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America’s foreign policy needs more than a replacement for John Bolton

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With John Bolton leaving the White House, chances are the next national security advisor will not be a cheerleader for launching a war just as his or her boss is trying to get re-elected. But how much “do no harm” is laudable?

If U.S. fortunes are to improve over the long term, the country needs more than a yes-man. Trump and strategy have so far proven to be contradictory terms. However war-averse the president and his new national security advisor are in the near term, the administration has been laying the groundwork for a longer-term cold war with China and Russia, too.

Attacking the People’s Republic has been a campaign tradition for quite some time. And this election season will likely be no different, as Democratic contenders vie with Trump over which side can be harsher. Despite his rhetoric, Trump will ultimately want an agreement that will burnish his credentials as the world’s best dealmaker.

But by backing himself into a corner, the president has made it almost impossible to accept any accord without major Chinese concessions. Otherwise, Trump risks alienating many of his Republican supporters and delighting his Democratic opponents, who are eager to deride him as weak on the issue.

In thinking about how to engage, not just contain, the emerging dragon, Trump should listen to the public, which isn’t interested in turning China into an outright enemy.

A cold war with China will have many unintended and unwelcome effects. The U.S. cannot decouple itself from China without suffering major economic consequences. At a minimum, higher consumer prices are going to hurt everybody, including Trump’s populist base.

The president took a wrong turn when he bowed out of the Trans-Pacific Partnership, believing that bilateral pressure alone would solve America’s China challenge and reduce our trade deficit.

Contrary to his public sentiment that trade wars are easy to win, the U.S. trade deficit even increased under Trump’s watch. And in the process of economic decoupling, America furthermore risks losing friends, forcing many to choose between Washington and Beijing. As many countries’ economic interest often lies with the Chinese market, Trump’s America First policy is not really an appealing alternative.

Coalition building with like-minded allies would have been a far better foreign policy tool for the United States. The European Union, for example, often a welcome target of Trump’s tirades, is already ahead in setting norms for the new technological age. Its Commission successfully leveraged EU market power to enforce privacy standards, regulatory oversight, and taxation measures for global players. Equivalent U.S. legislation is way behind, due to partisan divisions in Congress and a lack of White House leadership.

Taking a look at the bigger picture is equally disappointing: What made the United States an unrivaled global model during the Cold War was our desire to enable other countries to rise, instead of keeping them down. While the Soviet Union deliberately closed itself off, China opened its doors to the world after 1978 and developed economically at breathtaking speed — also due to the help of the United States. It was only in the last decade, when Chinese companies started to successfully compete on a global level, that the idea of great power competition gained traction in U.S. foreign policy circles.

But with growing Sino-U.S. tensions, American decisionmakers give Chinese rulers even more incentive to achieve their ambitions of reaching peer status with the United States, while sidelining Chinese liberal defenders and antagonizing public opinion in the far east. If not coalition building, a much more effective strategy for the U.S. would be to improve its game politically as well as economically, ensuring, for example, that American companies have attractive 5G technologies that other countries want to buy, rather than banning Huawei. 

The idea of trying to keep a country of 1.3 billion people down is ludicrous. There is simply no telling that a new cold war would end the same way the old one did.

Mathew Burrows is director of the Foresight, Strategy and Risks Initiative at the Atlantic Council. Julian Mueller-Kaler is a non-resident fellow at the American Institute for Contemporary German Studies (AICGS) and works at the Atlantic Council’s Foresight, Strategy and Risks Initiative.

Tags America first China Cold War Donald Trump European Union Foreign policy of Donald Trump Huawei John Bolton Trans-Pacific Partnership

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