Donald Trump’s first year as president did not bring cataclysm to the international order as some had expected. However, a very profound shift is taking place. Interestingly, this does not involve America’s competitors in the first place, but its traditional allies. Indeed, in 2017, the most disruptive shifts came from America’s partners.  

Our oberservations

  • Recently, the U.S. revealed its new National Security Strategy (NSS). One of its chapters deals with the encouraging of aspiring partners. In particular, the document mentions countering the influence of Chinese global investments.
  • Over the last few weeks, U.S. officials have been substituting the term “Asia Pacific” with “Indo Pacific” more often, which implies a shift in their regional strategy. This section about this region in the NSS is the longest and it states: “we look forward to welcoming India as a global power”.
  • Officials from Israel and Saudi Arabia comment more positively on the cooperation between the two countries. They are deepening an alliance aimed at countering Iranian influence in the region.
  • Japan announced to expand its ballistic missile defense system with U.S. made Aegis radar stations and detectors.

Connecting the dots

In early 2017, Donald Trump became the 45th President of the United States. Throughout his first year in office, there were a few inflammable events involving North Korea, Iran, and Russia. None of these were ignited, and a certain normalization has occurred. There is, however, a more subtle shift occurring that explains some of the largest surprises of 2017. Furthermore, it does not involve America’s adversaries, but its allies.
A long-lasting process is the U.S.’ recalibration of its hegemony. As other great powers have emerged in the 21st century, President Obama was already adapting to this new situation. To avoid an imperial overstretch, America has to rely more on partnerships. The Trump Presidency sped this process up as he brought a great deal of uncertainty to international relations. This in particular worried traditional American allies who became more active in 2017.
The clearest example is Saudi Arabia’s new policy. It has made bold moves from Yemen to Qatar, Iraq, and Lebanon. Less certain about America’s commitment to the Middle East, Saudi Arabia has taken it upon itself to counter Iranian influence in the region. Moreover, with its recognition of Jerusalem as Israel’s capital, the U.S. is signaling its support of another Middle Eastern ally in regional conflicts.
A second emboldened ally is Japan. By changing its constitution and through firearm purchases, the country is taking a greater role in regional security. Interestingly, this year Japan allied itself with India, which we discussed before. Although traditionally a non-aligned country, India is moving closer to the U.S. A subtle shift this year has been a change in vocabulary from the U.S. state department, speaking instead of “Asia-Pacific” of the “Indo-Pacific”. This shows that India and the Indian Ocean are viewed as a singular strategic region with East Asia.
A third traditional American ally that has become active in international affairs is Poland, which we analyzed recently. It seeks to position itself as the leader of Eastern European countries and has become more assertive to Russia to be to the east what Brussels is to the west.
This development represents a clear shift. As the U.S. was the global hegemon, its allies were traditionally countries that sought stability and to preserve the status quo. U.S. adversaries were the revolutionary countries that wanted to create a different world order. With the American position shifting, its allies are now the revolutionary powers that are trying to create a new balance in their respective regions. In the short term, this implies a tumultuous global arena. In the long term, it could underpin the American global power. By responding to multi-polarity by forming alliances with certain emerging powers (Saudi Arabia, Japan, Poland) against aspiring powers (Iran, China, Russia), it could maintain its global supremacy.

Implications

  • If this pattern continues, we can also expect other traditional American allies to play a more assertive role on the international stage that have not yet done so, such as England, Israel, and Australia.
  • As a response to this stronger American alliance in 2017, we could see opposed aspiring powers also strengthen their mutual ties in 2018. Subsequently, strong and relatively independent countries such as Germany, Turkey, and Indonesia could tip the balance in specific regions.