The US and the International System

The US and the International System

Dmitry Suslov
National Research University - Higher School of Economics

The US is in the midst of very difficult, painful and long-term revision of the modalities of its role and place in the International system. The US role as a global leader, let alone hegemon, major pillar of international security and center of global economic and political orders, is unsustainable in the long-term prospect, and is increasingly rejected from both outside and within. Eventually the US will accept a role of one of the poles of a multipolar system and one of co-authors and co-managers of a joint global international order, on par with other players. This adaptation will not be linear, will develop with different pace in different regions. In the middle-term prospect it will proceed through harsh and prolonged confrontation with Russia and China, which already started, and might result in serious international conflicts, up to great power wars.

This process of painful revision started long before election of Donald Trump and will continue after his presidency. No return to pre-Trump status-quo of US foreign policy is possible. Although the Trump factor and related disorganization of the US government is significant, the current US foreign policy evolution (both security and economic aspects) is predetermined by more fundamental factors. These factors will not disappear after Trump and will continue to determine US foreign policy in the longer-term prospect.

Determinants of changing US foreign policy

These fundamental factors are the three major challenges that the US and its political elites and foreign policy establishment simultaneously faced in the last several years.

First, the world started to develop contrary to American ideological assumptions, historical narratives and national interests, and the US found itself unable to determine development of key regions according to American design. Much of this (but not all) is related to Russia and China, who refused to develop internally according to the US preferences and started to challenge American leadership internationally. Russia posed a direct and open challenge to the US leadership and policies in 2014 in Ukraine and, even more serious, in 2015 in Syria, culminating to the alleged interference into US presidential elections in 2016, regarded as an attempt to weaken America from the inside by undermining its political system and democracy. China challenged the US by OBOR project (alternative source of development), 2025 program (technological leadership) and assertive policy in East and South East Asia.

Second, neglected for a long time, but fundamental internal demographic, economic and social problems in the US (quick decrease of the white population share, de-industrialization, stagnation and decline of the working class profits and enormously widened gap between the profits of the owners and employees) resulted in emergence of a significant part of American society discontent with the status quo and angry of traditionalist elites that ignore those problems or even encourage processes regarded as existential threats to economic wellbeing and cultural identity: non-white immigration, production outsourcing and rule of the Wall Street. These are associated with globalization, economic and societal openness, and neo-liberal consensus, that existed in the US for nearly 30 years. As a result, an objective demand for nationalism and protectionism, on the one hand, and for neo-socialism, on the other hand, emerged, which was overlooked by traditionalist elites in both Democratic and Republican parties, but sensed by Trump (and Saunders) and ensured his victory in 2016.

There is one major area of agreement between two parts of the discontent electorate (pro-Trump and pro-Saunders): rejection of neo-liberalism and increase of economic protectionism. At the same time, they fundamentally clash over cultural and value issues, above all non-white migration.

Third, the above-mentioned demographic and economic problems resulted in unprecedented polarization of American political elite and society, which in its turn produced an intensity of political struggle unseen in the US since 1960-s or even 1860-s. This struggle was further exacerbated and reached grotesque scale by Trump victory in 2016, unacceptable for the majority of elites. There are currently two political battles in the US, and both produce a very severe effect on its foreign policy.

One is the fight between the traditionalist elites and Trump. Attempts of the former either to oust him from power, or weaken him politically, restrict his decision-making authority, or simply to sabotage his decisions result not just in foreign policy disorganization, but also in distortions of US foreign policy and national interests. For instance, it resulted in Russia factor becoming the major instrument of attacks against Trump, one of the central issues of American domestic politics and, consequently, disproportionate intensification of the US-Russian confrontation and elimination of any chances to conduct a normal dialogue, let alone to improve relations, at least in the next two years. At the same time, many foreign policy decisions (Jerusalem) and rhetoric of Trump are of pure domestic purposes and logic, which is natural provided his need to conduct a permanent political struggle to keep his base.

