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Global Affairs

The Impulsive Leviathan

 8 min read / 

The Creation of the Leviathan

The end of the Cold War ushered in a new order, which had the United States as its single pole. Typical western principles were championed by the Western democracies as ideal, led by the US, with free trade and democracy being the prime ones. Countries like India were persuaded into accepting the structural adjustment projects doled out by transnational financial institutions. The post-Cold War world order amplified the relevance of the Kantian triangle more than ever. International institutions came to the fore and the UN had more importance than its predecessor, the League of Nations. Bilateral trade increased steadily, even between countries that did not exactly agree with one another on crucial issues. Many countries transitioned to democracies over the last six decades after World War II, giving the statistical back up to the Democratic Peace Theory. Stability of the global order increased and an overall reduction in violence was ushered in after the horrific wars of the 20th century.

This pattern of global order reinforces Hobbes’ idea of Leviathan. Hobbes argued that only an absolute sovereign could rule in a way that would prevent society from descending into civil war. If a parallel were to be drawn on a global level today, it would point at the United States, in conjunction with UN and other multilateral institutions, that have played the role of such a sovereign. The dominant footprint of the US on multilateral institutions like the UN is evident. And this is why we can comfortably hypothesise that the US, along with the international institutions it is backing, are the Leviathan of the modern world order. Of late, however, this Leviathan has turned whimsical and rash, destabilising the very same precedents that it ensured were set for the world. The Republican leadership under Donald Trump reeks of a mercantilist state headed by an impulsive leader, bereft of the basic tactics of diplomacy. His confrontational attitude has put numerous bilateral and multi-lateral relationships and much needed international stability at stake. While we may agree that the UN and the international community haven’t been very effective in preventing conflicts (exemplified by the history of Kosovo and Rwanda) they have nevertheless reduced the impact and the number of incidents. The number of conflicts could have been much higher sans international treaties and agreements that act as an overarching deterrent. It is however imperative to recognise that the UN has limited powers as per its charter.

The Destabilisation of the Leviathan

The first destabilising setback was Trump’s rejection of the climate accords. While the world was conversant with Trump’s beliefs on climate change, this stance has dented the image of the US as a global leader. Domestically, he has shelved NASA research on a Carbon Monitoring System. Many of Trump’s poll promises were thought of as mere rhetoric. Now that the reality of it unfolds and the realisation dawns that he actually plans to execute most of them, the international community feels threatened. Apart from that, Trump also initiated a tariff war with China over steel. It was an unreasonable decision, to say the least, and one that exacerbated the fragile nature of the US leadership. In both aforementioned cases, data and common sense were battered by the distorted beliefs of a whimsical populist leader. The trade data on steel clearly shows that the US imported roughly 2% of its steel from China in 2017. So, the ones most affected by tariffs would have been Canada, Mexico, and South Korea – some of the most important US allies. Canada and Mexico were given temporary exemptions which ran out on May 1.

While the world was still reeling over his flawed decision-making, Trump surprised everyone again with backing out of the JCPOA with Iran. The deal certainly had its flaws but it had brought a certain level of stability to the dynamics of the Middle-East. It also provided hope for some more diplomatic roads in the near future. Trump’s impulsive decision on Iran has eroded any future possibility of a tripartite discussion in the Middle East involving Shias, Sunnis, and Israel. The US proximity to both Israel and the Saudis could have been leveraged in coordination with the Iran deal for a less conflict-ridden and more cooperative Middle East. The change of tone of Riyadh concerning Israel seemed to be doing some work. Saudi Prince Salman had, recently in an interview, spoken of the rights of Jews to their own homeland. This was a welcome change compared to the previous hardline stance taken by Saudi leaders on Israel.

Domestically, the Leviathan’s policies have also been anything but stable. Trump has been rash in his sacking of key people like former Secretary of State, Rex Tillerson. Former Chief Economic Advisor, Gary Cohen, was probably the last person still trying to convince Trump against an all-out tariff war. He too resigned later. Trump has increasingly opted for political hawks and a clique of yes-men, as evident in his appointment of John Bolton as National Security Advisor over a four-star general like HR McMaster.

The Attack on Peace and Stability

Trump has implicitly attacked the Kantian peace triangle which has been instrumental in the reducing the possibility of large scale wars and conflicts. It has been the silent backbone of the modern trade-enabled world. Trump has openly attacked two of the three pillars of the peace triangle – economic interdependence and international organisations.

International organisations were his co-Leviathans and a flurry of inward looking policies has created utmost confusion amongst the US’ own allies. Trump’s idea of withdrawing troops from Japan and other parts of the world has got nations thinking more about the future possibility of the US as a single pole. This has got many nations, including the ones historically hostile to it, to warm up to China. Both Japan and India, part of the informal QUAD intended to counter China, have most recently grown closer to it; albeit slowly. While China’s rise was being forecast for close to a decade, it is Trump’s hasty and rash decisions that have propelled its chances of being the single pole of the world.

The Dragon-Dominated World Order

It is plausible that to consolidate its hold as the single pole, China will embark on a strategy similar to the US in the early 1950s to 1970s. The US supported puppet regimes and dictatorships all over the world, therefore essentially ruling via a proxy in many countries. China has already done the same, despite not being the singular pole. Chinese neo-colonialism is spread out across Africa via huge Chinese investments, and slowly it is spreading to Asia as well. While the American proxy-colonialism was more ideology based, the Chinese one is more about power diplomacy. Although one cannot rank atrocities, the US is still a liberal democracy that has a free press and has been held liable for its atrocities in the past and in the present. American civil society groups, celebrities, and students have constantly held the government responsible time and again for instances like the Vietnam War, the Iraq War, and many others.  Chinese neo-colonialism might not be as benign as the American one. It also does not help that China is a one-party state and could impose similar curbing of freedom on its less powerful allies if and when it becomes the single pole. The US does not interfere in the domestic affairs of stable countries, at least not overtly in the recent past. It does not overtly meddle in the affairs of American corporates in other countries. With China, however, it might be different. It has in the past meddled with the internal politics of several stable countries. Also, many large Chinese corporations are state-owned, tying the State directly to its workings, which exacerbates the chance that China will intervene when its corporations are in deep waters.

Conclusion

The Leviathan formed by the US, combined with its influence over international institutions, is therefore the necessary evil that is needed for a stable world order. Although it is not a perfect combination and is prone to its errors, the alternative is far worse and does not bode well for the world. The Leviathan has gone off-track and is going to put in danger a stable world order, built over many decades. After nearly 18 months of the Trump presidency, such fears are taking centre-stage, and Trump isn’t done yet. The future months will show what else will be in store for the current world order to deal with.

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