Rex Tillerson’s sudden departure as secretary of state — alongside that of Gary Cohn last week as head of the National Economic Council — removes from the White House two of the only remaining pragmatists trusted by the rest of the world. With their departure, America’s credibility has taken another big hit. So too has the deeply held view in Washington that only American leadership can prop up global stability, so if America’s leadership wobbles, so too does the world.
But what if the opposite is true? What if the world is capably transitioning from unipolarity to multipolarity, a new structure gradually being matched by new institutions that will guide the next geopolitical era?
Surely this proposition strikes many in Washington as naive, even bizarre. They should get out more. It is much closer to the truth than they would care to admit.
Just last week, all the original members of the Trans-Pacific Partnership trade agreement convened in Chile to sign the deal — except the United States. The trade zone America once supported as a means of boosting exports and liberalizing economies will now move forward and boost exports and liberalize economies, all without American support.
TPP isn’t even the most important trade deal now underway. The Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership — which includes every country in the India-Japan-Australia triangle, with China at the center — captures the largest share of global GDP of any economic zone. It’s being driven forward by Asians from the inside-out.
Geopolitical wheels turn slowly, but they do turn. America began as a colony of Europe, then evolved into its protector, and now Europe acts like an equal. Asia was ruled by Europe, but now has risen to be its partner. America too shaped Asia’s order for decades, but now Asia is building its own order. Both regions America led in the post-war generations — Europe and Asia — are now equals with it. That is how the world turns.
We live in a tripolar regional order in which no continent can fully dictate to the others, and new alignments can emerge among them. Take the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank, surely the fastest-growing multilateral organization in the history of the world. It was founded in 2014 and now has 80 members, mostly countries spanning the breadth of Eurasia, the world’s largest landmass. European countries enthusiastically joined this new Chinese-sponsored institution despite American objections, accelerating the construction of a Euro-Asian Silk Road axis that now represents nearly $2 trillion in annual trade, far larger than the $1.1 trillion in annual transatlantic trade.
Should the United States want to stand in the way of an initiative that will drive global GDP growth and thus American commercial opportunities for decades to come? Not really, but that’s not how Washington’s threat-inflation spiral works. More important, nobody cares what Washington thinks. Rumors that President Donald Trump might consider having America join rather than denounce the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank may well have been the most sensible pipedream that has emanated from Washington. Sadly, that’s all it is likely to remain.
This is not to say that there won’t be bumps along the New Silk Roads. But an America-centric view of Asia is irrelevant to divining the region’s future. The real story in Asia is not China versus America but all of the balancing without alliances underway. Japan is leasing warships and planes to Vietnam and supporting Indonesian naval patrols. India has also begun military cooperation with Vietnam and Indonesia, both of whom (in addition to the Philippines) are buying ever more hardware from Russia, which Washington paints as a Chinese ally but is, if anything, helping Southeast Asian powers guard against excessive Chinese encroachment.
While out-of-touch Washington commentators portray Asia as a set of dominoes falling to China, in fact the region is a far more dynamic theater whose future structure is not likely to be a neat unipolar hegemony. Asia is wisely building its own order that accommodates but doesn’t bow to China. Thousands of years of history demonstrate this as the natural order of things, not waiting for signals from Washington.
Whatever transpires between Trump and Kim Jong Un, if and when they meet face-to-face, will only reinforce this trend. After all, it is China and South Korea that have been calling for direct dialogue while America has been resisting. Trump may see himself as getting in the driver’s seat with respect to North Korea, but Asians have been providing the navigation for quite some time. And should there be a breakthrough toward peaceful reunification, America’s justification for maintaining a large troop presence in South Korea and deploying the Terminal High Altitude Area Defense missile defense system would weaken considerably. In this sense, making itself less relevant in Northeast Asia might be the wisest thing America could do.
We must guard against the naive view that the American president—whomever he or she may be—will restore America’s global prestige and leadership. That is not how geopolitics works. Connections are being made, relationships advanced and deals locked in that circumvent America, with no reason for their participants to change course. Capital flows will expand across Asia, the Mideast, Europe and Africa. Many countries in this Afro-Eurasian space have reduced their purchases of U.S. treasuries, either because they are trading less with the United States and more with Asia, or because commodities prices have fallen and they need to repatriate capital to balance their budgets.
These are structural shifts on which American political cycles have much less impact than the American news media would have us believe. Rather than trying to save the world, then, maybe the next American president should focus on saving America.