On mounting pressure to punish Saudi Arabia for its alleged involvement in the disappearance of Saudi dissident Jamal Khashoggi, Trump recently announced that he wouldn’t prefer to impose sanctions. Referring to impending U.S. weapons sales to Saudi Arabia worth billions, he said, “This took place in Turkey and to the best of our knowledge, Khashoggi is not a United States citizen… I don’t like stopping massive amounts of money that’s being poured into our country.” This apparent cold realpolitik fed a flurry of articles and denunciations on the president’s unwillingness to uphold liberal democratic values vis-à-vis socio-political and human rights violations abroad. By contrast, the Trump administration’s policy towards China is increasingly laden with derisions of its record on socio-political freedoms.
Earlier this month, Vice President Pence delivered a major policy speech underscoring the Trump administration’s policy towards China. Pence noted the “hope” of China expanding freedom –– “not just economically, but politically, with a newfound respect for classical liberal principles, private property, personal liberty, religious freedom –– the entire family of human rights”, to have “gone unfulfilled.” He portrayed China as “an unparalleled surveillance state” that aimed to “drastically” restrict “the free flow of information to the Chinese people.” Pence even accused Beijing of wanting to “implement an Orwellian system premised on controlling virtually every facet of human life.”
Further, he went on to list instances of religious persecutions. With respect to Chinese Christians, Pence accused the Chinese authorities of “tearing down crosses, burning bibles, and imprisoning believers.” On Beijing “cracking down” on Buddhism, Pence referenced “more than 150 Tibetan Buddhist monks” to have “lit themselves on fire to protest China’s repression of their beliefs and their culture.” As for the state of Islam in the Xinjiang province, he accused Beijing to have “imprisoned as many as one million Muslim Uyghurs in government camps” in an attempt to “strangle Uyghur culture and stamp out the Muslim faith.” Finally, he also assailed against Chinese attempts to stifle freedom across academia, entertainment and the media.
This iteration of American policy towards China came as a welcomed contrast to Trump administration’s disdain for a linkage of values and policy. In characterising Trump’s ‘America First’ policy in early 2017, then-Secretary of State Rex Tillerson spoke of decoupling US foreign policy and values. On U.S.’ commitment to human rights and socio-political freedoms around the world, he notably deemed them as American “values” and “not our policies.” The Trump administration’s maiden National Security Strategy also noted an interests-heavy approach and emphasised a disdain for a values-policy linkage with the disclaimer: “We are not going to impose our values on others.”
One may argue that with respect to China, however, the pertinence of a values-centric U.S. foreign policy has been a standard fixture. The same can be traced back to the 1959 speech by then-Senator John F. Kennedy, in which he deemed “Red China” to have sought a “route of regimented controls and ruthless denial of human rights.”
Further, the values-centric approach towards China continued well into the post-Cold War U.S. worldview –– from Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice deeming China’s sentencing of human rights activists as “deeply disturbing” to Secretary of State Hillary Clinton stating that China “should face consequences and international condemnation” for its internet freedom restrictions.
From a pure realpolitik standpoint, one may even argue that a values-centric approach was bound to become a standard fixture, as China was “replacing the Soviet military of the pre-Gorbachev years and the Japanese economy of the 1970s as the next big purported threat to American global leadership.” For instance, in the 1992 U.S. presidential election, the need for an assertive U.S. policy towards China was at the fore. Referring to the events of June 1989 in Tiananmen Square, then-Governor Bill Clinton rallied against American ambivalence especially when “all those kids went out there carrying the Statue of Liberty in Tiananmen Square.” Once in office, President Clinton even walked the talk to oversee the passing of the Jackson-Vanik Amendment to the 1974 Trade Act –– which required him to annually review the decision to continue to accord the Most-Favoured-Nation status to China contingent on its improvements on the human rights front.
