Independence is the core American value. George Washington warned future US leaders to avoid foreign entanglements, presidents Wilson and Roosevelt avoided the world wars for as long as possible, and later presidents have vowed to respond to foreign aggression “at a time and place of our choosing.” President-elect Donald Trump has now declared a new form of US independence, one that’s likely to transform US foreign policy. Each January, Eurasia Group publishes our list of top global political risks for the coming year. For 2017, there are many reasons why “Independent America” is our choice for risk #1.
Trump campaigned on a pledge to “make America great again” but also on promises to build an “America first” approach to the world. That means resolute rejection of the idea, central to US foreign policy since 1945, that America is the indispensable leader in world affairs. That will come as welcome news to many around the world who don’t trust Washington, but Trump’s view also implies a purely transactional approach to relationships, including with traditional allies. “Want US support? Pay up. Want US protection? Pay more.” Other governments will hear that a lot in 2017. Trump insists that the world’s sole superpower will spend its resources only in pursuit of core US interests – without regard for the consequences for everyone else. On security, trade and climate policy, says Trump, all treaties and alliances are up for review.
This is not isolationism. Trump will use US power much less cautiously than Barack Obama has. Instead, this is an extreme unilateralism grounded in Trump’s conviction that other governments are invoking traditional ties and common values to take advantage of US taxpayers. Unfortunately for Trump, and everyone else, he’ll have to learn from mistakes as he makes them. He’s the first person ever elected US president who has never served in either government or the military. He knows little about the rest of the world and has yet to determine which advisers and officials he can trust for sound advice.
The world’s most powerful nation is about to become much more unpredictable. In Europe, Trump’s conditional support for NATO, his tilt toward Putin’s Russia, and his political affinity with anti-EU populists will leave transatlantic relations weaker than at any moment since the 1930s. In the Middle East, the US energy revolution has steadily reduced US interest in the region’s rivalries, leaving competing powers, inside and outside government, to fight for dominance. Trump’s skepticism of international institutions such as the United Nations and World Bank will undermine the work they do in managing conflict, in housing, feeding and protecting refugees, and in investing in developing countries.
Most worrisome is the growing risk of conflict between the United States and rising China. President Xi Jinping will use Trump’s declaration of American independence to advance China’s security interests across Asia and its economic interests everywhere. In recent speeches, he has vowed that China, not trade-skeptical America, will lead the further advance of globalization. His appearance later this month at the World Economic Forum’s annual meeting in Davos, the first ever for a Chinese president, and his unprecedented support for the incoming UN secretary-general underscore this message. China is no longer a “growing teenager” that’s not yet ready for leadership. The emerging power has fully emerged.
Trump will notice. He will see that traditional allies in Southeast Asia, doubtful of US staying power, are shifting their allegiance toward Beijing. He will note that China is becoming more assertive in international meetings. He will recognize that President Xi, who is preparing for a crucial political transition later this year, is pushing back hard on Trump’s criticism of China’s actions in the South China Sea or its trade and currency policies. Xi will denounce US behavior that he believes is provocative.
If Trump warms relations with Taiwan to pressure Beijing, if Xi feels that democracy activists in Hong Kong are embarrassing his government, if China’s relations deteriorate with US ally Japan, or if an emergency centered in North Korea puts Washington and Beijing at cross purposes, US-Chinese relations will be sorely tested.
Under presidents Bush and Obama, Beijing and Washington have greatly improved communications. But in a year when the US and Chinese presidents both have something to prove, that progress will be threatened as never before.
* Ian Bremmer is the president of Eurasia Group and author of “Superpower: Three Choices for America’s Role in the World.” Independent America is one of the 10 Top Risks identified by Eurasia Group for 2016. For more information, visit http://eurasia.gp/2imdw2m.