America’s role in the world and the global trends that are changing it

On 1 December, Frederick Kempe, President and CEO of the Atlantic Council, visited IFS. He talked about the importance of American global leadership at a time where we see a weakening international order.

Frederick Kempe, Atlantic Council

Kempe started out by setting the topic into a historical context. Particularly he focused on how the Western powers, with the US at the forefront, acted together after the Second World War to create the international liberal order, and compared this to the US’ isolation and disengagement following the First World War. Today we see the devastating effect of inadequate leadership and a weakening international order, Kempe continued, referring to the situation in Ukraine, Syria, North Korea and the South China Sea. In this context, he claimed that American leadership is crucial.
He then discussed five issues of common concern, that the Atlantic Council thinks will shape this inflection point in history.

1. Breakdown of the international liberal order

Although the international liberal order may be adjusted or reinvigorated, it is irrevocable, Kempe emphasised. Still, new institutions and forces will emerge that will have to be integrated into the world order. He deemed it important to react to Russia’s annexation of Crimea and Bashar al-Assad’s conduct in Syria in order to preserve the legitimacy of international norms. He also talked about China, which has been building a world order parallel to the West, and is thus presenting an alternative.

2. The future of democratic capitalism and democracy itself

Kempe initiated this point by referring to Francis Fukuyama’s book The end of history from 1992, where democratic capitalism was predicted to be the indisputable government system of choice for the future. This is not accurate anymore, Kempe argued, with e.g. China’s state run autocratic capitalist system, or Victor Orban’s “illiberal democracy” in Hungary as alternatives. The rise of nationalism and populism represents a response to uncertainties, e.g. in conjunction with technological innovations. Will technological changes favour autocratic or democratic systems? It is therefore a question of the durability and effectiveness of Western democracies.

3. The rising threat of new major power conflict

Although it is still unlikely, major power conflict is not unthinkable anymore, according to Kempe. In other words, we see the return of the prospect of conflict between the major powers. We also see the prospect for major regional conflict, e.g. in the Middle East or the Asia-Pacific region. Kempe pointed out that miscalculations and mistakes may lead to conflict, and that conflict between smaller powers threatens to draw major powers in.

4. Uncertainties regarding the US’ role in the world and US leadership

Uncertainties regarding the US’ role in the world and US leadership both predate Donald Trump’s presidency and outlives his presence. Kempe argued that Americans have to be re-educated on why US engagement and trade in the world is good, and thus be convinced of the necessity of American engagement. In addition to public support, US’ role in the world also depends on leadership visions, political will and economic resources.

5. Uncertainties regarding the impact of new technological development

Kempe initiated this point by referring to Klaus Scwhab, founder and chairman of the World Economic Forum, who in his book, The Fourth Industrial Revolution, stated that there has never been a time of more promise or potential peril. He also used the well-known line from Charles Dickens’ The Tale of Two Cities, ‘It was the best of times, it was the worst of times’, to illustrate the potential effect of technological development. Is e.g. artificial intelligence the greatest existential threat we now face, or the height of human progress, Kempe asked rhetorically. For instance, China is using vast resources on artificial intelligence and quantum computing. Will this have a ‘sputnik moment’, which awakens the West to invest in these fields? The challenge today is to develop a shared understanding of the threats and challenges we now face.
Human agency and leadership will dictate how we act in this deflection point in history. Kempe ended his talk by coming back to the historical parallel he started out with, and thus hoped that we will act more like after 1945 than after 1919.

The questions and answers were about America's role in Europe and the Middle East and the relations to China and Russia.

The US looking inwards

Before turning to questions from the audience, Kate Hansen Bundt, General Secretary of the Norwegian Atlantic Committee and co-host of the event, picked up on Kempe’s point of re-educating the American public. In this regard, she asked Kempe whether a NATO embassy in Washington, which has been proposed, is a good idea. Kempe acknowledged that it would be helpful, but that the problem goes so much further than that. There has to be a strategy behind it. We have to popularise the notion of globalisation, Kempe argued, by applying the many new ways of reaching people.
The audience also referred to Kempe’s earlier point of building public support, and wondered how this can be done when Trump, despite being criticised, has a lot of supporters? Kempe answered that the re-educating of Americans is about ‘engaging’, not ‘cheerleading’. We have to talk about alternatives, Kempe argued, by emphasising where we would be without trade and openness. At the same time, there are legitimate concerns for legitimate reasons, and some of these social problems have to be addressed.

