By Waheed Raja
The 2020 US presidential election has seen a divisive electoral campaign that has split the nation. Irrespective of whichever candidate wins, the US president faces a whole host of constraints and limitations which come with the role including sharing power with congress. Whoever becomes US president faces the daunting task of dealing with a whole host of strategic challenges that will occupy the president’s time – whether he likes it or not, for the next term.
China: Containing the Dragon
China is now officially the regional power on the ascent that is challenging the US position in South-East Asia. Whilst China does not, for the moment, pose a challenge to US global power the prospects of it emerging as a continental power has now made it a target of the US. The neocon administration in the 2000s defined China as a competitor rather than the partner the Bill Clinton administration long called it throughout the 1990’s. But the Bush administration was marred by the Afghan and Iraq wars and was unable to focus on China and put little resources into containing China. The Obama administration put resources into containing China and moved 60% of the nation’s aircraft carriers in its pivot to Asia to the region to deal with the rise of China. The Trump administration took this a step further and began economic warfare with China. Despite a number of rounds of tariff increases and designating China a currency manipulator (and later removing it) on the substantive issues nothing has been resolved. Whoever wins the presidency faces this strategic priority. The US will soon be reaching the position of having tried everything to halt the rise of China, short of physical war.
The US had long had its eyes on Afghanistan, even before the events of 9/11. The country’s proximity to central Asia and Russia, as well as China, made it ideal as a forward base in the region to deal with emerging challenges to US power. The US never bothered checking history and is now the latest empire in a growing list who is bleeding to death against the indigenous people of Afghanistan. President Trump inherited the Afghan war which his predecessors failed to solve. Whilst Trump spoke about ending the war he has since refused to follow through. Trump has given much publicity to his personal efforts on negotiating a settlement with the Taliban. But in reality, the US faces considerable difficulties in achieving this aim, which Trump did not help by his publicity-seeking interventions. The reality on the ground is that the US are progressively losing Afghanistan to the Afghan jihad and they know it’s only a matter of time before they are fully ejected and are desperate to conclude a peace agreement while they still have some control. Whoever is the president, he faces an uphill struggle in this nation that was meant to be a forward base against China and Russia.
The US now faces the problem all empires face of having to be present in all places at the same time to maintain what it has colonised. Like the empires before it, the US uses its military, with a high readiness rate around the world to maintain its position. This all costs money, money that cannot then be used to fund education, infrastructure or health. Domestic taxes are insufficient to fund this so the US resorts to debt, which has created a $22 trillion debt bubble! The Afghan war was meant to remove a ragtag, 7th century militia force, it is now an open ended battle with no end in sight. Its sole justification is now to maintain credibility rather than achieve any strategic ends. US officials are now admitting that their country is overstretched having to deal with so many domestic issues and international commitments. The US is living beyond its means, it is facing regional challenges across the world, which will further stretch it. Whoever wins the 2020 Presidential election, they will be faced with tackling this problem.
US Alliances and Partnerships
The Trump administration’s policies have harmed the alliances and friendships the US carefully developed over the decades and has been one of its greatest assets over the last 70 years. Trumps ‘America first,’ mantra has left a vacuum which China is quickly filling. For the nations of the world, the US is no longer the power it was prior to the Iraq and Afghan wars and with the US pulling out of multilateral organisations, China really does appear to be the more reliable partner, with huge spending power. Whilst Trump may believe he is destroying the US, in order to save it the US needs the cooperation, submission and obedience of other nations in order to achieve its global agenda.
Transatlantic Relationship in Trouble?
During the Cold War the relationship between Europe and the US was key in dealing with communism as well as establishing the global liberal order. But in the 21st century the opinion of the US as a reliable ally has declined. Just 41% of the UK have a favourable opinion of the US, 31% of the French see the US in a positive light (matching the grim ratings from March 2003, at the height of US – France tensions over the Iraq War) and only 26% of Germans rate the US favourably (similar to 25% of Germans in the same March 2003 poll). Belgium showed the least confidence in the US, where only 9% of Belgians have confidence in the US doing the right thing. The Trump administration has not helped but the transatlantic relationship was already struggling before Trump took office. Now Europe is standing against the US on a range of global issues from trade, Iran, defence spending, Russian gas pipelines and now China. Whilst the US views China as an existential threat, Europe does not. Senior US administration officials acknowledge that American success in its competition with China might ultimately hinge on what happens in Europe. One senior EU official highlighted: “The Americans are out to beat, contain, confront China. They have a much more belligerent attitude. We believe they will waste a lot of energy and not be successful.” Whilst Russia was for long the target of transatlantic relations, now China is also part of the equation.