Second struggle is a more fundamental and long-term: both parties and their electorate are increasingly drifting apart. As the 2018 midterms showed, majority of republican electorate have consolidated around Trump, recognized him as the new and real leader of the party and accepted his nationalist, anti-immigrant and even racist stance. The GOP is moving further right and is becoming a party of the worried and defensive white males. Whereas the democratic electorate is moving further left, and the party is becoming a heterogeneous coalition of minorities (racial, religious, sexual) and women. Except for rejection of neo-liberalism and for confrontational policies towards Russia and China by their elites, the parties’ positions seem irreconcilable, and their bases – as from different planets or at least countries. This dooms the US for further intensification of political struggle, governance paralysis and disproportionate role of domestic political considerations in foreign policy for years to come, with both parties torpedoing foreign policy initiatives of each other (except for confrontation with Russia and China) and using foreign policy as a tool and platform of political struggle – to the detriment of US national interests and foreign policy efficiency.

Substance of US foreign policy change

It is logical, that these external and internal challenges the US faces produced three major characteristic features of the US foreign policy, which emerged under Trump, but will continue beyond his presidency:

  • Dual confrontation with Russia and China as a reaction to their refusal to transform according to the US-favored model and integrate into the US-led international order as junior partners of the US, and challenging of American leadership and the US-led order itself, neo-containment of both. This priority assumes strengthening, not dismantling, of the US system of allies and partners, and initial speculations about Trump Administration as neo-isolationist were false.
  • Sharp increase of US unilateralism, egoism and economic mercantilism, and rejection of the “benevolent hegemon” and default producer of global public goods role as a reaction to emergence of anti-neoliberal, protectionist and nationalist population, but without dismantlement of the US system of allies and partners and US-centric economic regimes. The US is rather trying to make them more beneficial to itself. Moreover, the system of US allies and partners is partly strengthened and enlarged.
  • Disproportionate impact of domestic politics – polarization and political struggle – on the US foreign policy.

Simultaneous neo-containment of Russia and China seems the major priority of the US policy in Asia, Europe and the former USSR, as well as central idea of its foreign policy logic in general.

Its instruments are comprehensive and similar: increase of defense spending; economic pressure (trade war and technological restrictions against China and sanctions against Russia and China); destruction of existing arms control regimes (vis-à-vis Russia), arms race and military buildup and activity in adjacent regions; disrupting cooperation with the 3rd parties; accusations of election interference; official definition as adversaries and regard as malevolent actors; and, in the case of Russia, notorious information pressure and demonization of top leadership. The US prevents resolution of Ukraine and Syria crisis on the Russian terms, thus depriving Russia of crucial foreign policy successes, and consolidates and enlarges coalitions designed to contain Moscow and Beijing. The US offered Indo-Pacific strategy as a tool to contain China, and launched further militarization of European security as an attempt to consolidate NATO and increase pressure against Russia.

The Trump Administration and many realist Republicans consider China, not Russia, as the major strategic challenge to the US, and initially speculated about partial rapprochement with Russia on an anti-Chinese stance. However, this option was doomed to failure. First, the Democrats’ decision to use “Russian card” as the major tool to undermine Trump predetermined further intensification of confrontation with Moscow. This flywheel is very difficult to stop. Second, Russia was not ready to accept such an offer and put its strategic partnership with China at risk. Third, the Trump Administration realized very quickly, that interests of the sides diverge greatly in majority of cases, and that Russia would not promote interests and policies of the US at the expense of its own ones. Thus, Russia started to be regarded as adversary even despite the initial preference.

Since Republicans consider China as the major adversary and Russia as a less strategic, but still important adversary in the short-term prospect, whereas Democrats regard Russia as a threat to American democracy and political institutions and want to punish it for Trump’s victory in 2016 and undermine Trump with the “Russia card”, the US has no alternative to the dual confrontation with both countries.

