January 20, 2017 witnessed the dawn of a new era in global affairs with the inauguration of Donald Trump. In strident terms, President Trump issued a “new decree to be heard in every city, in every foreign capital, and in every hall of power” that “a new vision will govern our land.” Under his leadership, America will be “first.” It is expected, of course, that each nation will pursue its self-interest. But underlying the president’s stated approach is a myopic and flawed view of the international landscape, world history, and America’s role therein. Following this narrative, blame for the United States’ alleged economic stagnation and supposed decline (“America’s carnage”) is found in the relative gains of faraway lands.
However, the last three decades, the greatest era of global wealth creation in history—with nearly a billion people lifted from absolute poverty—has not been a zero sum game for America. The international order America helped construct is responsible not only for these gains, but also for the very wealth and power the United States and its citizens enjoy today. With world leadership comes special burdens, but also extraordinary benefits. Indeed, the answer to the challenges America faces is not withdrawing behind borders, but building upon the unique advantages of the United States as the world’s most indispensable nation. This starts with sustaining the global commons supported by American power and international law.
President Trump’s stated foreign policy approach runs contrary to assessments by the U.S. intelligence community. According to a recent U.S. National Intelligence Council report, prepared for the new president, economic, technological, and security trends are increasing the number of states that can exert geopolitical influence, bringing the unipolar post-Cold War period to a close. Traditional state power—reflected in gross domestic product, military spending, population size, and technology level—will be less effective in achieving desired outcomes in international affairs. Instead, revisionist states and non-state actors will resort to non-traditional and asymmetric forms of power to shape events. If American and the West turn inward, competing interests among powers will lead to the bypassing of international institutions, deterioration of norms, spheres of influence, and ad hoc crisis management.
Dismantling of the international-rules based order, built and sustained by U.S. global leadership, will have far reaching consequences for America and its citizens. Among the casualties in this potential strategic context is the global commons, the platform that sustains and furthers American influence and prosperity. The global commons includes the shared domains that enable the world-wide movement and exchange of persons, goods, technology, information and ideas. It is found in the air we breathe, the skies we fly through, the waters we sail through, the distant space we aspire to, the communications we exchange, and the human values we hold dear.
Under American leadership, international law has served to articulate, legitimize, and protect the global commons. For example, Washington has used its economic primacy to facilitate trade and lower barriers via the World Trade Organization regime. America’s technological and commercial leadership has led to the standardization of rules governing global aviation under the Convention on International Civil Aviation. The U.S. military protects the high seas and airspace above from claims of national sovereignty, pursuant to norms set forth in the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea. Washington has encouraged adherence to the Outer Space Treaty, which provides that space is not subject to sovereignty claims by any means, such as use or occupation. The United States works closely with the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers (“ICANN”), an international non-profit organization, in the field of internet governance. America has also relied on instruments like the Refugee Convention and Convention Against Torture to protect shared ideals developed from the collective trauma of world war. More recently, the United States assisted in the realization of the Paris Agreement, under the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change, the primary mechanism for responding to this common environmental threat.
In turn, international rules and regimes protecting the global commons have also strengthened U.S. primacy in world affairs. High seas freedoms—including the freedoms of navigation and overflight—enable the U.S. military’s unparalleled capacity to project force worldwide. America’s adherence to harmonized aviation requirements, including shared operating rules in international airspace, promotes the export of U.S.-manufactured aircraft and aerospace technology. The maintenance of free space has supported the growth of America’s leading commercial space industry. Washington’s stewardship and delegation of global internet governance has furthered America’s influence in cyberspace. Our reputation as a land welcoming of immigrants and refugees—embedded in the stone of Ellis Island—has furthered the dynamism of our economy. Hubs of foreign-born talent like Silicon Valley and North Carolina’s Research Triangle show that respecting human rights is enlightened self-interest. America’s promotion of global environmental protection is critical to containing and managing the ecological harm associated with emerging economies like China.
It is true that the United States has, at times, deviated from international law and institutions. However, even in instances of divergence, Washington has recognized and measured its behavior against these regimes (thus implicitly reinforcing them). Moreover, criticizing the international rules-based order as being ineffective is misplaced and ignores compelling evidence to the contrary. In international relations, power runs downhill like water. International law channels power in predictable and recognized directions—like a system of irrigation—that allows for the growth of public goods. In the event of a global crisis, institutions like the UN Security Council provide an existing means for achieving consensus among major powers. The international community and the United States, especially, would find new and significant transaction costs in the event Washington withdrawals from the world stage.
Unfortunately, following the first weeks of the Trump administration, we may be witnessing an America in retreat. The White House is reportedly preparing executive orders to significantly reduce America’s role in the United Nations and other international organizations, thereby diminishing U.S. influence in world affairs. During the campaign, President Trump notoriously questioned the merit of U.S. alliances with the North Atlantic Treaty Organization and East Asian states, the pillars of the U.S.-led global security architecture.
On the economic front, consistent with his campaign threats, on his first day in the Oval Office, President Trump withdrew from the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) without any substitute plan for the United States or its trading partners in the world’s most important economic region. Instead of building the infrastructure that links economies and cultures, he is literally planning to wall-off America with physical barriers and tariffs.
Separate from hard power considerations, the new White House is forfeiting America’s traditional soft power advantages. In the face of Trump’s avowed skepticism regarding climate change, China is grabbing the mantle of responsible environmental leadership, warning President Trump to stick to America’s obligations under the Paris Agreement. The new White House is also reportedly seeking to roll back Obama-era human rights reforms and permit torture at selected off-shore sites like Guantanamo Bay.
As promised, President Trump issued—without any proper planning or coordination—a hotly contested travel ban targeting immigrants and refugees from predominantly Muslim states. Trump’s travel ban may ultimately be a legal winner, but it is already a political loser. The U.S. public is further divided and America’s global brand has suffered immensely. In the race for the world’s best and brightest, other countries are already seeking to capitalize on this self-inflicted wound.
As an exceptional salesman, President Trump should appreciate that “Buy America” applies to more than manufactured goods; it is a mantra that captures the vision, ideals, institutions, and world the United States helped to create and prosper in over the last century. This world is in jeopardy. More than ever, the White House must recognize that preserving the global commons is putting America first.
Roncevert Ganan Almond is a Partner and Vice-President at The Wicks Group, based in Washington, D.C. He has advised the U.S.-China Economic and Security Review Commission and counseled government authorities in Asia, Europe, the Middle East, Africa, and Latin America on issues of international law. He serves on the Editorial Board of The Air & Space Lawyer and as a contributor to The Diplomat. He recently published a long-form article in the JTL Bulletin about aviation regulation in India, which can be found here.