China, Russia exploit vacuums left by Trump's 'America First' policy
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With the White House in chaos, and Secretary of State Rex TillersonRex Wayne TillersonHeather Nauert withdraws her name from consideration for UN ambassador job Trump administration’s top European diplomat to resign in February Pompeo planning to meet with Pat Roberts amid 2020 Senate speculation MORE decimating the State Department, China and Russia are exploiting vacuums left by Trump’s “America first” policies. 

Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s impaneling of a grand jury to investigate possible coordination with the Trump campaign and Russia, and leaked transcripts of Trump’s embarrassing conversations with the president of Mexico and prime minister of Australia, have exacerbated the world’s loss of confidence in Trump and his policies.

As of late May, there were roughly 200 unfilled positions at the State Department requiring Senate confirmation. Fifty-two ambassadorships are currently vacant with no nominations. Several top officials resigned, citing the department’s disdain for their expertise and failure to communicate downstream. Others described the environment as toxic.


Meanwhile, Russia and China are expanding their economic, geopolitical and military reach around the world. This has undercut our global trade, military influence and ability to fight terrorism and maintain peace in regions where tensions are high.

The Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) and the Paris climate accord were international forums in which we could communicate, lead and influence on many important issues. Sadly, we lost those opportunities when Trump’s withdrew from them. NATO affords similar opportunities. But given Trump’s aggressive diatribes, NATO countries listen to us with less trust, waiting for us to pivot back to combativeness at any moment.

China greeted our withdrawal from TPP by promoting its Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership. It excludes the United States but includes ten members of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations plus six other countries. The group accounts for just under a third of global GDP.  The Philippines, Vietnam and other countries are seeking bilateral trade relationships with China that exclude the U.S.

Joining TPP would have underscored the U.S. commitment to Southeast Asia and allowed us to expand our diplomatic and military power in the region. Now, countries there doubt America will come to their defense. 

This has already played into China’s hegemonic agenda. Vietnam backed off its Hague-declared legal right to drill in the South China Sea, citing doubt that America would come to its aid if China took military action. China has traveled to the location to inspect the area for its potential. 

Our weakened influence has fed the rivalry between China and Japan. “Without strong U.S. leadership to mediate tensions, the long simmering enmity between the two Asian giants could explode into violence,” says the Rand Corporation

There’s a global perception that Southeast Asia will have to bend to China’s belligerence. A recent survey shows that leaders in the region believe that the United States is losing trade to China, has lost interest in the region, and is less likely to uphold international law and free trade. 

It is now easier for China to proceed with its massive infrastructure plan known as the Belt Road Initiative, which will increase China’s economic, political and trade leverage over its neighbors at the expense of the U.S.

A similar pattern is unfolding in Latin America, where Russia may reopen Soviet-era military bases.  Moscow is building a satellite-tracking station in Managua that could be used to spy on the U.S. The Putin regime is strengthening economic ties and providing aid to countries in Central America and the Caribbean. We can’t afford to lose any more influence in the region. Yet, under the mantle of “America first,” Trump proposes cutting aid to Central America roughly 40 percent. 

Trump has encouraged Russian influence and military presence in Cuba by reversing Obama’s softening of our policy there, and accusing Castro regime of “crimes.” Cuba first turned to Russia because President Eisenhower rejected the island’s efforts to create diplomatic and trade ties with the United States. Vladimir Putin has reason to believe that it may be happening again. His massive military exercises along NATO’s border signal a willingness to be more aggressive militarily. It’s not absurd to envision another Castro — this time Raúl  — turning to Russia again, this time in response to Trump’s slap in the face insulting the current regime.

Trump’s attitude toward Cuba is another gift to China, Cuba’s largest trading partner and lender. Beijing is already Brazil’s, Chile’s and Peru’s biggest trading partner and could supplant the United States in economic and political influence in Latin America, experts believe. So far this year, China’s government funded a record $17.2 billion to develop coal, oil and natural gas reserves in the region.

The Trump administration is touting China’s agreement to impose sanctions on North Korea for its nuclear weapons and missile programs as a foreign policy achievement. But experts doubt they will work. The sanctions rely on China and Russia enforcing them, which may not happen.  Besides, North Korea has a history of enduring past sanctions

Watching as global reach of other countries expands, it’s hard to understand America’s isolationist leanings.  “America first” may have a patriotic ring to it, but in practice it puts America last in trade, military presence, leadership, influence, and ability communicate with the rest of the world. 

Neil Baron advised the SEC and congressional staff on rating agency reform. He represented Standard & Poor’s from 1968 to 1989, was Vice Chairman and General Counsel of Fitch Ratings from 1989 to 1998, and was on the board of Assured Guaranty for a decade.

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