The collapsed talks between President Trump and Kim Jong Un this week send a message not just about the United States and North Korea. While President Trump should be commended for refusing to make a bad deal, walking away without an agreement means that North Korea gets to keep its nuclear weapons, while its leader increased his prestige on the world stage with a state visit in Vietnam.
We have yet to learn the backstory, but China may have played a role in coaching North Korea and surely benefits from this outcome. Moving forward, the Trump administration needs to assume that major actors like China and Russia are playing interference.
For a time, geopolitics was in remission. During the 1990s, the rules based global order beat out the “spheres of influence” thinking of the Cold War. The Soviet Union collapsed, the Chinese economy was nascent, and our joining the World Trade Organisation was a reach. Suddenly, the United States was the sole superpower. After 9/11, counter terrorism properly took priority for our leaders. But nearly two decades later, geopolitics is back.
While we were not paying attention, China and Russia became strategic competitors trying to reshape the world order. That is the diagnosis of the Trump administration, now enshrined in our national security documents. The shift of the United States from the focus on terrorism toward malign behaviour in China and Russia is impressive, and it is the right diagnosis.
But President Trump is prescribing the wrong treatment plan, and rather than get a second opinion from allies, he has pursued actions that in some ways worsen the most problematic aspects of China and Russia. Indeed, China has not liberalised, “contrary to our hopes” in the 2017 national security strategy, after decades of efforts to facilitate Chinese economic growth and welcome it into multilateral institutions.
On the contrary, the Chinese Communist Party has a long term vision of economic dominance radically different from Western capitalism. Its plan includes surveillance of its own citizens powered by artificial intelligence, with an estimated 300 million cameras in operation by 2020, and an ever growing military budget and claims in the South China Sea.
There is also the “Belt and Road Initiative,” an infrastructure investment project through which Chinese companies now partially own dozens of ports across the globe, using loans as both influence and leverage over countless foreign treasuries. There is no telling how China might export its surveillance and artificial intelligence technology, with or without the knowledge of buyers.
The attempts by China to reorder the world and expand the reach of its authoritarian system have been much more ambitious than the United States response. The Trump administration remains fixated on trade and the notion that deficits in products are everything.
It is essential that we get China to drop its policy of forced technology transfers. But something like the Trans Pacific Partnership would have created an economic bloc of American allies to stand together against China. On technology, the new “American AI Initiative” created by the White House executive order last month includes no funding or any specific artificial intelligence projects.
Russia, on the other hand, remains a problem not for its strength but so much as its weakness. After getting pushed into a corner after the Soviet Union collapsed, and with its economy in shambles, Russia has perfected the art of mischief. As much as the United States learned from the World Wars about the dangers of national humiliation, we forgot that after the Cold War.
Our limited support for Russia and expansion of NATO has left Russians with a strong sense of grievance, which President Vladimir Putin has harnessed to consolidate power and spread chaos. Close to home, the Russian military continues to sow instability in Ukraine after annexing Crimea in 2014. In Europe, Russia may soon be able to choke off energy supplies at will, thanks to the Nord Stream 2 pipeline that conveys Russian natural gas straight to Germany. Across the West, Russia has weaponized social media in disinformation campaigns, most notably during elections.
The United States is sending mixed signals to Russia. The Helsinki summit was viewed significantly as a public embrace. Despite Russia seizing three Ukrainian ships last fall and the ongoing detention of two dozen Ukrainian sailors, the American response has consisted of maintaining the current sanctions. Meanwhile, the unilateral decision of President Trump to draw down troops in Syria gives Russia a new foothold in the Middle East and a chance to strengthen their alliance with Iran.
Our withdrawal from the Intermediate Range Nuclear Forces Treaty gets Russia off the hook for further missile development, which is one of its few realms of strength. This, on top of the United States leaving the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, was one of our few chances to communicate and coordinate on a regular basis with China and Russia. To echo a line from “Hamilton,” the United States in many ways is no longer “in the room where it happens.”
What should the right treatment plan include? The failed Hanoi summit should prompt President Trump to rethink his “go it alone” strategy for North Korea and consider rebuilding the alliances needed to get the right deal. Ditto for other key global challenges. The Trump administration must devote resources to its artificial intelligence initiative the same way China has.
It also must ensure that our future strategy in Syria and the American troops expected to remain there are enough to prevent Russia and Iran from exploiting the country. Finally, as China and Russia take advantage of small or unstable countries on their borders and across the world, it is critical that there be an unambiguous and sustained American response.
Two decades since the United States stood alone after the Cold War, great power competition has returned in force on the world stage. The Trump administration has made the right diagnosis, but as long as it pursues the current treatment plan, these revived conflicts are at risk of metastasising.