way toward implementing Trump’s “America First” doctrine — at the very moment much of the world is desperately seeking new leadership dynamics. And in America’s absence, they are very much preparing to go it alone.
Yet diplomacy by vacuum has never been a very good idea at all.