Donald Trump’s arraignment may have been the most eye-catching item of US news lately, but another development just as decisive for America’s future happened on the other side of the world. On 2 April a group of oil-producing states led by Saudi Arabia announced cuts in output of more than one million barrels a day, lasting from May to the end of the year. This is an affront to Joe Biden’s administration, battling cost-of-living price rises ahead of next year’s presidential election, and a rupture with the long-standing Saudi business model of reliably supplying the oil-thirsty US economy.
The production cut is just the latest example of Mohammed bin Salman (MBS), Saudi Arabia’s crown prince, staking out greater independence from Washington. In recent weeks Riyadh has edged closer to joining the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation, a Chinese-led security bloc; it has initiated a rapprochement with the Syrian dictator Bashar al-Assad; and most notably it has accepted a limited, Chinese-brokered détente with its great regional rival, Iran. The Washington Post reports that MBS has explicitly told confidants that he is abandoning the old assumption that whatever the US wants, it gets: “I broke that because I want things in return.”
Once virtually non-negotiable partnerships with the US are also being tested elsewhere. In Israel, Benjamin Netanyahu is flagrantly defying Biden with his authoritarian curbs on judicial independence and, to US unease, has built closer commercial relations with China. Turkey under Recep Tayyip Erdoğan has nurtured a growing partnership with Russia (by buying its S-400 missile defence system, for example). India and South Africa have stood by their friendships with Moscow despite the war in Ukraine, with the latter even joining Russia and China on naval drills in February. Mexico too has been asserting its independence more forcefully. Last year its president, Andrés Manuel López Obrador, snubbed Joe Biden’s invitation to the Summit of the Americas in Los Angeles, and his foreign minister Marcelo Ebrard told an audience in Washington recently: “We will not allow ourselves to be pushed around.”
A more subtle, restrained version of this pattern is even playing out among America’s closest partners. Ahead of the landmark visit to Beijing by Emmanuel Macron and Ursula von der Leyen on 6 April, US diplomats scrambled to bolster relations with the EU – including by offering greater access for European firms to US green subsidies – apparently out of concern over the union pursuing a middle way between the US and China.
What is going on? After all, Biden’s foreign-policy presidency has been dedicated to restoring relations with US partners and allies, after Donald Trump’s “America First” approach. It has placed “friendshoring” – nudging outsourced manufacturing from China to more diplomatically amenable states – at the heart of its vision for a reformed globalisation. And these allies have strong reasons to work with the US. It remains the ultimate security guarantor of states such as Israel, France and Germany. Saudi Arabia’s military is highly dependent on American weaponry. Mexico trades more with the US than with the rest of the world put together; Turkey benefits from Nato membership and US technology such as the new F-16 jets it covets.
America’s network of partners and allies remains far more formidable than China’s. But it is also true that those partners and allies are, in numerous ways, agitating and probing the space between dependence and independence. How much can they defy norms valued by the US establishment? How much can they pursue relationships with US rivals or antagonists? How much can they deepen relations with China?
This is not a world of primary-coloured geopolitics, of “America is back” or “the new Chinese order”, or even of “the leaderless globe”, but something messier and more transitional. It is a febrile and multipolar world in which the US remains pre-eminent and in which all actors are increasingly testing the forms and bounds of the shifting geopolitical geometry.
That brings us back to the Trump circus in Manhattan. A US president cannot dictate this transition to a new, uneven multipolarity, but can influence its speed. Trump’s four years in office sped it up: emboldening authoritarians (like MBS, Netanyahu and India’s Narendra Modi), alienating more liberal-minded partners, and causing all to question the value of working with the US and its reliability (placed in doubt by acts such as withdrawing from the Iran nuclear deal). The Biden administration has removed the American foot from the accelerator but, as Saudi Arabia’s drift and Europe’s partial ambivalence on China show, it has not managed to apply the brakes.
As the 2024 election nears, it will become ever harder to do so. There is a real chance of a second Trump term. He is favourite to secure the Republican nomination. It is conceivable, albeit far from certain, that his mounting legal troubles will boost his electoral prospects. And so around the world US partners, allies and adversaries are factoring in his possible return. The testing, probing, hedging and diversifying is becoming more intense. The United States remains, at the very least, first among equals and will do so for the foreseeable future. But that is not the same thing as being hegemonic, or even fundamentally dependable. Governments around the world are acting accordingly.
[See also: US vs China: Signs of the times]
This article appears in the 12 Apr 2023 issue of the New Statesman, The Anniversary Issue