Trump’s Foreign Policy of Divide & Conquer: China first, Russia next, then perhaps the Climate?

Since the collapse of the Soviet Union, the U.S.-led liberal international order has made incredible gains in Europe:

  • East Germany taken over by the capitalist West Germany
  • Yugoslavia broken up, with Croatia and Slovenia joining the European Union and NATO
  • The ex-Warsaw Pact countries of Poland, Bulgaria, Romania, Hungary, the Czech Republic and Slovakia integrated into the European Union and NATO. Albania added to NATO
  • The ex-Soviet Baltic Republics of Latvia, Lithuania and Estonia joining the European Union and NATO

The dreams of turning Russia itself into a U.S. dominated capitalist playground may have been derailed by the Putin leadership, but the gains made have still been on a level that could not have been dreamt of in the mid-1980’s. In this context, the western-supported coup in the Ukraine can be seen as an overly risky act of hubris that gave Russia no option but to respond. After all the Ukraine has an extensive border with Russia, a large ethnic-Russian population, control over a large percentage of Russia’s gas exports, and housed the Black Fleet naval base. A parallel would have been a Russian-supported coup in Canada or Mexico. One can easily assume what the U.S. response would be to such an action. The attempt at regime change in the country housing Russia’s only military base in the Middle East, Syria, was also always going to run a high risk of Russian intervention. Perhaps a strategic retreat may be the best policy, especially if other objectives are of a higher priority.

In the period since the fall of the U.S.S.R., China has risen from being a small, developing economy to one rivaling the size of the United States. If China had fully accepted the rules of the U.S.-led liberal international order, as Japan and Western Europe had as their economies rapidly grew in the latter half of the twentieth century, this would not be deemed to be problematic by western elites. This has not come to pass though. The Chinese state and the Communist Party have kept a preeminent position, with limited free markets operating within state supervision. An authoritarian bureaucracy running what used to be referred to as a “mixed economy”. This is anathema to the liberal orthodoxy, where the role of a still-strong state is to support the ever-expanding freedom of global capitalism to invade and commoditize every nook and cranny of society. At the same time, China has had the temerity to find its own role in the world and to seek out partners in alternative international arrangements:

“China has sought to integrate both its Brazil, Russia, India, China, and South Africa (BRICS) partners and its regional neighbors into economic ventures that rival those of the liberal international system, including the New Development Bank (widely perceived as an alternative to the World Bank and the IMF); the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP), an Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN)–initiated free trade agreement (FTA) that China has ardently championed; an Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank (a rival to the Asian Development Bank); and an Asia-Pacific FTA (that would knit China closer to its neighbors in Asia). In other regions of the world, Beijing has initiated the Forum on China-Africa Cooperation, the China-Arab Cooperation Forum, and a variety of similar bodies that privilege China’s position and undermine standards of governance set by the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD), the World Bank, and other international institutions.”[1]

The Chinese example also threatens the legitimacy of the western neo-liberal model in a discursive sense, as its success shows a ‘bad example’ of a country succeeding outside the realms of hegemonic capitalist control. To the western elites China (and Russia) “are attempting to fashion a world in their own illiberal image” and the U.S. must “keep trying to integrate China into the rules and traditions of the liberal international order … while also marshaling forces to confront China’s assertive and unilateral grab of territory in the South China Sea.[2]” Of course the U.S. and its western allies could never be said to have been involved in unilateral grabs for territory! Let’s remember that the South China Sea is China’s backyard in the same way that the Caribbean and the Americas in general is the U.S. backyard. The “Pivot to Asia” and the attempted Tran-Pacific Partnership trade and corporate rights agreement, are prime examples of policies designed to contain and control the rise of China.

As the Council on Foreign Relations (CFR) have put it, the U.S. must concentrate on China rather than Russia, “Despite turmoil in the Middle East and tensions with Russia, the president should concentrate on managing the greatest strategic challenge to the United States in the coming decades – the rise of Chinese power.[3]” Of course, when the CFR says the “United States” it doesn’t mean the population of the United States, rather it means the United States ability to act as the enforcer of the liberal international order that gives predominance to rich investors and large corporations. It does though seem that the CFR has wakened up to the fact that a deindustrialized and weak U.S. economy will undermine U.S. power, and therefore a resurgence in the U.S. economy is required – especially with respect to the fast growing Chinese economy. Echoing Trump’s campaign focus on keeping industrial capabilities within the U.S.