Increase of US economic mercantilism, egoism and unilateralism translates into its desire to revise the terms of economic relations with major partners, including the EU, to more favor of the US (except for China, where the US purpose is containment, not a more favorable economic deal); to compel the allies and partners to invest more in the US (European NATO allies to increase defense spending) and buy more American products (shale gas exports to Europe); preferring hard power to soft power; openly utilitarian attitude to foreign aid; refusal to produce public goods (climate change) and participate in or fund non pro-US institutions; greater pragmatism and utilitarianism towards allies and foreign policy obligations in general; and anti-globalist and nationalist rhetoric. Some of these features are traditional approaches of Republican party and were visible (to a less extent, but still) even under Obama Administration.

Again, the US is not trying to dismantle its system of allies and partners or withdraw from all its foreign obligations. Rather, it is trying to make them more beneficial to the US in the short-term prospect, and prefers to reject those obligations that it considers useless: not contributing to the US power and wealth or to containing Russia and China.

These two core features of the US foreign policy partly reinforce and partly contradict each other. On the one hand, the US needs to increase its military power and economic dynamism as it once again confronts global adversaries, especially such growing ones, as China, whereas its own relative power is not as vast at is was in the beginning of the previous Cold war or after its end. The spark of its new confrontation with Russia and especially China was a wake-up call, that the US needs rapid military modernization, technological breakthrough and better economic conditions in general. Otherwise the dual confrontation would be even more difficult. On the other hand, increased egoism and nationalism, still determined by domestic factors in the 1st place, undermines the US influence among its allies and partners, which it needs to confront with China and Russia successfully.

Middle-term prospects of the US foreign policy

Confrontational policy towards Russia and China will remain a constant feature of the US foreign policy for near- and middle-term future and continue (and probably even intensify) after Trump. Due to ideological, geopolitical and historical reasons the US cannot so far accept Russia and China as legitimate independent great powers and equal co-authors and co-managers of international order. Since they refused to integrate into a US-led order and transform and develop according to a model the US considers universal, containment remains the only option – unless the adaptation of the US foreign policy to the multipolar world is complete. The US considers simultaneous confrontation with Russia and China and their return to the “right course of development” as a crucial means of turning the whole world back to track.

Inside the US a bipartisan consensus exists about a necessity to confront and contain Russia and China, and this is one of the few things the two parties agree with each other. It will remain after Trump. Democrats want to punish Moscow for election of Trump, consider Russian regime and foreign policy as a threat to democracy in America (thus presenting Russia as existential threat), in Europe and in the former USSR, and are unlikely to reject confrontational policy unless Russian regime is transformed and foreign policy fundamentally changed. The latter regards Russian “interference” into domestic affairs and elections of democracies and “expansionist” policy in Europe and Post-Soviet space. Republicans consider Russia mainly as a geopolitical challenge – lesser one than China, but still an important one, but some of them as an ideological challenge as well. At the same time, Democrats support the necessity to contain China, especially when it comes to its technological development.

There is a conviction among the majority in the US foreign policy elite and establishment, that it can win, and even simultaneous confrontation with and containment of Russia and China could be successful: would compel both countries reject their current development and foreign policy patterns and contain the pace of Chinese economic, technological and military development. This conviction is rooted on perception of the US power as still vastly preponderant over Chinese and especially Russian ones, and the US-led international order as still strong and attractive to majority of states. Moreover, the US consider Russia as a weak, declining and quite fragile country and Russian relations with the non-West, especially with China, as a marriage of convenience, which is doomed to deterioration sooner rather than later. Thus, Russia is expected to withdraw from this confrontation on the US terms relatively soon, which will leave China alone and completely encircled by unfriendly powers.

A post-Trump Administration is likely to continue containment of China policy and even make it more coherent and effective by pursuing a more multilateralist economic policy in Asia Pacific, and intensify confrontation with Russia, increasing ideological pressure and openly presenting Russian regime as “focus of evil”.

