Thursday,20 September, 2018
Current issue | Issue 1330, (2 - 8 February 2017)
Thursday,20 September, 2018
Issue 1330, (2 - 8 February 2017)

Ahram Weekly

World war?

US isolationism is not new, and it arguably spurred World War II. With Trump now in office, could the same happen again

In 1917, after a long period of wavering, president Woodrow Wilson gave the go ahead for the US to enter what would become known as World War I. He went on to author his famous 14 Points that laid the foundation for a new world order based on the right to self-determination, and an international organisation to manage the affairs of peace and security in the world. That organisation would be called The League of Nations. Then, surprisingly, after having taken the lead in formulating the “new world order”, the US almost immediately backed out of it. Congress, at the time, refused to join the nascent international organisation even though the US was now a major world power by dint of its economic prowess and the strength of its military, as it had just proven with its victories in the war. However, at home, the “isolationist” camp had prevailed. Proponents of that trend believed that the US would be safer if it withdrew behind its two oceanic barriers — the Atlantic and Pacific — and that it would still retain the economic strength and scientific and technological fortitude to remain a global hub.

In spite of the many different causes that historians cite for the outbreak of World War II only two decades after World War I, they agree that one of the chief causes was the void the US left after having recoiled behind its isolationist walls. This was the lesson that US strategic planners grasped following the victory over Germany and Italy in Europe and Japan in Asia. Therefore, in the post-WWII era the US thrust itself vigorously into the international arena, sometimes to manage world affairs in accordance with its particular world outlook and at other times to prevent the outbreak of another world war by wielding its strategic deterrence in the face of the other superpower: the USSR and the Socialist bloc. Subsequently, after the Cold War ended following the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989 and the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, all US leaders remained faithful to the idea of the US’ world leadership, whether because the “end of history” had come and US values prevailed or because the world was still in the grips of a “clash of civilisations”.

Today, the new US president, Donald Trump, is once again championing a bundle of policies intended to drag the US back into an isolationist shell and disengage with the many complicated problems in this world that the new administration in Washington claims are not in the US interests to deal with. The first step announced by Trump brings to mind what happened after World War I. He announced that he would reduce the US role in the UN and its organisations and activities. So far he has not said that the US would leave the international organisation, following in the footsteps of his predecessors who refused to join the League of Nations. However, every signal and gesture from Washington points towards what might be a gradual and systematic withdrawal from international organisations. Even as concerns the Western camp, Trump has made it clear that he does not care much for NATO and he has shown nothing but disdain for the EU. In fact, his opinions echo the prevalent views that led to Brexit, which he cheered. Trump’s scorn for the UN, NATO and the EU extends to the World Trade Organisation (WTO) and all other transnational and intercontinental organisations and institutions. His decision to withdraw from the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) agreement was just for starters. When we add to this his intention to reconsider WTO arrangements concerning North America (NAFTA), we can only deduce that Trump plans not only to isolate the US from the world by withdrawing from or reducing to a bare minimum US involvement in major international and regional organisations, but also to destroy those organisations by pursuing protectionist economic and trade policies that will drive other countries to tit-for-tat responses.

Just for a reminder: one of the reasons for the outbreak of World War II was the international trade war that had precipitated the Great Depression in the 1930s and that triggered the intense international rivalries that would erupt in fierce worldwide warfare.

Trump is not just isolating the US and disengaging from international organisations, he is literally building walls. Specifically, a wall along the US’ southern border with Mexico. This was also among the bundle of decisions issuing from the White House. In addition, his disregard for global warming and decisions to grant permits for the Keystone pipeline to pump oil from North Dakota to the Gulf of Mexico point to a determination to make the US autonomous in energy resources. This, too, is a natural extension of the new isolationism that rejects a world economic order based on exchange and cooperation and embraces an economic ultranationalism in which countries seal themselves off from one another. That trend had horrific consequences in the past, when it brought on the massive death and destruction of World War II.

Isolationist thought in the US dates further back than the 20th century. It first sprouted on US soil at the beginning of the 19th century, even if it would resurface with greater force after World War I. But the world today has changed tremendously since then. It is interconnected to a degree never before experienced by mankind. Therefore, Trump’s attitudes, which he has acted on without hesitation, are very ominous for all countries around the world, large or small, rich or poor.

The many details of his policies aside, there are two important factors that need to be borne in mind. Firstly, Trump the candidate is now Trump the president and there is no difference between them. In fact, the latter is beginning to look fiercer. Secondly, the US’ size and importance in the world are such that its anti-globalisation policies will put the world to a critical test. It is being forced into the awkward position of having to choose between moving forward with free international trade and the free movement of capital, goods and services, which will come at a cost without the US, or plunging into a series of economic wars that will soon turn into military wars that neither the world nor humanity can sustain.

So far, we still hear a cry in Europe to press ahead with the EU and the implementation of policies that favour integration, openness and international exchange without the UK and even without the US, a trend mirrored by Japan in East Asia. However, the idea of moving forward in such a direction without the US does not seem practical, since it is the US that has been leading the world, funding international organisations and combating the enemies of the international order, whether the USSR in the times of communism or religious radicalism in the times of the Islamic State.

The Arab world is watching closely how things are playing out. Most likely it will be unable to find a way to handle the dangerous situation that is looming before our very eyes. The danger will affect every country around the world in different ways, but as we have learned from history, our region is generally always the hardest hit. Our only recourse lies at home, in the Arab world, which must put its mind to work, now, on how to contend with the difficult circumstances that will be heading our way.

The writer is chairman of the board, CEO and director of the Regional Centre for Strategic Studies.

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