As the Centre for a New American Security puts it, the economic, political and military power of the U.S. has been critical in forging and sustaining this order:

“It is easy for Americans to take the benefits of this international order for granted without fully appreciating the critical leadership role the U.S. government has played in creating and sustaining this economic, political, and security system. American military power, the dynamism of the U.S. economy, and the great number of close alliances and friendships the United States enjoys with other powers and peoples have provided the critical architecture in which this liberal order has flourished”

Nations that do not accept their role in this order, either as core members or as lesser-thans must be taught the error of their ways through economic and political pressure. The decades-long economic blockade of Cuba is a good example. Trump’s talk of a tariff on Chinese imports fits well within this approach. If that approach fails, then internal destabilization and outright war may be required. The innumerable western-sponsored, or supported, coups in such countries as Iran, The Congo, Chile, Guatemala and the Ukraine are examples. The recent ‘constitutional coup’ in Brazil will be beneficial to the liberal international order in both removing a relatively nationalist regime and an ally to China.

The thought of war with China is wonderful news for the military-industrial complex, as it can only lead to greater defense expenditures, as the CFR has called for. Just in time, another western elite think tank, the Rand Corporation, comes up with “War with China[4]” which advocates for the active preparation and planning for such a war. The most worrying part of this document is the assertion that the window for action is closing as China’s capabilities become stronger with respect to the U.S. The earlier in the timeframe of 2015 to 2025 the better it seems, making Trump’s bellicosity toward China seem very well timed. Also paralleling the German position just prior to World War 1, where it saw a small window of opportunity before Russia’s modernizing economy outstripped it[5]. We all know how that ended.

Dealing with Russia and Syria can be put on the back burner for now, and bringing the Philippines back into the fold given priority. Forcing China to be ‘a good boy’ and to accept its assigned place within the liberal order must be given priority. The state must be subordinated to the benefit of capital, increasingly international capital, not be a power in its own right nor a force for an equitable share of wealth and income.

Trump may come across as an arrogant buffoon, but his foreign policy moves so far seem to be following the script of those western-elites that see China as the main course, with what is left of the U.S.S.R. left for dessert. No need to be too greedy in the short-term. The only outlier currently seems to be the antagonism toward Iran, a major Russian ally. It will be interesting to see if this antagonism turns into any real action once Trump becomes President. Also, will a beneficial settlement in the Ukraine be offered as a way of loosening Russia’s alliance with China? Trump has already shown that he is very good at domestic ‘divide and conquer’; now his international abilities may be put to the test.

In this rush to maintain its predominant position in the service of global capitalist elites, the United States may put the greater existential crisis of climate change on the back burner. It surely seems so with the climate-denialist appointments that Trump has made. Phenomenal amounts of wealth that could be used to move societies to a sustainable path will be wasted in an attempt to fight over what may then turn out to be a shrinking world order.


[1] Robert D. Blackwill & Ashley J. Tellis (2015), Revising US Grand Strategy to China, Council on Foreign Relations. Accessible at file:///Users/rogerboyd/Downloads/China_CSR72.pdf

[2] Editorial Board (2016), The liberal international order is under fire. The United States must defend it, The Washington Post. Accessible at

[3] Robert D. Blackwill & Ashley J. Tellis (2015), Revising US Grand Strategy to China, Council on Foreign Relations. Accessible at file:///Users/rogerboyd/Downloads/China_CSR72.pdf

[4] David C. Gompert et. al. (2016), War with China: Thinking Through the Unthinkable, The Rand Corporation. Accessible at

[5] Alexander Anievas (2014), Capital, the State, and War: Class Conflict and Geopolitics in the Thirty Years’ Crisis, 1914-1945, University of Michigan Press


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