U.S. presidents often enter office with grandiose plans to remake the country's foreign policy. They often collide with a greater reality: a complex, chaotic, and frequently troubled world that presents endless challenges and scuttles plans.
As Gideon Rachman describes in his provocative Easternisation: War and Peace in the Asian Century, the world Donald Trump inherits will combine "the steadily eroding power of the West to shape international affairs" with "the economic development of Asia." The somber result is "the West's growing inability to function as a pole of stability and power," increasing the possibility of conflict.
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As an experienced journalist, Rachman approaches his subject with a dispassionate eye and no apparent agenda. Whether readers agree or not with his analysis, his objectivity compels serious attention. That analysis commands respect for its attention to detail and thoroughness. Chapters on China, India, and Russia are well researched and capture the scope of what is unfolding in the East.
China's Xi Jinping is portrayed as adapting to regional circumstances, recognizing that China's emphasis on militarism should give way to more traditional diplomatic regional engagements. China's current unwillingness to accede to an international court's denial of its claims to the South China Sea will test Rachman's assessment.
As Rachman notes, events on both sides of the globe are shaping a new world order. As the East surges politically, militarily, and economically, the West is in hasty retreat from decades of leadership that conferred global influence and unenviable burdens.
The signs of discord are apparent. Europe has little sense of its future beyond a complex refugee problem and the United Kingdom's departure from the European Union. In the United States, China's main global competitor, eight years of desultory foreign policy leadership has resulted in a weakening of what may be America's most important asset, its network of alliances. Perception can become reality, and America under Obama is viewed as though it is in self-imposed decline. "Leading from behind," an Obama mantra, hardly strikes fear into a resurgent China or Russia.
It would be misleading to conclude that Rachman views the decline of Western influence as inevitable or irreversible. As he points out, much of the way the world is "wired"—by which he means the global financial system—remains under Western control. The Society for Worldwide Interbank Financial Telecommunications is the dominant entity in the global banking system and is located in Belgium, an American ally. The World Bank and International Monetary Fund are similarly dominated by the West.
Rachman adds that the most important factor in preventing conflict may be the mutual self-interest between Eastern and Western nations in not disrupting global trade and financial cooperation. For Rachman, self-interest is a powerful motivator, though it offers no guarantee against miscalculations that trigger major conflicts.
Rachman's assessment is powerful and difficult to disprove. It will be fascinating to watch whether Trump's foreign policy team attempts to buck the trends the author describes. Answers to that question will tell much about the stability and nature of power across the globe in coming decades.