However, the centrality of the values-centric approach in U.S. policy fizzled overtime. First, in view of China’s large market potentialities, the U.S. adopted a pragmatic, economic-centric approach. Encapsulated in its attempt to induct China as a “responsible stakeholder” in the U.S.-led world order, the Permanent Normal Trade Relations was passed to end the “annual ritual of reviewing China’s trade status”, and eventually pave way for China’s entry into the World Trade Organisation.
Second, the three Ts –– Taiwan, Tibet and Tiananmen –– that dominated the values-centric approach, stood dampened, as China’s relative military advantage vis-à-vis Taiwan grew, the state-sponsored Sinicisation of Tibet marginalised the natives, and the Tiananmen incident faded in Chinese collective memory due to stringent internet censorship.
Under its declared return of an era of “great power competition”, the Trump administration has adopted a confrontational approach towards China with the increased adoption of trade tariffs and a steady frequency of U.S. Freedom of Navigation Operations in the South China Sea. Additionally, there also seems to be an attempt to reinstate the U.S. values-laden approach.
On Taiwan, the Trump administration has not shied away from lauding Taiwan’s “embrace of democracy” as representing “a better path for all the Chinese people.” Although some past U.S. administrations have done so, the post-normalisation precedent has largely been to temper U.S. endorsements as the Communist Party of China has long viewed the same as an “all-out Westernisation” campaign to dislodge its rule. The Trump administration has, however, doubled-down not only by considerably ramping up defence exports to Taiwan, but by also entering the China-Taiwan diplomatic fray. Last month, it recalled U.S. ambassadors to the Dominican Republic, El Salvador and Panama for their decision to no longer recognise Taiwan. Moreover, Trump also signed the Taiwan Travel Act to “permit high-level Taiwanese officials to enter the United States under respectful conditions and to meet with U.S. officials, including officials from the Departments of State and Defense.” The same challenges the ‘One China’ policy’s unstated dictum of refraining to host Taiwanese delegations which may be construed as according implied recognition of Taiwanese statehood.
On China’s restrictive visa policy, the U.S. House of Representatives recently passed The Reciprocal Access to Tibet Act of 2018 by a unanimous voice vote. The bill aims to impose consequences for China’s restrictive access to Tibet which prevents “journalists from observing human rights abuses in Tibet and preventing Tibetan Americans from visiting their home country.” Under the bill’s provisions, Chinese authorities who are involved in the implementation of such restrictive visa polices will become ineligible to receive a visa or be admitted into the U.S.. Given the strong bipartisan nature of the bill –– backed by Congressional heavyweights like Nancy Pelosi (D-CA) and Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (R-FL), President Trump is expected to sign the bill into law once it also passes the U.S. Senate with similar bipartisan vigour.
On Beijing’s attempts to censor the internet, the Trump administration laudably finds itself in agreement with Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch, Reporters Without Borders, and the Committee to Protect Journalists. Back in August, these organisations and a dozen other international groups had penned a joint-letter urging Google CEO Sundar Pichai to cancel the development of the “Dragonfly” –– a censored search engine app for China. Reportedly, the Trump administration is also now coaxing Google to end its development of the app which it believes will “strengthen (Chinese) Communist Party censorship and compromise the privacy of Chinese customers”.
On China’s stifling of democratic movements, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo recently delivered a direct rebuke. On the banning of the pro-independence Hong Kong National Party, Pompeo deemed the freedoms of expression, peaceful assembly, and association to be “the core values we share with Hong Kong, and that must be vigorously protected.” Incidentally, this denunciation followed China’s refusal of a port call (slated for October) in Hong Kong by the amphibious assault ship USS Wasp. According to a Chinese foreign ministry spokesman, the same was purportedly refused “in accordance with the doctrine of sovereignty and specific situation.”
Finally, the Trump administration is also reportedly mulling over the idea of imposing sanctions against Chinese senior officials and companies in view of Beijing’s detention of minority Muslims in Xinjiang.
