As the likelihood of a Sino-American cold war rises with hostile rhetoric, an expanding trade conflict, and growing risks of military confrontation, it is vital to ask whether President Donald Trump's team has formulated a winning strategy.
Washington's actions since Trump's inauguration have left little doubt that he is working hard to turn his "America First" rhetoric into an actual foreign policy, focused on the assertion of hard power, unilateralism, and disdain for international agreements even at the cost of damaging U.S. credibility.
In Trump's eyes, this new grand strategy is working. America has paid no price for its withdrawal from the Trans-Pacific Partnership, a 12-nation free trade agreement, the Iran nuclear deal, and the historic Paris Climate Agreement. At the same time, his tariffs, threats and other coercive tactics appear to be paying off. Canada and Mexico have agreed to a revised NAFTA deal that offers the U.S. modestly more favorable trade terms.
The biggest success story for the proponents of the "America First" doctrine undoubtedly is the trade war Trump has initiated against China. After failing to persuade Beijing through high-level diplomacy started more than a decade ago to reform its state-capitalist economy and change its mercantilist practices, Washington has opted for confrontation. With broad-based support, Trump hammered China with tariffs on $250 billion worth of Chinese exports (with more to come if China fails to meet U.S. demands). One may object to his protectionist instincts and unilateral tactics, but Trump and his trade warriors deserve the credit for giving Beijing the notice that its neo-mercantilism will no longer be tolerated.
Now that the U.S.-China conflict is at the risk of escalating into a full-blown geopolitical contest, Trump and his advisers must understand that they have to abandon Trumpism in order to prevail against Beijing.
If the essence of Trumpism is unilateralism, the "America First" doctrine will unlikely rally the allies the U.S. needs to increase its odds of winning. The U.S. defeated the Soviet Union in the Cold War not by itself, but by organizing a broad coalition of (mostly) democratic nations. The glue that held this coalition together was Washington's willingness to underwrite the costs of global public goods, such as collective security, open markets and confidence in a rule-based international system -- values and institutions totally antithetical to Trumpism.
It is tempting to imagine that Trump can replace the liberal international order with an America-centric system based on a web of bilateral agreements between the U.S. and other nations. Unfortunately, the key objectives will clash. If the overriding geopolitical aim is isolating China, the U.S. will have to offer attractive terms to its partners even at its own expense, just as it did in the Cold War. In a U.S.-China cold war, Washington will need to sweeten its terms generously because the key allies it wants to recruit -- European countries -- face no direct Chinese military threat but have a lot to lose by hitching to America's wagon. This will inevitably invite a backlash from hard-core Trumpians who abhor the idea of making sacrifices for long-term geopolitical benefits.
But if Trumpism dictates that the U.S. must get better terms than its partners under all circumstances, then fewer allies may sign on, making it harder to isolate China. Should bilateral deals fail to bring back manufacturing jobs and reduce America's trade deficits, as is almost certain to be the case, Trump's strategy would lose the Trumpians' support.
Another factor that will make it more difficult for the U.S. to recruit more allies against China is the erosion of America's moral standing caused by Trumpism. To Trumpians, all they need to defeat China in a cold war is hard power. They forget that America won the 20th century Cold War mainly because it was seen by the majority of the people in the world as a force for good. To them, the U.S. was an unselfish superpower and a beacon of freedom and decency -- even if at times reality fell short of this vision, as in the Vietnam War.
But Trumpism has seriously degraded American moral capital. The U.S. will struggle to claim the high ground even against China's one-party regime if the Trumpians continue to flirt with authoritarianism, trash international law and agreements, denigrate science, stoke racial division and undercut efforts to combat climate change.
Hardcore Trumpians, who see the world as a Hobbesian jungle, may think that they can do without the luxury of high moral ground in international affairs. They need to think again. However formidable its power, America may not fare well in such a jungle. America unbound by international law will quickly alienate most of the world, including close allies. To most members of the international community, the U.S. would become a malevolent hegemon -- and China would be welcomed as a constraint on American power. While a few countries will be coerced or enticed to bandwagon with the U.S., the rest will have no incentive to help America win because they do not want to live under a Leviathan that respects only raw power.
The jungle mindset of Trumpism will also seriously, albeit indirectly, hamper its capacity to wage another cold war. The most pressing security challenges today, such as nuclear proliferation, terrorism, climate change and mass migration, require international cooperation. Unilateral actions are often ineffective, even counterproductive, in managing these challenges. In a Hobbesian world, the U.S. could be too distracted by constant crises such as large inflows of migrants (as is happening now on the U.S.-Mexico border), regional conflicts and natural disasters to focus its resources in competing with China. A jungle set ablaze by minor bush fires will not spare its apex predator.
Judging by their most recent actions, such as the decision to annul the historic U.S.-Soviet Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty, Trump and his security advisers seem to be too invested in the "America First" doctrine to think about a course correction. But if they properly think through the implications of such a doctrine in the context of a U.S.-China cold war, they will conclude that Trumpism is fundamentally at odds with winning.
Minxin Pei is a professor of government at Claremont McKenna College.