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David Howell: America is no longer the global top dog, and should play the new network game like the rest of us

4 min read

America’s wisest role is as a partner, not a boss, says David Howell 

The US secretary of state, Mike Pompeo, has recently been on a whirlwind visit advising us on what to think and what to do about key international developments. Although there have been occasional hints of menace if we do not see things the Washington way, the tone has been mostly polite and genial.

Even so, and even at the best of times, this is a not very clever or persuasive way of proceeding, or of winning friends and influencing people (as the saying goes).

Unfortunately this is not the best of times and friendships are already under considerable strain. This makes the forthcoming President Trump state visit even trickier than it was anyway going to be.

It is obvious to all but the most blinkered that Mr Trump, as head of state of a great nation, must be treated with proper courtesy and respect. There is never – except in cases of outright hostility – an excuse for poor manners in international diplomacy (or, for that matter, in public life generally – how I wish!). Nor does it ever pay to be rude, on the world stage or anywhere else.

Mr Pompeo’s to-do list of items is a long one and getting longer. He requires America’s allies to fall into line on putting the squeeze on Iran and binning the nuclear deal; on waging trade war with China (and cold-shouldering Huawei); on backing the rather vague, so-called Kushner strategy over Israel; on being tolerant to the point of blindness with the cruder side of Saudi Arabian behaviour; on going along with a deal with Kim Jong-un which seems to be getting nowhere; with letting arms control agreements unravel; with cheering on protectionism and taking a generally negative view of most multilateral institutions, and hence of the structure of international agreement and law on which they mostly rest and which we have come to call the rules-based order.

There is no need to interpret all this in black and white – some of the Trump ‘do-a-deal’ approaches may be what is needed to break past deadlocks. But the overall pattern is unsettling, especially when it comes from the country with which we have been the very closest of allies for 80 years (as the Normandy landings anniversary vividly reminds us).

Within the British Foreign and Commonwealth Office, and among some close to it, there is clearly a hope that all these tensions will fade with Donald Trump’s departure, whether in two or six years’ time, and that the US will return to the age of Pax Americana and the outgoing Uncle Sam of yore.

This is a mistake, born of wishful thinking and growing out of an even deeper and more fundamental error and misunderstanding about the way the world is going – which is still tenaciously clung to in both London and Washington governing and policymaking circles.

This is that, in a networked world, America can still play the part of free-world leader and superpower and can always get its way. It is an error which goes back way before Trump in American misconceptions about itself and a hangover from memories of a pre-digital age and pre-networked world, when America did indeed have its unipolar moment as world leader.

But, as more thoughtful minds both sides of the Atlantic now perceive, the days of American primacy are over. The facts of today’s multipolar world have to be embraced, with the huge rise of Asian, and especially, but not only, Chinese power, and the staggering evolution of weapons technologies which equalise American military spend, however massive.

America remains a giant free nation of wondrous economic and reserve currency power. But its wisest role is as a partner, not a boss. It should realise that it has to play the new network game like the rest of us. So welcome, old friend, but please don’t keep telling us what we have to do. We have other global connections to build up and, besides, we don’t think you have got it all quite right.

Lord Howell of Guildford is a Conservative peer and chair of the Lords International Relations Committee

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Read the most recent article written by Lord Howell - Lords Diary: Lord Howell


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