Thus, in now pursuing its “great power competition” policy vis-à-vis China, the Trump administration seems poised to reinstate China’s record on socio-poltical freedoms –– in addition to U.S. concerns over Chinese trade practices and military assertiveness, as a major bone of contention.
This month, reports revealed the Trump administration is considering to spur the United States’ withdrawal from the World Trade Organisation (WTO). According to reports, President Trump ordered his staffers to prepare a draft legislation that would essentially nullify the United States’ commitment to WTO rules. Apparently, the President was briefed on the resultant draft legislation – titled the “United States Fair and Reciprocal Tariff Act”, in late May. Although the chances of such a legislation going through the US Congress are slim, the withdrawal would come at the heels of Trump administration’s withdrawal from the United Nations Human Rights Council last month.
The same was the latest in the Trump administration’s list of exercising US “exemptionalism” – the other prominent US withdrawals being from the Iran Nuclear Deal (JCPOA) and the Paris Climate Agreement. In addition to the evident motivation of undoing his predecessor’s legacy, one may argue that President Trump’s adoption of “exemptionalism” does not really constitute an overt departure in US foreign policy. This untoward tradition of US foreign policy is often defined as the United States’ unwillingness to be “bound by multilateral regimes and agreements to the same extent as other states.” Some prominent historical examples of which are, the United States having the dubious distinction of being one of the few holdouts from critical multilateral fora such as the Convention on the Rights of the Child (CRC), the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS), and the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW).
In many of these cases, the rationale behind not having America bound by such multilateral engagements pertain to a strong belief in American Exceptionalism. For instance, in case of CEDAW, a report by the US Congressional Research Service noted one of the leading arguments presented by its naysayers to be the view that the United States is “already an international leader in promoting and protecting women’s rights.”
In other cases, administrations have often justified their exercise in “exemptionalism” with allegations of multilateral agreements “undercutting” American sovereignty. A notable example of the same, is the George W. Bush administration’s move to scuttle the Kyoto protocol. Similarly, the Trump administration’s withdrawal from the Paris Agreement bore resemblances to this brand of “exemptionalism” that derides multilateral arrangement’s impingement of American sovereignty.
However, under the real-estate mogul turned US Commander-in-Chief, another brand of US “exemptionalism” seems to be coming to the fore. Recent developments – the ‘G6 plus Trump’ debacle and the pageantry-filled Trump-Kim summit in Singapore, indicate President Trump to be lobbing systematic blows to the institutionalised dictums of US foreign policy. Simply put, the Trump brand of US exemptionalism goes one step further than usual to pursue a systematic dismemberment of the US-led world order.
Under President Trump, the United States seems to adopting an unprecedented antagonistic stance against the institutions, commitments, and unpronounced precedents alike, of the liberal world order that the US itself put in place in the aftermath of the Second World War. In fact, so grave is this emerging Trump brand of “exemptionalism” that a recent opinion piece in The New York Times declared the Trump administration to be ready to “pull down the liberal order, with America at its helm, that remains the best guarantor of world peace humanity has ever known. We are entering a new, terrifying era.” Meanwhile, The Economist with its cover story – with Trump sitting atop planet earth riding it as a wrecking ball, issued a warning against the consequences of Trump’s “demolition theory of foreign policy.”
Consider last month’s G7 summit. The same was a nail-biting event for foreign policy watchers – not because contentious global governance issues like climate change were on the agenda, but because the President of the United States engaged in proverbial fist fights with some of America’s oldest allies. Captured for posterity in the photograph that went viral, other members of the G7 grouping were reported to have had a trying time warning a petulant US president about the perils of ‘America Alone’. At the summit, not only did Trump raise the specter of a trade war with America’s allies, he also – to the collective reverberating gasps of US foreign policy elites – argued for Russia to be readmitted into the grouping. Lastly, the American president accused allies of using the US as “a piggy bank everyone is robbing”, and flip-flopped over the United States signing the final summit communiqué underscoring the grouping’s collective commitment to oversee a “rules-based international order.”