Kempe was also asked about his view on a potential ‘time-out’ for the US, where domestic challenges are prioritised, and how this fits into his view of an active leadership role for the US. According to Kempe, it is too late to talk about ‘time-out’, as the US has interests, partnerships and alliances all over the place. However, dealing with domestic problems is important for the US in order to remain a model for the world. Why else would anyone follow us or be inspired by us, Kempe asked rhetorically. Still this has to be done in a combination with US engagement around the world. We have to take care of our self and engage.

The US in Europe

Next, Kempe was asked about his perception on US leadership in Europe, which seems to have been strong since 2014, and with a low point in 2011. He answered that US disengagement was evident already during the Obama-administration, and that both Obama and Trump have a similar way of talking about the US more limited role in the world. According to Kempe, one of the greatest threats to global security is US disengagement. The US can handle American disengagement better than the world can.

The audience also asked Kempe to elaborate on the US engagement in the Western Balkans. Kempe answered that the Western Balkans is in some ways both the hardest thing to fix, and the easiest thing to fix. The Western Balkans wants to be integrated with the West, and has many of the same characteristics as the West, with some members already in the EU and NATO. However, Washington has a tendency to focus on one or a couple of issues at the time. The Atlantic Council therefore feared that the US would take its eye of the Balkans. Hopefully, Kempe continued, the Serbia-Kosovo issue will resolve, so that the Western Balkans can be ‘fully integrated’ in the West. The transatlantic community should not lose sight of the goal and dream of a ‘Europe whole and free’.

The US in the Middle East

Kate Hansen Bundt then posed a question on how the relationship between Saudi Arabia and China may be affected if the US is gradually withdrawing from the area due to less US dependency on energy from Saudi Arabia. She also asked for Kempe’s views on the reform process in Saudi Arabia, led by Crown Prince Mohammed Bin Salman, which may be a game-changer in the region.

Kempe started by presenting a positive view of Bin Salman’s unprecedented reform process in Saudi Arabia. He does not see a democratic alternative in Saudi Arabia, and consequently embraces Bin Salman’s alternative to modernise his country’s economy and society and talking about moderation of Islam. On China, Kempe said that it wants to control oil prices and the energy market to a larger extent, and is therefore getting more involved in the Middle East.

Kempe also received a question from the audience on the extent to which Bin Salman was dependent on support from the US and Europe in order to continue his reforms. His answer was that this kind of Western support was crucial for the continuation of the reform process in Saudi Arabia.

He was then asked how Syria fits into all this. Kempe believed that Assad will remain in power for a long time. If the US leaves after ‘defeating ISIS’, Syria is essentially in the hands of Russia and Iran. Furthermore, he believed that US Secretary of Defence James Mattis would like to leave troops there to prevent the return of ISIS. Still he acknowledged that the US does not really have a strategy or plan for the future of Syria at the moment, whereas Russia, Iran and Bashar al-Assad do. 

The questions and answers were moderated by Professor Rolf Tamnes, IFS, and Kate Hansen Bundt, Secretary General of the Norwegian Atlantic Committee.

A new Cold War?

Another question from the audience was on the notion of a “new Cold War”. Is there a new Cold War, and how is this compared with the “old” Cold War? Is there more emphasis on power politics?

Kempe’s view is that we are not in a new cold war. However, he sees a competition of systems that he had not anticipated.
  • China represents the challenge of a rising power. However, China benefits so much from the world it is in that it does not want to tear it up. China has gone from watchful waiting (quiet and peaceful rise) to President Xi Jinping stating that the Chinese system might be attractive for others to look at. In Kempe’s opinion, democracy is still more effective, and that the system in China will bring problems. Still he regards the relationship with China as manageable.
  • Russia, however, represents the danger of a failing power. Russia does not have the resources to be a world power, but still is. President Vladimir Putin’s behaviour in e.g. Ukraine and Syria is intended to bring down the West a few notches, Kempe claimed. It is thus something like a cold war with Russia, but much more complicated.
  • Kempe also briefly talked about the relationship between the US and Iran, where the Trump-administration has gone much further than the Obama-administration in confronting Iran’s misbehaviour in supporting terrorist-groups.
  • Despite the US’ tense relationship with North Korea, he did not believe that a military conflict would emerge.

A new Secretary of State?

Finally, Rolf Tamnes, professor at the Norwegian Institute for Defence Studies and co-host of the event, asked what we can expect if US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson is replaced by CIA-director Mike Pompeo. It is anybody’s guess whether Rex Tillerson will keep his position or not, Kempe replied. However, this has gained credibility during the last week. Nevertheless, he will remain in position until President Trump decides to fire him. Stating humorously that it was a relief to get out of Washington, where this was ‘all we can talk about’, Frederick Kempe hoped the issue would settle soon. 
Summary written by Joakim Erma Møller
Published 05 December 2017 00:00.. Last updated 02 March 2018 15:27.