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  • Writer's pictureSaleem Qamar Butt

Downside of American contemporary grand strategy

Donald Trump in his recent address to the United Nations General Assembly hinted at breaking away from the grand strategy that has kept US afloat as a world leader since World War II. He announced, “We will never surrender America’s sovereignty to an unelected, unaccountable global bureaucracy,” and “Sovereign and independent nations are the only vehicle where freedom has ever survived, democracy has ever endured, or peace has ever prospered. And so we must protect our sovereignty and our cherished independence above all.” It appeared that in pursuit of his ‘America First’ pronouncement, he was trying to renounce multilateralism and global governance, in contrast to many of his predecessors.

However, people with a clear insight of American history can trace deep roots of Trump’s ‘America first’ slogan. According to an American Think Tank, “the hostility to U.S. participation in international pacts, the economic protectionism, the aversion to democracy promotion, the racially tinged nationalism, the isolationist temptation-these aspects of Trump’s “America first” approach are right out of the playbook that anchored foreign policy for most of U.S. history prior to the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor that forced American full commitment in World War-II”. Although, Trump appears to be displaying his businessman like and ultra nationalistic approach, yet wittingly or unwittingly, he in fact expresses sentiments of a heart land base that feels deprived by globalization, immigration, and an expansive conception of international obligations; which therefore hanker for the United States of the past.

In order to put his thoughts into actions; Trump has pulled out of one pact after another, from the Paris agreement, Trans Atlantic and Trans-Pacific Partnership, North America Free Trade Agreement, Asia-Pacific Rebalancing Policy of Obama to the Iran nuclear deal. The EU or even NATO without significantly enhanced economic burden sharing by all member states i.e. 2 percent of national GDP has little meaning for him. He is also in favour of the United Kingdom’s departure from the European Union and aligns himself with populist governments in Italy, Poland, and Hungary that are hostile to the project of European integration. Bretton Woods’ institutions that has helped maintain the US economic hegemony are also under pressure. He has also pulled out from UN Council for Human Rights, Culture and Scientific programmes, besides reducing budget support to UNO.

Perhaps, US’ anxiety about a threat comes not from international institutions and agreements but from other sovereign states, as well as from rapid technological advances that are changing the relative power of state and non-state actors, companies, and groups.

All such actions are reminder of the past; until World War II, the United States preferred to go it alone, shunning one international pact after another-including the League of Nations. With his proclivity for free trade, he has initiated a Global Trade War with serious economic repercussions for all trading countries of the world. But the good news is that Members of Congress John Sanford (R) and Jim Cooper (D) introduced a law to give the U.S. Congress the ability to block tariff decisions from the executive branch on September 24, according to a press release on Cooper’s website. If it is passed, the Promoting Responsible and Free Trade Act would throw a wrench in several of Donald Trump’s trade negotiations and limit his ability to apply or threaten further tariffs.

Trump has also called for individual nations to plan their own political course by stating, “I honour the right of every nation in this room to pursue its own customs, beliefs, and traditions. The United States will not tell you how to live or work or worship. We only ask that you honor our sovereignty in return.”

Such proclamations are considered most hypocritical nevertheless, seeing the US’ ongoing actions and stance on Afghanistan, Pakistan, India, Iran, Iraq, Libya, Yemen, Syria and even North Korea; let alone his attitude towards Germany, Canada, Mexico, Venezuela, KSA and other Western countries. As a matter of fact, USA has the least reason to worry about its sovereignty than any other country in the world. No other country enjoys as much freedom from external interference, whether military, economic, or diplomatic. That is why leaders from other Nations consider it inexplicable that the US President addressing the United Nations invariably finds it obligatory to announce yet again that they will never allow any arrogation of US sovereignty. Perhaps, US’ anxiety about a threat comes not from international institutions and agreements but from other sovereign states, as well as from rapid technological advances that are changing the relative power of state and non-state actors, companies, and groups. There’s a real debate to be had about how to protect sovereignty in the twenty-first century; it’s just not this debate.

For all the U.S. rhetoric against the sovereignty-encroaching dangers of multilateralism, there are only four important ways in which multilateral institutions have, on paper, the authority to intervene in major countries’ sovereignty. These four institutions and ways can be effectively countered by US’ veto power and international/internal legal system duly acknowledged by international community i.e. UN Security Council, World Trade Organization (WTO), International Monetary Fund(IMF) and finally the International Criminal Court (ICC). However, protectiveness about American sovereignty is a sentiment extensively shared among U.S. national security professionals and politicians. In this, the United States frequently acts and speaks on the world stage in a manner quite similar to that of non-Western powers, such as Brazil, China, India, and Russia, and unlike that of its European allies. Those who have the most sovereignty guard it most jealously.

The American founders’ isolationism was based on their belief that the United States was best served by avoiding foreign entanglements as they thought of America as an exceptional nation. But Trump’s instincts are unmistakably isolationist. He constantly complains that allies are taking advantage of the United States. He has expressed his desire to pull out of NATO, South Korea, Afghanistan, and Syria; however, so far his advisers seem to have convinced him that the costs of bringing the troops home outweigh the benefits.

Nonetheless, his effort to reorient US strategy using an earlier version of exceptionalism is prone to fail. His isolationist instincts and his attack on multilateralism, globalization, democracy promotion, and immigration have provoked passionate opposition at home and abroad. Trump and his administration need to realize that compared with the last four decades, now there are more formidable economic, military and technological competitors in the world who can singularly and more importantly as a coalition, can pose a serious challenge to the US, which is prone to upset global peace and prosperity. Therefore, America may have to find an updated version of a Grand Strategy, instead of using a one step forward and two steps backward trick in the contemporary strategic plain in pursuit of delusional exceptionalism.

The writer is a senior retired Army officer with a rich experience in Military & Intelligence Diplomacy and Strategic Analysis. He can be reached at

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