Repairing America’s Damaged Global Image
Since Trump took office as President in 2016, the image of the US has suffered across the globe and its reputation has declined further among many key allies and partners. Across several countries, the share of the public with a favourable view of the US has reached its lowest in the last two decades. Being seen as one of the global superpowers and having influence with different regions of the globe, this has now weakened over the last few decades and especially with how the US handles the Coronavirus pandemic, it has declined further. With recent events in relation to Black Lives Matter (BLM), as well as how the US has been dealing with its neighbouring country – Mexico, the US will need to take a good look at how the world perceives it if it aims to keep its image as a world superpower.
Domestic Political Polarisation
For the US to be effective globally it needs a level of stability and unity domestically. But President Trump and many congressmen and women across the political spectrum continue to use their position to seek their own personal interests and with Trump becoming president he has gone into overdrive. Trump’s impeachment trial was based upon him withholding US aid to a foreign leader to pressure him to provide dirt on his competitor. This is how low the US president stooped. This polarisation will at some point lead to mismanagement of America’s global position, especially when officials see their career for themselves rather than for the nation. The American system faces its most significant challenge in its history.
A Crisis of Global Leadership
The US vision of its place in the world has changed significantly since Obama’s administration published the US National Security Strategy in 2015. The US was confident then with its leadership in the world: “The United States is stronger and better positioned to seize the opportunities of a still new century and safeguard our interests against the risks of an insecure world.” That view of US leadership is now dead, along with the Trans-Pacific Partnership and US leadership in combating climate change. In 2017, the Trump administration published its National Security Strategy, which presented the US as a falling nation that must take drastic action to put “America first” so as not to be beaten by its rivals. The US under Trump has been placing its economic interests first, which previous administrations have also done, but now there is a lack of confidence that the values and ideology of the US will automatically triumph, and a belief that massive military superiority is needed “to prevent enemy success.” What does US global leadership now mean? What should the world buy into? The next US president will have to come up with something if it wants to regain its global leadership.
Maintaining Proxy Leaders
The US maintains its position in much of the world through a network of proxy rulers and vassal states, none more so then across the Muslim world. From Egypt, to Pakistan, from Turkey to Indonesia many of the rulers maintain their position due to this external support rather than a close affinity with their own people. Many of these rulers were already facing protests prior to the COVID-19 pandemic. Sudan, Algeria, Iraq, Iran, Lebanon and Egypt were places where growing demonstrations were taking place due to the rulers having run many of the economies into the ground. But the underlying conditions which drove many to the streets remain in place and we are seeing in places such as Iran protests have re-started. Many of the Muslim rulers are proxies for the US and they rely upon US support to remain in power. As the COVID pandemic has created major economic problems in the US and with the economic conditions so bleak these proxy rulers will face growing troubles from their own people. With the US occupied with so many other issues at both home and abroad the US network of proxy rulers will in likelihood come under strain. Whoever the US president is will have his work cut out in places such as the Middle East.
The Future of Tech
Whilst the US has been the world leader in tech innovation, this position is now coming under threat from China, especially in the next generation of technologies. China’s growing technological prowess is a major part of the US-China economic war and artificial intelligence is now a critical area of competition between the two countries because it has applications in military as well as civilian life, and will likely revolutionise both. The sheer size of China’s tech sector could give Silicon Valley a run for its money in terms of market share if it even comes close to producing the same technologies. Chinese President Xi Jinping has made developing his country’s technological capabilities a key priority, not only to wean China from its dependence on foreign technology but also to turn it into a leader in innovation. Whoever is the US president forging a comprehensive strategy against China’s tech is only becoming more important as time goes by.