American foreign policy: Doing and Undoing

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By Rudrasing Thapa

Although analyzing foreign policy in general involves a deep understanding of geo-politics, geo-economics, military might and global power play among other factors, it may be apt to say that American foreign policy since the end of the Cold War has been largely characterized by a series of ‘doings’ and ‘un-doings’ under successive administrations. Policies aimed at international intervention during the administration of George Bush senior in the immediate aftermath of the demise of the Soviet Union were replaced by a more inward looking policy under William Jefferson Clinton (Bill Clinton). Domestic concerns assumed a commanding place in his stump speeches and public debates as voters looked to internal woes. Clinton’s tenure was highlighted by efforts at rejuvenating the American economy through international trade, based largely on multilateral trade agreements like NAFTA. Moreover, the US involvement in Somalia was withdrawn under his administration. Clinton’s administration also helped Boris Yeltsin’s government in Russia with USD 4.5 billion in bilateral assistance from 1993 to 1996. This proved to be vital in Russia’s economic reforms by curbing inflation and stabilizing the Rubble, as a result of which, by 1996 more than 60 percent of Russia’s gross domestic product was generated by its private sector. Moreover, during his tenure the United States signed the agreement to bring China into the WTO. The succeeding presidency of George W. Bush was characterized largely by the war on terror following the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001.

Barack Obama’s election in 2009 helped in elevating America’s image abroad, especially in Europe, where George W. Bush was deeply unpopular following the US invasion of Iraq. The spring 2016 Global Attitudes Survey shows that in Germany, favourability of the US was more than doubled following Obama’s election. In the United Kingdom, confidence in the US president surged from 16 percent for Bush in 2008 to 86 percent for Obama in 2009. His presidency marked a backward step from the muscular internationalism of Bush and the phrase “global war on terror” from the Bush days was replaced with “overseas contingency operations”. With regard to Asia, perhaps the most important policy initiative came in the form of the ‘Pivot to Asia’, aimed at rebalancing America’s foreign policy focus away from costly interventions in the Middle East to that of strengthening alliance commitments with countries like Japan, Australia, South Korea and the Philippines. This effectively laid the foundations for the concept of America’s ‘Indo-Pacific’ strategy. However, this policy was viewed by Beijing as a move aimed at encircling China, thereby leading to counter policies which would eventually find their form in the Belt and Road Initiative (formerly known as One Belt One Road). The Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP), involving twelve nations, including the US, Japan, Australia, Vietnam, Singapore and Brunei Darussalam among others, was the centrepiece of President Barack Obama’s strategic pivot to Asia. When Donald J Trump became the 45th President of the US in 2017, one of his first moves was to direct the Office of the US Trade Representative to withdraw the United States from the Trans-Pacific Partnership. A large majority of its founding fathers did not wish the US to become involved in global affairs. Blessed by an advantageous geographical position and abundant natural resources, the US maintained a low foreign policy profile during its first hundred years. Under Trump, the US looked to be headed in that direction as his administration showed signs of a largely isolationist foreign policy with American withdrawal or threats of withdrawal from the Paris Climate Agreement, the Iran nuclear deal, NAFTA, UNESCO and the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty.

Continuing the trend of ‘doing’ and ‘un-doing’, the current US President Joe Biden has already signalled that America will re-join many of the international treaties, agreements, and bodies that Trump withdrew the US from over the past four years. Governments in Asia, including China, have welcomed the new US administration this week. However, unlike the decision to re-join international treaties, formulating a new China policy is an entirely different ball-game which involves a delicate balancing act of upholding democratic values and competing economically and geopolitically and at the same time, seeking a path for cooperation on existential issues such as climate change and the pandemic.

History has taught us that foreign policies and indeed global politics can often change in the blink of an eye. The assassination of Austria’s Archduke Franz Ferdinand sparked a chain of events which culminated in the First World War On the other hand, one secret visit to China by then US National Security Advisor Henry Kissinger set up what became known as the ‘Ping Pong diplomacy’ between the US and China and eventually altered the Cold War dynamics in Asia. Foreign policy hawks are of the opinion that the TPP is next in line for the new American President to re-sign. Given the fact that China has often referred to the Indo-Pacific as an Asian NATO, it remains to be seen how the post-pandemic rivalry plays out in the region under the new administration. China poses a significant challenge to US interests and vice versa. Countries like India, Myanmar, Nepal, the Philippines, Japan, South Korea and Australia are set to figure more prominently under Biden’s administration. Most, if not all of them share America’s concern on a rapidly expanding China. Myanmar has received 1.5 million COVID-19 vaccine doses provided by the government of India as the very first vaccines from abroad and discussed the expansion of Japanese investments in the country and the promotion of military relations with the Japan-Myanmar Association. Under the current circumstances, the effects of the new Presidency in the US, on regional foreign policy formulations in Asia and the Indo-Pacific, have once again come to gain paramount importance in determining the global order for the foreseeable future. (The writer is a student of Mass Communication and Journalism, Tezpur University)

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