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Can America escape the Kindleberger Trap?

Opinion

August 1, 2020

Donald J Trump has decided to pull America out of the World Health Organization (WHO). This is not the first decision by him to lead the US to get off the way of liberalism. As the US is stripping itself away from taking the responsibility of global public goods, a Kindleberger Trap awaits to revive.

Charles Kindleberger, the intellectual architect of Marshall Plan to restore a devastated post World War II Western Europe, came up with a very interesting analysis of one of the causes of the second world war. He argued that Britain lost its global hegemony at the end of World War I and there was a power vacuum in the world to provide global public goods. There was no big power ready to replace Great Britain in taking responsibility of the collective goods.

When the leader ceases to play its role in the international system, the outcome is chaos. Woodrow Wilson gave his 14 points at the end of World War I as a blueprint to avoid future wars. The Wilsonian optimism failed. One point was accepted by the self-claimed civilized nations of the world – the formation of the League of Nations. However, the United States Congress never ratified it.

America withdrawing itself from becoming a party to the international organization, which was the first of its kind, led to the outburst of conflicts in the world. This resulted in an utter collapse of the global system only to give birth to the Great Depression and subsequently the catastrophic World War II.

The period between the two hegemonic wars was a time of uncertainty. America was back into splendid isolation and was not involved in the European affairs and Great Britain had become weak. Hitler in Germany and Mussolini in Italy were rising up. Amid the chaos, the one thing that was ignored by every major power was the question of bearing the responsibility of the global public goods.

No one was there to take care of global public goods in the first half of the 20th century following World War I. These are those problems whose responsibility is taken by the great powers only and the smaller states enjoy the free ride. Powerful states have to do what they ought to do in order to keep the system functioning. Climate change, maritime security and global public health – particularly the control of communicable diseases – are some of the notable examples where the powerful states have to bear the cost.

In the first half of the 21st century, the US is the global hegemon although the world is moving towards multipolarity with the rise of China and the reincarnation of Russia. The US, being the superpower in the contemporary era, is the leader of the world. It has an inescapable responsibility to take the driving seat and fulfill the duty of providing global public goods. Yet, the US under the leadership of President Donald Trump has decided to go against liberalism – the very order the US strove hard for decades to achieve.

History is repeating itself.

The US is making the same mistake again that it did at the end of World War I. President Trump announced the withdrawal of the US from JCPOA in 2018, making relations with Iran hostile again. Trump has already started the process of withdrawing the US from the landmark Paris Climate Agreement. The US also withdrew from Unesco and UNHRC.

Among Trump's many other irresponsible acts of pulling the US out of multiple treaties, withdrawing from the World Health Organization stands at the top. The world is suffering from a pandemic that is projected to shake the global economy. A post Covid-19 world will not be the same; at least for many years to come. In such a sensitive situation, the role of the WHO increases multiple folds.

The WHO is an independent international body working with the United Nations. UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres called the WHO as absolutely critical to the world’s efforts to win the war against Covid-19. The organization needs support more than ever now. Trump, instead of facilitating it, decided to withdraw from the WHO. He also accused China of ignoring the reporting obligations of the emergence of Covid-19 to the WHO. He also blames China for not paying enough to the organization while the US pays nearly $400 million annually. Trump’s presidential rival, Joe Biden, however aims to get the US to join the WHO back, right after winning the elections.

A rising China, challenging the hegemony of the US, depicts a Thucydides Trap recognized by realists like Henry Kissinger, John Mearsheimer and Graham Allison. The Thucydides Trap illustrates that when there is a rising power challenging the hegemony of established power in a region, it results in total war. History suggests it happens most of the time.

A protectionist America, drifting away from providing global public goods, makes the world vulnerable to instability and affects global security as the pandemic may become a humanitarian crisis in many parts of the world since the global economy is forecasted to sink down.

China has been a rising power since the economic reforms by Deng Xiaoping. With its Belt and Road Initiative that covers around 138 countries, China is having a pro-globalization outlook while the established power, the US, has an America First policy. The established power still retains the power superiority but is being reluctant to take the responsibility that it should whereas the rising power is looking forward to replacing the United States as the hegemon.

America aims to curtail the rise of China. However, equally important is to maintain the structure of the world by providing global public goods. Only by doing so can the US escape a Kindleberger Trap – in which the US is too weak to support the global public goods, contrary to being too strong in a Thucydides Trap. Sanity must prevail and if America has to keep leading the world, it must not let the responsibility off its shoulders.

The writer is a freelance contributor. Email: [email protected]