 At the same time, unilateralism, egoism and mercantilism, as well as the influence of ideology in the US foreign policy, will fluctuate up and down depending on whether a Republican or Democratic Administration is in the white house, and on peculiarities of political leaders holding power in the US at a certain time. A Democratic Administration is likely to return to a more multilateralist and “benevolent hegemony” policy with more emphasis on international organizations and provision of global public goods (fight against climate change, etc.).

Still, a full return to a pre-Trump status-quo is impossible. Since democrats will also appeal to the discontent and pro-change part of the population, who reject neo-liberalism and establish a new party platform in a much more leftist way, a new Democratic Administration will also resist a free trade rhetoric and policy. It will be less multilateralist, than Obama Administration. At the same time, the new Republican Administration is unlikely to be as egoistic and unilateralist as the Trump Administration. Thus, the scale of fluctuations of the US foreign policy from Administration to Administration in terms of multilateralism vs. unilateralism and mercantilism vs. free trade policies will be slowly but steadily decreasing, moving towards a new foreign policy consensus.

Since this polarization of American society and political system will not disappear anytime soon, and the struggle between the traditionalist and new elites will also continue for a good long while, the existing disarray in American politics and governance will continue well beyond Trump’s presidency. Foreign policy will be trapped by internal political struggle and will remain instrumentalized in domestic politics well beyond Trump. It is also quite likely that Russia will remain an instrument of domestic political struggle in the US beyond Trump, thus preventing the sides from even managing their confrontational relations effectively in the middle-term future. Intensive political struggle in the US and foreign policy hijacked by domestic political battles will continue until the process of both parties renewing their political platforms and elites is complete. Until then the US foreign policy will continue be strongly dependent on and even determined by extremely intensive and self-destructing political struggle.

US policy prospects towards Russia

Preservation and even further intensification of the US confrontational policy towards Russia is a given for the middle-term prospect, at least until 2024. Russia is widely regarded as a symbol of “wrong” internal and external development in a post-Cold war world, and turned out to be at the vanguard and epicenter of challenges against the US leadership, democratic system and traditionalist elites. It is perceived as conducting expansionist cause at the Pot-Soviet space and Eastern Europe, anti-American policy in the Middle East, and attacking Western democracies. This perception of Russia as geopolitical and ideological adversary at the same time creates an atmosphere quite similar to the Cold war (systemic confrontation) leaves no alternative to containment and confrontation no matter who is in the White house.

At the same time, Russia is regarded as a weak and fragile country, unable to withstand confrontation with the West for a long time and doomed to start retreating in the observable future. Increase of economic, political, information and military pressure, coupled with inevitable in the US eyes clash with China are expected to compel Moscow to start looking for concessions and changing policy.

Finally, confrontation with Russia is regarded as low-cost due to absence of economic interdependence and a pro-Russian lobby in the US, as well as American believe in durability of and lack of alternatives to the US-led global financial and economic governance.

The purpose of the US confrontational policy is not causing a major crisis and destabilization, but rather compelling Russia to change its foreign policy, which in addition to a change of its policy in Europe, the former USSR and towards Western democratic systems implies a serious decrease of its cooperation with China. Obviously, such a change demands a change of the existing top Russian leadership. Still, due to above-mentioned reasons the US considers that possible in the middle-term future and are likely to continue confrontational policy until this change happens.

Russian official claim that the current US anti-Russian stance is all about American domestic politics, is inaccurate. It is not less about the geopolitical and ideological challenge Russia poses to the US. Moreover, political fight will not settle down in the US in the near-term future, and Russia is likely to remain an instrument of political struggle.

