(Representative Image: PTI)
Five days after the Imperial Japanese Navy struck at Pearl Harbour, Charles Lindbergh — war hero, celebrated aviator, author, inventor, activist — was to have delivered these words to an audience in Boston: “Before we spend unlimited billions for foreign war, before we crusade so blithely for our freedoms across the seas, before we send the spirit of America to stand on foreign ground, let us make sure that the roots of freedom and democracy are firmly planted in our own country”.
“Are we to spend unlimited American lives, throw American business into bankruptcy, and harness our children and our grandchildren with debt, in a crusade to make democracy safe among foreign nations who don’t desire it”?
The banners at the site would have been emblazoned with words President Donald Trump has now made the world familiar with: ‘America First’.
For many Indian strategic thinkers, the lesson of this summer’s bloody confrontation along the Line of Actual Control is simple. New Delhi must now enmesh itself in the system of alliances led by the United States. Three-quarters of a century after the end of the Second World War, the argument goes, the rise of China is precipitating another great geopolitical cataclysm — and India will need a great-power patron to survive it.
The idea is a seductive one — but the system of alliances it describes no longer exists. America First reflects a fundamental transformation in the global aims and ambitions of the United States. America is in the midst of an inexorable turning-away from the world, which President Trump’s successors will not, and cannot, reverse.
America’s retreat from its expansive, post-1945 commitment to shape the world order is driven by transfigured circumstances. Principal among these is a youth cohort that, for the first time in over a century, cannot assume that it will enjoy the same prosperity as that of its parents.
Economists Christopher Kurz, Geng Li, and Daniel Vine have noted that millennials — broadly, the generation born between 1981–1996 — tended “to have lower incomes than members of earlier generations at comparable ages”. Generation X, born from 1965 to 1980, and Boomers, born from 1946 to 1964, enjoyed family incomes that were 11 percent and 14 percent higher, respectively. Millennials have more educational debt; their healthcare is more precarious.
The concerns of this youth cohort have manifested themselves in a raft of new social movements, as well as the rise of Left-leaning politicians challenging the establishment consensus, like Alexandria Occasio-Cortez, Rashida Tlaib or Illhan Omar.
Even on the Right, projecting American Greatness on a global stage no longer has great sheen. Trump’s decision to withdraw 9,500 troops from Europe, a blow to Atlanticists determined to confront Vladimir Putin, and his demands South Korea pay up to $5 billion to maintain a United States military there, have enraged Washington’s strategic community — but appear to be playing well with the president’s electoral base.
Perhaps as important, the case for the United States asserting global reach has diminished. “Persian oil,” President Franklin D. Roosevelt said to a British diplomat in 1944, “is yours. We share the oil of Iraq and Kuwait. As for Saudi Arabian oil, it’s ours”. Hudson Institute scholar Arthur Herman, in a superb analysis written in 2014, noted that “keeping the region’s shipping lanes, including the Strait of Hormuz, open to tanker traffic costs the Pentagon, on average, $50 billion a year — a service that earns us the undying enmity of populations in that region”.
These costs have now become redundant. In 2013, the United States for the first time replaced Saudi Arabia as the world’s largest oil producer. In 2019, the United States produced some 15 million barrels of crude oil a day, to Saudi Arabia’s 12 million — and, this summer, became a net exporter.
The United States oil and gas allow it to exercise power over both oil-producing states and the global economy through market mechanisms — releasing supplies to lower prices or withholding them to send prices spiralling.
Even though Beijing has shown itself determined to coerce Asian states into its orbit, Trump seems clear he does not want an expansive military presence on China’s maritime peripheries, of the kind seen in the Middle East. In 2017, Trump shocked Vietnam by offering to mediate their dispute with China in the South China Sea. Following the crisis on the Line of Actual Control, similarly, Trump made the same offer to India, thus equating New Delhi’s claims with those of Beijing.
Though the United States has sailed naval patrols through the South China Sea, it has studiously avoided involvement in disputes between China and its neighbours.
Leaders of the major Asian democracies — Australia, India and Japan — just can’t be sure the United States would actually unleash its fury in the event they found themselves at war with Beijing. Washington backed away, after all, from direct conflict with China during its wars in Korea and Vietnam, unwilling to risk a nuclear-weapons apocalypse for the sake of allies of no great strategic value.
The prospects of a workable alliance aren’t helped by weak glue binding the three Asian democracies. For Japan, North Korean nuclear weapons are an existential issue; not so for India. India, dependent on West Asia’s oil, seeks equidistance from Iran and Saudi Arabia; not so the United States. Fighting a war in the Himalayas, India might wish Australia to mount naval pressure — but Canberra might see no profit in such a face-off.
Even Taiwan, the most threatened of all of China’s neighbours, treads cautiously: the island is among the largest investors in the People’s Republic, which is also its largest trading partner.
Trump’s 12-nation Asian tour in 2017 underlined the limits of the United States’ interest in the region. “American leadership”, the stock phrase meant to signal the United States support for regional allies, was missing from his speeches. He outlined no road-map nor financial commitments to rival Beijing’s ambitious Belt and Road Initiative. Indeed, Trump argued against multilateral arrangements which which “tie our hands, surrender our sovereignty”.
Lindbergh, like Trump, spoke for significant sections of the United States. Though the anti-war activist is now — with reason — reviled as a Nazi sympathiser, America First attracted thousands of liberal university students, centrists like President Gerald Ford and Supreme Court judge Potter Stewart, aesthetic radicals like Frank Lloyd Wright, and significant swathes of the business leadership. Had Pearl Harbour not happened, it’s conceivable Lindbergh would have kept America out of the Second World War.
The American Century is far from its end: technologically and economically, the United States remains the world’s preeminent nation-state. Yet, like Lindbergh, America seems ever-less convinced that its means can — or even ought — be used for global good.
Like the long sunset of the British empire, the diminishing shadow of the United States’ global power will lead to a profound reordering of our globe. India must prepare for the great angers that will come, based on a clinical appraisal of the resources it can marshal and their efficient use — not illusions that allies will do for it what it cannot do for itself.