Weighing the disastrous global impact of Trump

Source:Global Times Published: 2018/2/27 20:58:40

Robert Keohane

Editor's Note:

Last year, diplomatic circles around the world expressed concern that Donald Trump's election as US president has significantly changed international politics. Trump's signature foreign policy objective, "America First," as demonstrated by the controversial decisions to withdraw from Paris Agreement and UNESCO, added uncertainty to international cooperation and multilateralism. To figure out what this turn of US policy means for the current global order, as well as its impact on Sino-US relations, Global Times (GT) Washington-based correspondent Hu Zexi talked to Robert Keohane (Keohane). Keohane is an American political scientist and a leading figure within neoliberal institutionalism, a theory of international relations that stresses "the use of international institutions by states to further their interests through cooperation."

GT: What has been the major feature of global governance in the past year?

The major feature of global governance in 2017 is the pressure institutions have come under due to US policy. The Trump administration doesn't understand that although there's a lot of disorder in world politics, and all states act on the basis of their perception of self-interest, there are many opportunities for cooperation. It's not a zero-sum game.

When Trump's advisers H.R. McMaster and Gary Cohn, writing in the Wall Street Journal last year, characterized world politics as a contest for success in struggles over trade and other issues, rather than as a world community, they described it incorrectly.

I don't think we have a world community as values are not shared enough. But the world does constitute an international society in which there are lots of opportunities for cooperation. Usually multilateral institutions are essential for cooperation, because they facilitate it, make promises more credible, and monitor their implementation.

GT: What has suffered most from Trump's policy agenda?

This is a long list. First of all, what suffered is US leadership and influence. US' declining influence in the world has been hastened by Trump.

Second, multilateral institutions have suffered. It's always difficult to make multilateral institutions operate.

The third thing to suffer is the expectation of other countries that the US will take a responsible leadership position. In the past, even though other countries disagreed with US policies, they were always supportive of some aspects of US foreign policy. All this has changed.


GT: In the Foreign Affairs article "The Liberal Order Is Rigged," you and your co-author, Jeff Colgan argued that the problems facing the global order for the moment have a domestic source, especially in the US and UK. Can you elaborate?

In the article, Colgan and I are critical of the previous direction US foreign policy had taken. It's Obama, it's Bush, it's bipartisan. These administrations understood the problem of international cooperation. In general, they supported multilateral institutions when the political situation made it possible. But they didn't take sufficiently into account the domestic impact of the policy. They pursued policies in many ways beneficial to other states in the world. They were certainly beneficial for the development of countries like China and India, but not for the US working class.

GT: But people in many countries believe the US is the NO. 1 beneficiary of the current global order.

It depends on what you mean by the US. The US is not a single actor. I think this world order that the US helped create was certainly beneficial to US corporations, but it was also good for many people in China and other developing countries.

Just take a look at the change in income distribution over the last 30 years of globalization. As you see in the famous elephant chart, the biggest beneficiaries have been the public in China, India and other developing countries. This is a wonderful thing. There's a reduction in global inequality which is surely due to globalization, openness in trade, and openness in investment.

On the other hand, if you look at the top of the curve, there's a huge increase in the number of rich people of the world. These include US elites, especially US corporations. People who benefited least or did not benefit at all are the US working middle class, so it's not surprising that these people are unhappy with the result. They voted for an ignorant person, but voted against what they saw. Certainly, US policymakers, people in power politically, corporate leaders and academics like myself all benefited from globalization led by the US.

GT: How will you evaluate China's role in current global governance?

Whenever there's a rising power, there is tension and adjustments have to be made. The notion that war is inevitable is a foolish one. The best example is the rise of the US around 1900 against Britain and Germany. The fact of the decline of the Germany was an example of structural tension that has to be faced seriously. It's hard because countries are very reluctant to give up their dominant position.

I'm very critical of the way the US dealt with China's Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank (AIIB) initiative. Establishing this multilateral institution was a perfectly reasonable thing to do, in my opinion. The US opposition to this initiative was unwise because of two reasons. First, the AIIB itself is constructive. Second, the US is bound to lose. This just illustrates how hard it is to let go of hegemony.

I work on climate change now. China until 2014 was a notable free rider on climate change, but changed its policy after the agreement with the Obama administration in November 2014. There is no doubt that China has changed its policy to being more supportive of public goods but has still scope for improvement. I am not saying China is doing everything right, but I certainly see that in climate change and the G20, a move by the country toward a more responsible stakeholder.

It's one thing to have a symbolic policy which is multilateral, global and supports public goods, but something else to implement it. For example, Germany is a big leader in climate change. If you look at the emissions of Germany in the last couple of years, they have gone up. It's relatively cheap to announce benign policies but often expensive to carry them out. What I'm looking at is how seriously China will take the Paris Agreement, how seriously it will take the transparency provisions.

When Trump was elected, I predicted that China will not pull out of the Paris Agreement and it would step up and seize the opportunity for leadership. It's politically the smart thing to do. China did exactly that. However, it's still a question: Is this leadership genuine or faux? I hope China will move toward doing more and more. 

GT: When China talks about global governance, it tends to put more emphasis on sovereignty than Western countries. Do you think this approach is politically more sustainable?

For a variety of reasons, moving into a world where there's more commitment to sovereignty is happening. It's happening in Europe. It's happening with Brexit. It's happening in the US. It's happening in China. But this is consistent with my writing that states as independent sovereigns can recognize that they have common interests and there are ways for them to collaborate. States can pursue self-interest but still cooperate on a variety of issues involving shared interests.  

I think the next world order will still be an order with sovereign states. The question is how different states can deal with one another without showing disrespect or damaging peace prospects. One of the greatest features of the post-WWII world is that we haven't had major inter-state wars. Most wars have been civil wars, or have been generated by civil wars. What got in the way of peace most is collapsed states, not sovereignty. As long as this move to sovereignty does not become chauvinistic nationalism which says "we are better than anybody else and anybody else has to be below us," it's not necessarily a problem for peace.

I must say both the US and China have a number of similarities and one is the inclination to chauvinistic nationalism. The US has this notion that "we are new world and superior to the old world." China has this notion that "it's the oldest civilization and we are the most civilized people in the world." Leaderships in both countries have the responsibility to say we are not going to generate a kind of chauvinistic nationalism.

GT: It's not only China, but also the developing world, in which global governance is advancing. Will this lead to change in world politics?

The rise of the developing world on the whole is a very constructive thing. The most important thing in value terms that has taken place in the last 30 years is the emergence of hundreds of millions of people from poverty.

If you look back at that part of the last 30 or 40 years, it has been the greatest period of human history from the point of view of increasing human welfare. We should know that this is a great accomplishment. If that continues, you will have fewer failed states. You will have more states that are relatively satisfied. Satisfied states are unlikely to launch wars. They are not falling apart internally. They think prospects for the future are good. In this case, it would be foolish to start a war. However, climate change is a big problem and we have to work hard on it. It does require that we put in special efforts toward developing emission-free technologies. If you combine this increasing wealth of developing countries with effective measures to reduce emissions, that could be positive politically and economically.

Posted in: VIEWPOINT

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