Thus, in the period of 2018-2024 the US is likely to impose new sanctions, increase pressure (although balanced and calibrated) on the Russian partners convincing them to reduce their cooperation with Moscow, further intensify anti-Russian information campaign and continue arms race, including destruction of the remaining arms control regimes without substituting them with the new ones. Although with the Democratic majority in the House of Representatives and a Democratic Administration the pace of arms race with Russia will be less, it will still go on – as a result of destruction of existing arms control regimes and no new negotiations on strategic stability in conditions of confrontational relationship. With Democratic majority in the House, the Trump Administration will have even less political capacity and incentives to engage in serious talks with Moscow, including on strategic stability (including military aspects of cybersecurity). If Trump is not reelected in 2020, the US confrontational approach will intensify even further, with a Democratic Administration strengthening ideological campaign against Moscow and conducting policies reminiscent of regime change, including vis-à-vis Russia-friendly countries in the former USSR and beyond (Syria).

US policy towards Ukraine will remain to be about encouraging further decrease of Russian influence in the country, preventing implementation of the Minsk Agreements as they are interpreted by Russia, and consolidation Ukraine in its post-Euromaidan political and foreign policy stance and orientation. Russian policy will remain opposite, and rivalry between the two will continue.

US policy in Syria will remain to be preventing such a resolution, which would signify a Russian victory (with Assad participating in future elections, etc.) and allow Iranian presence. The US is unlikely to support political resolution and economic reconstruction efforts promoted by Russia, the Astana format and even the latest Group of Four (Russia, Turkey, Germany and France).

A very dangerous situation exits in military sphere, including nuclear weapons, with the destruction of existing arms control regimes without replacements, no serious US-Russian dialogue on strategic stability in the new strategic environment, including cybersphere, and ongoing militarization of European and Pacific security. Destruction of INF Treaty can result in both strategic and nuclear arms race between the US, Russia and China, as well as conventional arms race in Europe and Asia.

A danger of unintended military clash and even nuclear war between Russia and the US is real and growing. It can result from cybersphere, Syria or deployment of US low-yield nukes and \ or land-based intermediate-range missiles in Europe, if it happens.

The US will remain very suspicious of and resistant to any signs of Russian – EU rapprochement and cooperation, and keep “Wider Europe” split and divided. It will compensate for the ongoing change of European elites and elaboration of a new normal of Russia’s relations with major West European countries (cooperation despite fundamental disagreements) through militarization of Russia-NATO and US-Russian confrontation in Europe, and provocations aimed at presenting Russia as a threat and evil. The US remains convinced, that European fear of the US withdrawal from Europe vastly overwhelms its resentment with American unilateralism, egoism and mercantilism, and European countries will stay at the US side in the majority of issues vis-à-vis Russia and China.

At the same time, American pressure on Europe to reduce cooperation with Russia will remain careful, nuanced and calibrated. It will avoid restrictive measures against European states capable of causing serious transatlantic split (sanctions against Germany for Nord Stream 2, etc).

After Trump the US influence in Europe about containing Russia will strengthen as a result of partial transatlantic rapprochement and a new (although relatively short) honeymoon in US-EU relations, especially under a Democratic Administration. The US and EU sanctions against Russia in the period of 2020-2024 will be more synchronized and thus painful.

The US-Russian confrontation would be overcome only after the US completes its difficult adaptation to the multipolar world, accepts Russia and China as legitimate independent great powers and co-authors in elaboration of joint global and regional international orders, and after both Democratic and Republican parties complete renewal of their political platforms and elites and a new foreign policy consensus is elaborated.

In the meantime, the US-Russian confrontation needs to be managed. Its management will remain the major priority and topic of US-Russian relations agenda in the next 6-10 years.

US policy prospects towards Europe.

US policy towards Europe, EU and NATO is a subject of the two major priorities: dual confrontation with Russia and China, and the necessity to make terms of economic and security relations with allies and partners more beneficial to the US (thus expanding its relative power vis-à-vis adversaries). As a result, the US is revising terms of economic relations with the EU, making them somewhat more favorable to the US, demanding increase of European defense budgets (in order to increase American military exports and to re-distribute burdens in a more fair way). At the same time, it demands greater solidarity from Europeans on US foreign policy priorities outside of the EU and greater consolidation of European countries in containing Russia. Thus, the Trump Administration does not want to dismantle transatlantic relations – either security or economic. It wants to make them more relatively beneficial and more suiting the strategic purposes of the US foreign policy. In its core, this policy was started already by Obama and even Bush Jr, and it will be continued by further US Administrations.

