Can Trump triumph?


What does US President Donald Trump really mean by ‘America First’? Can he focus on the US in exclusion to the global scene? asks Prof. Avinash Kolhe. And, will the other emerging super powers allow America to be?

Finally, Donald Trump has assumed charge as the 45th President of the United State of American (USA). This made scholars all over the world burn midnight oil to understand how he would go about resetting the world order and what would become of US’s role in world politics. These issues have become important as Trump campaigned for ‘America First’ and wanted to withdraw from many conflicts plaguing the world.

No President of the US before Trump had ever declared that his focus would be exclusively on ‘America First’. For decades, the role of US in global politics has been enormous and almost in all parts of the world. In fact even today, the US is the only pole around which world politics revolves. This is precisely why global leaders and scholars alike, are deeply worried about the US under Donald Trump, the most unusual person to have moved into the White House.

Of course it is easier said than done as the US is deeply entrenched in many issues and conflicts the world over that are threatening to spin out of control. This is the situation the world has been used to for over six decades, especially after the end of World War II. It would be necessary and instructive to recall how the US has come to play such a role.

A background
Till the end of the 19th century, the US was a negligible player in world affairs. The 18th and the 19th centuries belonged to England, France and Germany. Even in World War I (1914-18) and World War II (1939-45), the US was a late and unwilling entrant.

At the same time, it must be admitted that by the beginning of the 20th century, the US was getting involved in world affairs. When the World War I was raging, the US President Woodrow Wilson announced his now famous ‘14 Points’, which took an unequivocal position against colonialism. In due course, this made the US the undeclared leader of the free world.

The World War I ended in 1918, but before that another important event took place in Russia – the Communist Revolution led by Lenin. The victory of the Allied forces in the World War I with US help and the Russian Revolution were two events which were to shape world politics for years to come.

Then came the World War II where US did not join immediately. It came in only when Japan attacked Pearl Harbour on 7th December 1941. The Allied forces with the US help in the Western sector and the Red Army in the Eastern sector, ensured defeat of the Third Reich led by Hitler. As World War II neared its end, in August 1945, the US used two atom bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki to force Japan’s surrender. As was proved later, using these bombs was completely unnecessary. But the US wanted to use this golden opportunity to test the efficacy of this new weapon and terrorise the world. No wonder, the USSR went nuclear four years later in 1949. Thus began the Cold War between the two competing ideologies: Capitalism (USA) v/s Communism (USSR). This ended only in 1991 when the USSR disintegrated.

For the entire period of the Cold War, the one and only objective of US foreign policy was to encircle the USSR and stop the popularity of Communism. This is why back then the US had become the leader of the free world. With the end of Cold War in 1991, the US remained the only super power for some years, till it had to once again reckon with two new, emergent super powers: Russia and China.

Vladimir Putin managed to pull Russia out of the mess and China under Deng slowly and steadily almost caught up with the US. This is the reality of 2017 which Trump is talking about. His analysis is that the US went global with its foreign policy for no reason, and spent its resources to defend the free world. In the process, the US leaders neglected their domestic constituency. This is why Trump’s ‘America First’ caught the imagination of the American voters.

Can the US exit the world stage?
This however does not mean the US can easily leave the world stage. Even now, the US must take active part in world affairs at least to protect its interests. It must demonise the expansionist Russia under Putin so as to rally its NATO allies against Russia. This is perhaps why US scholars regularly write the obituary of the Russian economy, while the IMF (International Monetary Fund) reports are busy describing the Russian economy to be in robust health.

In addition to Russia, the US now has to reckon with China, which has its own expansion plans in West and Central Asia, as well as in South China Sea. The ancient geopolitical wisdom suggests that one way for a superpower to maintain its supremacy is to ally with lesser powers of that region, and retard the rise of a powerful challenger. This is what the predecessors of Trump had been doing for quite some time now. Is Trump threatening to upset (or reset) this design?

Remember Eisenhower, the US president who while demitting office had said something of lasting importance, that there exists a powerful ‘military-industry complex’ that shapes the US policy. This same powerful complex is likely to create trouble for Trump and his team. There are powerful groups operating in the Congress, in the Pentagon and in the media too, which have deep interests in a status-quo of sorts. These interests are enormously powerful to stall any move, any policy detrimental to their interests. Remember, former President George Bush Jr. could not get Congressional support for the Indo-US civilian nuclear deal which he signed in 2008, and which is hanging fire even today. Though the US President is generally regarded as the most powerful person on Earth, he too cannot do what he wants to unless he ensures support of powerful lobbies.

These lobbies have interests all over the world. There are huge construction contracts to be won, there are guns and bombs to be sold. For this to happen, wars must take place, destruction must happen so that the US companies can get contracts to reconstruct them.

If this is the ‘given’, how far Trump would succeed remains to be seen.


Prof. Avinash Kolhe

Prof. Avinash Kolhe retired as Asst. Professor in Political Science at D G Ruparel College, Mumbai.