Is the US becoming a banana republic?

By Robert A. Manning Source:Global Times Published: 2017/6/20 20:53:39

Illustration: Liu Rui/GT

A willfully ignorant, authoritarian leader, surrounding himself with family and cronies, stoking populist nationalism, appearing to mix public office with personal business interests, disdain for the inconvenient laws, willingness to disregard facts and say anything to embellish his stature - at the expense of reality - is not a pleasant picture.

These classic traits of small-minded dictators, often seen in Africa and Latin America, have never before been associated with the US, the world's leading economic, military and technology power. That is what the term "banana republic" means, and what many fear that the US is becoming.

An exaggeration? Surely. But there is widespread puzzlement and concern among many in the US, Europe and Asia that Donald Trump is undermining America's image and soft power, its attractiveness as an example.

Trump's behavior has raised questions about US credibility. At the recent NATO summit, Trump deleted a reference to Article 5 (collective defense) from his speech, and reportedly privately castigated allies demanding that they spend more on defense. Trump derided German Chancellor Angela Merkel and called Germany "bad, very bad" because it has a trade surplus with the US. At G7 meetings, the US has refused to agree to statements on free trade.

At the same time, Trump has embraced authoritarian US partners like Saudi Arabia, Turkey and the Philippines, omitting references to democratic values and human rights from his public remarks.

All this has begun to change the calculus of many US partners and allies. After Trump's election, his "America first" posture, cheerleading of "Brexit" and swift rejection of the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) spurred Europe and Asia to rapidly scramble in pursuit of multilateral deals to offset the US retreat. This explains why Merkel remarked that Europe "could no longer rely" on outsiders - a pointed reference to the US.

Similarly, in a letter to leaders of the 27 EU member states earlier this year, European Council Chair Donald Tusk described Trump, along with an assertive China and aggressive Russia, as one of three external "threats" to Europe's future. Tusk argued, "We should use the change in the trade strategy of the US to the EU's advantage by intensifying our talks with interested partners, while defending our interests at the same time."

Japan's Prime Minister Shinzo Abe is leading efforts to go forward with the "TPP 11" free trade pact minus the US, and completing an EU-Japan trade pact. The EU and China redoubled climate change cooperation after Trump withdrew from the Paris accord.

Does all this mean the US has irrevocably changed casting a cloud of uncertainty over the international system? Not necessarily.

It should be remembered that Trump's approval ratings have been around 36 percent, historic lows for a new US president. The next major test of whether Trump and his worldview is a temporary phenomenon will be the US Congressional elections in 2018. Already there is speculation that the Republicans are likely to lose their majority in the House of Representatives.

In any case, Trump is already bumping up against the sturdy institutions put in place by the US Constitution, three co-equal branches of government - executive, legislative and judicial - thoughtfully designed 250 years ago precisely to counter the potential dangers of an abusive leader.

Checks and balances are how the US political system is designed to work. Trump's executive orders to ban the immigration of Muslims have been halted by the federal courts. Strong opposition from the US business community prevented Trump from leaving the North American Free Trade Agreement, and an import tax favored by some Trump advisors and Congressional leaders appears dead.

The White House itself is under siege. A special counsel appointed by the Justice Department is investigating possible Russian ties to Trump's electoral win after US intelligence agencies charged widespread Russian interference in the US elections. The special counsel is also investigating whether Trump himself obstructed justice.

At the end of the day, the US remains the world's leading economic, military and technological power. But its behavior is creating something of a global leadership deficit. Some wonder whether developments like the US exit from the Paris climate accord and from the TPP amount to an "East of Suez" moment. That term was invoked when Britain declared a retreat from Empire in 1968, saying it would remove its forces East of Suez.

No one should underestimate US resilience. But for the moment, the widespread perception of Trump's behavior is leading many to discount the US, more in sorrow than in anger.

The author is a senior fellow at the Atlantic Council and its Foresight, Strategy and Risks Initiative. Follow him on Twitter @Rmanning4.

Posted in: VIEWPOINT

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