The major shift is with the US approach to the European Union and relations with those European traditionalist elites, which remain committed to neo-liberal globalist ideology and agenda. This shift is predetermined by domestic trends in American society and political system discussed above. Even if a new Democratic Administration diminishes this ideological rift and conducts a more EU-friendly policy, it will not disappear completely. With the resentment of neo-liberalism by big proportion of American population and leftist trend in the Democratic party, after Trump the US is unlikely to return to status-quo ante in terms of value similarity with the European traditionalist elites and support of European integration. At the same time, the ongoing rotation of elites in European countries will establish a new value consensus with the US on a new basis – but with less role of the EU and integrationist arrangement.

Moreover, the US will increasingly consider and claim the Pacific, not Europe, to be the major foreign policy priority, which will strengthen instrumentalism and utilitarianism of American policy towards the Europeans. Whereas Europeans, have failed to become an independent global geopolitical pole and increasingly fearful of the current global trends (including those manifested by Russia and China), will still consider the US as the most preferential partners and source of protection.

From this perspective is it very likely that the US and the EU will elaborate a new trade agreement (a little less ambitious than the TTIP) in the observable future.

NATO will remain crucial in transatlantic relations as long as the US-Russian confrontation persists. Trump’s initial rhetoric that “NATO is obsolete” was a bargaining tool aimed at compelling Europeans to increase defense spending. In fact, Trump Administration directed the major US military return to Europe after the end of the previous Cold war. Further US administrations will also promote NATO as a major tool of military containment of Russia in Europe and demand increase of European countries’ defense budgets. NATO role as a crisis management and conflict resolution, let alone state building institution, such as in Afghanistan, is already and will remain questionable.


Long-term prospects of the US foreign policy

In the long term prospect the US will have to reject confrontational policies towards Russia and China, accept them as legitimate independent great powers outside of the US-led international order and build cooperative relations on the basis of joint creation and management of new joint international order at regional and global levels. At the same time, the US will elaborate a new balance between multilateralism and unilateralism, egoism and benevolent hegemonism, and a new normal of its relations with the EU, as a result of renewal of its political elites and party platforms and elaboration of a new foreign policy consensus.

The first and major reason is that long-term simultaneous confrontation with both Russia and China is unlikely to be successful: both China and Russia are more resilient, than the US assumes; the expectation of Russian –Chinese rivalry is false; and, above all, the majority of US allies and partners do not support further escalation of tensions and avoid choosing sides. The more the US pressures on its allies and partners, the less successful and influential it becomes.

The second reason is that with less support for neo-liberalism in both parties and greater nationalist trend of Republicans, a new US foreign policy consensus will not necessarily demand that the US-led international order becomes global and universal, and especially that the US remains as the major pillar of international security and producer of global public goods. It will be more supportive of global pluralism and burden sharing with other players, even if they do not share American values.

As a result of this adaptation both US-Russian and US-Europe relations will change.

US-Russian contradictions related to their clashes over international order will disappear, and a new model of non-confrontational relations with Russia will emerge, based on joint management of European security, multilateral relations in the Middle East and even more intensive cooperation on the China factor and in the Pacific.

Transatlantic relations will change as well, becoming less centralized in security field and more equal in economic one. NATO will turn into an “OSCE plus” organization.

Thus, a new cooperative US – EU – Russia triangle will emerge, that will allow to consider them a single space or community once again. However, to reach this point the US confrontational policy towards Russia and China must exhaust itself, and the US must finish its internal renewal.


Picture: Sherrie Thai of