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Source: FT

Nov 13, 2023

China, Russia, Iran and the prospect of American retreat

The US faces simultaneous challenges to its dominant security role in Asia, Europe and the Middle East

By Gideon Rachman

 Joe Biden is not just an old guy. He is also a representative of an old idea — one that dates back to the 1940s. The US president believes that his nation and the wider world are safer if the US plays the role of world policeman.

He argued recently that: “American leadership is what holds the world together. American alliances are what keep us, America, safe . . . To put all that at risk if we walk away from Ukraine, if we turn our backs on Israel, it’s just not worth it.”

The world view that Biden articulated stretches back to the end of the second world war — when the American elite concluded that the isolationism of the 1930s had aided the rise of Nazi Germany and Imperial Japan. The Washington security establishment decided that it would not make that mistake again.

From Harry Truman to Barack Obama, every US president based their foreign policy on a network of global alliances — in particular Nato and the US-Japan security treaty. When he became president, Donald Trump partly broke with this consensus — by treating key allies like Germany and Japan as ungrateful freeloaders.

As president, Biden returned to the traditional alliance-based American approach. But it is possible that he will be the last US leader who wholeheartedly embraces the idea of America as “liberal hegemon” — the academic term for world policeman. The prospect of the return of Trump to the White House next year raises a huge question mark over the future of America’s global leadership.

In his first term, he flirted with pulling the US out of Nato. In a second term, he might actually go through with it. Indeed, if he pursued the most radical version of his “America First” ideology, a second Trump administration could see a complete break with the idea that it is in America’s interests to underpin the security arrangements in three of the most strategic regions in the world — Europe, Northeast Asia and the Persian Gulf.

In each of these regions, America now faces an active challenger — eager to see it depart. In Europe, that challenger is Russia; in Asia it is China; in the Middle East it is Iran. Russia has invaded Ukraine. China has built military bases across the South China Sea and threatens Taiwan.

Iran uses proxies such as Hizbollah, Hamas and the Houthi rebels in Yemen to challenge America’s friends across the region. If the US seriously scaled back its military commitments around the world, China, Russia and Iran would all try to take advantage of the resulting power vacuum.

In the meantime, the three countries are working together more closely. They all eagerly promote the idea of a “multipolar world” — code for an end to American hegemony. In the US itself, the bipartisan consensus in favour of activist global leadership is visibly fraying. In 2016, the year that Trump was elected, an opinion poll showed 57 per cent of Americans agreeing that the US should “deal with its own problems and let others deal with their own problems the best they can.”

Trump began the process of withdrawing America from Afghanistan and Biden completed it. But Biden then sought to reassert US global leadership, through support for Ukraine and Taiwan — and in his response to the Israel-Gaza war. By contrast Trump and other leading Republicans, such as Ron DeSantis, have turned against aid to Ukraine. The Republicans remain solid in their support for Israel.

But the left of the Democratic Party is increasingly hostile. Opinion surveys show that the American public is increasingly suspicious of China. But whether that would translate into a willingness to fight for Taiwan is open to question. There are also practical constraints. As security tensions rise around the world, the US is finding it increasingly difficult to play the role of policeman in three major regions simultaneously.

One of the reasons that the Biden administration has been relatively stingy in supplying Ukraine with long-range missiles may be that the Pentagon wants to hold back some of its stock — in case they are needed for Taiwan. Ramping up defence spending is also not straightforward, when the US is running a budget deficit of 5.7 per cent of GDP and the national debt stands at 123 per cent of GDP.

There has long been a school of thought in academia that the US should seriously cut back its military commitments overseas. Professors John Mearsheimer and Stephen Walt have argued that when it comes to maintaining the balance of power in Europe, the Middle East and Asia — “Washington should pass the buck to regional powers.”

The difficulty is that the regional powers to whom America would pass the buck are ill-equipped to check the regional ambitions of Russia, China and Iran on their own. A Nato alliance without the US would look ineffective at best — and might collapse at worst.

Israel and Saudi Arabia would struggle to contain Iran, without US power in the background. Japan, South Korea, the Philippines and Australia would face similar problems with China in Asia.

The consequences of an American retreat from the world would probably be felt last in the US itself. But, as the post-1945 generation understood, even America would eventually be threatened by the rise of undemocratic and expansionist powers in Europe, Asia or the Middle East.

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