Shortly thereafter, an unnamed senior Trump administration official reportedly surmised the ‘Trump Doctrine’ as “We’re America, Bitch!” Another administration official tugged on that idea to underscore the same as, “The president believes that we’re America, and people can take it or leave it.” Such is the emerging Trump brand of American “exemptionalism” – one so intoxicated on American economic and military primacy, that it counter-intuitively involves pursuing policies that “undermine the Western alliance, empower Russia and China, and demoralise freedom-seeking people around the world.”
The above assessment holds water in view of the relevance of the American “Internationalist” tradition in the post-Second World War era. The tradition’s mainstay being the crafting of an international order thriving on “free trade, multilateral cooperation, a global alliance network, and the promotion of democratic values.” Certainly this order – pushing economic interdependence under the guise of “globalisation” – remained Washington-led in terms of the US dollar underpinning the global financial system and concrete American security commitments keeping a lid on historical rivalries spanning from Western Europe to East Asia.
Most importantly, the same also produced unprecedented prosperity beyond American pocketbooks. A striking fact in support of that assertion is, “in 1981, 44% of the world’s population was living in extreme poverty. Today it’s 10%.” However, the egregiously named ‘Trump Doctrine’ of “We’re America, Bitch!”, involves adopting American “exemptionalism” even with respect to this “internationalist” tradition.
It is key to note, if deterrence is in the eye of the adversary, then Trump’s repeated open derision of US allies sets dangerous precedents. This is not to say that, all outstanding issues between America and her allies persist baselessly. However, adopting an overly confrontational predisposition against US allies and partners may encourage nation-states hostile to the US-led order to call the bluff on America’s oft-stated “iron-clad” commitment to her allies. The ramifications of which wouldn’t just mean instability in a said region, but a barrel-roll effect on the prosperity and security of the world — spurring ramifications that will not stop at border controls. A case in point is the recent dip in the Indian Rupee spurred by fears of a prospective “full-blown US-China trade war.”
Further, far from gaining any concrete steps towards North Korea’s “Complete, Verifiable, Irreversible” denuclearisation, President Trump’s highly anticipated summit with Kim Jong Un reflected more of the aforementioned Trump brand of American “Exemptionalism”. Amidst all the pageantry of the summit, President Trump lobbed another systematic blow to America’s preeminence in the region. Not only did Trump announce the cancellation of long-standing military exercises with Seoul and indirectly doubted the rationale behind stationing US troops in the region, but he also did so whilst adopting the North Korean rhetoric of referring to them as “provocative” and “war games”. Subsequent analyses of China being the “big winner” of this outcome of the summit hold credence in view of any possible downsizing of the US-led ‘hub & spokes’ alliance system in the Asia-Pacific being compatible with China’s assertive ambitions in the region.
More importantly, the announcement of the cancellation coming to the horrid surprise of the South Koreans (and the Pentagon!) is sure to raise doubts about the United States’ credibility as a security partner – especially in the eyes of newly-developing American partners like India.
In summation, it can be argued, just as Trump has hijacked the US Republican Party and hauled it further to the right with greater emphases on the politics of the “other”, on matters pertaining to US foreign policy too, Trump seems to be pursuing steps that may overtime consolidate an American worldview underpinned with zero-sum instincts.
However, the irony remains that, by practicing American “exemptionalism” over the United States’ post-Second World War role of underwriting the world order in search for “fair” or rectifying “bad” deals or mere symbolic political “wins”, President Trump is somewhat eulogising Washington’s own influence. Sustained for roughly three-quarters of a century, the same today seems to be inching towards its poetic erosion – recently surmised in the Canadian Foreign Minister Chrystia Freeland’s statement, “… if history tells us one thing, it is that no one nation’s pre-eminence is eternal.”