Overall, 2017 wasn't a good year for the world. It was one of the hottest on record, and the leader of the world's most powerful army spent a good chunk of it threatening a newly emerged nuclear power with the prospect of war.
It's the latter part of that sentence that has many worried, but it's also part of a larger trend.
When President Donald Trump assumed office last January, he came to the White House showing a clear lack of knowledge regarding international relations. Since then, Trump's foreign policy has been less "learning on the fly" and more "is he learning anything?"
The latest example of Trump diplomacy comes from Politico, which reported on a dinner Trump had with Latin American leaders in September that ended with many in attendance worrying that the president was "insane."
Over the course of the year, I have often heard top foreign officials express their alarm in hair-raising terms rarely used in international diplomacy—let alone about the president of the United States. Seasoned diplomats who have seen Trump up close throw around words like “catastrophic,” “terrifying,” “incompetent” and “dangerous.” In Berlin this spring, I listened to a group of sober policy wonks debate whether Trump was merely a “laughingstock” or something more dangerous. Virtually all of those from whom I’ve heard this kind of ranting are leaders from close allies and partners of the United States. That experience is no anomaly. “If only I had a nickel for every time a foreign leader has asked me what the hell is going on in Washington this year … ” says Richard Haass, a Republican who served in senior roles for both Presidents Bush and is now president of the Council on Foreign Relations.
While there's hope that Trump may be a one-term wonder — an anomaly in global politics who Politico said is viewed as "essentially irrelevant" — the fact that he's not showing leadership skills on the most basic level by getting other countries' heads of state to simply like or tolerate him means that there may be a massive vacuum opening up on the international stage.
Enter China, which, per the New Yorker, has been waiting for just such a moment.
For years, China’s leaders predicted that a time would come—perhaps midway through this century—when it could project its own values abroad. In the age of “America First,” that time has come far sooner than expected.
For a real-world example of how Trump may have helped make China a major player, look no further than the president screaming that China should take responsibility of the North Korea situation, then getting upset when China acts in its own interests. Here is the president's foreign policy: Ordering China to do something about North Korea, hoping from the sidelines that China would solve the North Korean situation, then getting frustrated when China doesn't.
And, of course, all these demands and complaints are met by inevitable disappointment from a man who seems to capable of little more than stewing in his feelings.
Sooner rather than later, China's economy will surpass that of the United States. With its newfound economic power, China has global ambitions that the U.S. doesn't.
So far, Trump has proposed reducing U.S. contributions to the U.N. by forty per cent, and pressured the General Assembly to cut six hundred million dollars from its peacekeeping budget. In his first speech to the U.N., in September, Trump ignored its collective spirit and celebrated sovereignty above all, saying, “As president of the United States, I will always put America first, just like you, as the leaders of your countries, will always and should always put your countries first.”
China’s approach is more ambitious. In recent years, it has taken steps to accrue national power on a scale that no country has attempted since the Cold War, by increasing its investments in the types of assets that established American authority in the previous century: foreign aid, overseas security, foreign influence, and the most advanced new technologies, such as artificial intelligence. It has become one of the leading contributors to the U.N.’s budget and to its peacekeeping force, and it has joined talks to address global problems such as terrorism, piracy, and nuclear proliferation.
And China has embarked on history’s most expensive foreign infrastructure plan. Under the Belt and Road Initiative, it is building bridges, railways, and ports in Asia, Africa, and beyond. If the initiative’s cost reaches a trillion dollars, as predicted, it will be more than seven times that of the Marshall Plan, which the U.S. launched in 1947, spending a hundred and thirty billion, in today’s dollars, on rebuilding postwar Europe.
How close are we to seeing 2018 kick off a new world order led by China, and not the United States? There's reason to believe that the coming decades will see China become a world leader in America's absence. After all, that's the intent.
By setting more of the world’s rules, China hopes to “break the Western moral advantage,” which identifies “good and bad” political systems, as Li Ziguo, at the China Institute of International Studies, has said. In November, 2016, Meng Hongwei, a Chinese vice-minister of public security, became the first Chinese president of Interpol, the international police organization; the move alarmed human-rights groups, because Interpol has been criticized for helping authoritarian governments target and harass dissidents and pro-democracy activists abroad.
Military power — known in international circles as "hard power" — is very easy to come by, actually. And the United States has the hard power advantage. The U.S. spends the most on its military, and it's not even close.
But American hegemony only really works if the rest of the world wants to play along.