New Delhi: Ever since the end of the Second World War, the world order has been determined by three Great Powers, and these are the United States, Russia, and China. Since losing their colonies, the countries of Western Europe have lost their Great Power status; even collectively, they have not gathered up political direction and influence. Geographical size and power status bear a more direct relationship today in the absence of colonies, and nuclear weapons as a currency of power have never commanded a higher premium.

A significant shift in Great Power relations has occurred with the election of Donald Trump as the United States President. Not in a long while has the United States elected an “outsider” as President, and the precipitate unravelling of the Trump presidency points to the disastrous choice made by American voters. Under Trump, America has entered a phase of divided leadership. It is important for the world to understand this phenomenon and appreciate its consequences for world affairs. One immediate impact will be that China will become stronger and Russia’s decline will be deferred by some decades. In due course, the world will also see the emergence of two more nuclear powers, North Korea and Iran.

The divided American leadership has acquired something of this pattern. With almost none of his fellow travellers aiding and advising him in the White House, they having been uniformly disgraced and sacked, Trump has come to depend on generals to run the show. The generals are perfectly honourable men who have shown more decency than the President in condemning the bigoted and racial turn America has taken. But at the same time, they are not political creatures. The world runs on politics and at best on the political economy. Donald Trump’s generals only have the smallest acquaintance with the political economy, not to speak of flesh-and-blood politics. And Trump has given them the run of international affairs, and they are faltering without imagination.

The besetting problem of US geopolitics is that it keeps politics, economics and military campaigns strictly segregated. Winston Churchill observed this early in the US campaign in southern Europe in World War II but his protests would not move Franklin D. Roosevelt and positively astonished Dwight D. Eisenhower and his fellow commanders. Without clear-cut political objectives, no campaign will succeed. After World War II, this problem became apparent in Korea and Vietnam, and a quarter century later, in Afghanistan and Iraq. Donald Trump’s most recent Afghan policy carries the same deficiencies. What are America’s political objectives in Afghanistan to benchmark success and failure? No answer. The generals designed the policy in purely military terms, including a modest infusion of troops, and Trump, after some delay, approved it. Trump does not know better.

Nor does he care anymore at this point of his presidency, which is how the American leadership has become divided. With more than half the country ranged against his white supremacist and narrow nationalistic policies and programmes, his aura of corporate success suffering a meltdown within six months of the presidency, and the sword of impeachment hanging over his head on the Russian affair, Trump no longer sees his first term as promising. He is seeking vindication in a second, and is rapidly switching to campaign mode. The bits he believes assists his re-election, such as economic nationalism, opposition to the Paris climate treaty, and so forth, are part of his international agenda. But for the main, he is uninterested in US engagement with the world, which sorry and thankless business he has left to the apolitical generals. Donald Trump is totally focussed on a second term.

This is quite an extraordinary development in international politics, and it will leave its scars. The no-brainer Afghanistan policy is a sample of what is to follow. As North Korea goes ballistic, the United States can do no more than pile sanctions upon sanctions on the “hermit state” which appears to make no difference. Before long, the North’s nuclear weapons will be legitimized by China and Russia, and the United States and its divided leadership will dispiritedly acquiesce in the decision. North and East Asia will slowly drift into Chinese hegemony. A political president would have foreseen looming threats. An “outsider” like Trump can do no better; and his generals in charge of policy-making could not be expected to improvise intermediate solutions far less than all-out war. And once North Korea succeeds, Iran will follow in its nuclear path. Iran has nerve and it has audacity. With the addition of nuclear weapons to a large geographical landmass, a highly talented citizenry with an aptitude for mathematics and science, and abundant natural resources, Iran will become a redoubtable power in short time.

The only two Great Powers of the post-World War II and the post-Cold War world capable of turning the flux in North Korea, Afghanistan and Iran to their advantage are China and Russia. China, indeed, is the best positioned of all the Great Powers to influence the changing world order to its avail. India has the potential but needs a different order of leadership to reach the highest ranks. Perhaps the American decline was inevitable. But its rapid course under Trump and the gross national power it predominantly transfers to China are concerns scarcely to be taken lightly. Who could imagine the blue whale snaring the United States?