In Transition: Sustaining American Leadership and the Global Commons
by Roncevert Ganan Almond
On July 12, the Permanent Court of Arbitration at The Hague issued a unanimous decision rebuking China’s expansive claims to territory in the South China Sea, including its sovereign rights over large swaths of international waters and the air space above. This case not only represents a key milestone in the Asia-Pacific’s longstanding maritime dispute, but also a critical test of the U.S.-led security architecture in the region and beyond. A central pillar in this structure is open access to the global commons, including the high seas and airspace above – a seemingly abstract concept that impacts the daily lives of Americans. Indeed, the most important foreign policy challenge the president-elect Donald Trump will face is sustaining the “rules-based international order” that underlies American prosperity and global leadership. During the U.S. transition of power, we have a responsibility to directly confront this challenge and the president-elect’s vision for America’s role in the world.
Following World War II, the United States led the effort in crafting a series of treaties, institutions and cooperative frameworks for collective action in areas such as security, trade, human rights and the environment. Since the end of the Cold War, this international order has been accepted, and grown in scope and depth, in large part due to American primacy in global affairs. For instance, the technical capacity and economic influence of the U.S. has led to the standardization and harmonization of rules governing air transportation worldwide. U.S. military “freedom of navigation operations” enforce the Law of the Sea Convention, protecting access to world’s vital waterways, even as the United States is not a contracting party. A significant benefit of America’s active engagement is preservation of the global commons, which facilitates the movement of goods, people, and information. Continued advancement of this structure cannot be assumed.
Emerging and revisionist powers, like China and Russia, are seeking alternative designs based on parochial interests. For example, claims by China to sovereign jurisdiction in and above the high seas ultimately may be reduced to the power to exclude others—for economic, political, or strategic reasons. These efforts are testing the international order and threatening the global commons. In addition to the core interests of U.S. allies and partners in the Asia-Pacific, also at play is the role of the United States as the world’s leading maritime power and offshore security guarantor. Moreover, if not openly and directly confronted, states seeking to assert authority over these shared domains could seek to expand their strategies to other spheres, such as outer space and cyberspace.
For these reasons, Americans should be concerned about China’s militarization of artificial islands in the South China Sea and joint Russian-Chinese military exercises designed to deny access to international waters. These issues, however, remain removed from the discourse in the daily lives of Americans. Indeed, given the difficulties with defining a “rules-based international order” many Americans may be unaware of the nature of America’s world-wide leadership, or the resulting costs and consequences should the United States abdicate its essential role in global governance. The latter scenario is now a real possibility given Donald Trump’s campaign vow to withdraw the United States from the international scene in order to make “America First.” Similar to other campaign promises, it remains unclear whether the president-elect will follow through on this pledge.
Holding our elected-officials accountable on their vision of future U.S. leadership requires an informed public. Unfortunately, the U.S. presidential race focused more on personal perfidy and the process of campaigning than the profound global challenges and risks on the ballot this year. Questions of character are important, but presidential elections must, importantly, address broader issues of policy and strategy. With the 2016 election over, with its heat and passion, we have a critical window of time to coolly discuss prospective U.S. foreign policy. In order to lead an elevated discourse on complex issues of national security, we must ground these issues in a narrative that is accessible and familiar. With regard to preserving the global commons, the discussion must appeal to America’s everyday experience and expectations.
For example, the benefit of seamless air travel from the U.S. mainland to overseas destinations, from Los Angeles to Honolulu or Tokyo, is possible because of a regime of treaties, customs, and unstated guarantees that enable millions of Americans to fly above international waters without worry or restriction. At stake is the ready access to consumer products, like smart phones at the local mall or via delivery from e-commerce companies like Amazon. Hidden behind the store front is a global supply chain that stretches across the high seas, which must remain open to all states under international law. Even Sunday NFL broadcasts, Steelers games televised via satellite in Pittsburgh, are enabled by a codified principle that space is not subject to national appropriation by claim of sovereignty, by means of use or occupation.
Does the new leadership in Washington recognize the importance of sustaining and strengthening the global commons? Does the president-elect appreciate the essential role of the United States on the world stage? The presidential transition period presents the opportune time to have a meaningful conversation on these questions and the future of U.S. global leadership. We, as Americans and global stakeholders, have a duty to seize it.
Image "Donald Trump at campaign rally in Fountain Hills, AZ" Courtesy Gage Skidmore/CC BY-SA 2.0
About the Author
Roncevert Ganan Almond is a Partner and Vice-President at The Wicks Group, based in Washington, D.C. He has advised the U.S.-China Economic and Security Review Commission and counseled government authorities in Asia, Europe, the Middle East, Africa, and Latin America on issues of international law. He serves on the Editorial Board of The Air & Space Lawyer and as a contributor to The Diplomat.