New Delhi: There are many ways to look at the current confused and turbulent world situation. One of the ways is to apply the cliched metrics of polarities. Words such as unipolar, bipolar, multipolar etc sound learned. However, they don’t apply very well to the present flux. How about characterizing the present as indicating a privileging of geo-economics over geopolitics? It is neater, but it is not quite simple as it appears.

Before Donald Trump, the United States was careless about geo-economics while remaining focussed on geopolitics. This was absolutely true about one of Trump’s predecessors, George W. Bush, while perhaps being less the case with Barack Obama, although he still didn’t embrace geo-economics quite as fiercely as the incumbent president does. It has lots to do with Trump’s background as a dodgy though successful businessman, backed by the United States unique position as the world’s number one geopolitical and geo-economic power.

Applied alone, geopolitical power might have serious limits. After World War II, the United States has been unable to secure comprehensive geopolitical victory in any of the major wars it has prosecuted. The outcomes, indeed, have ranged from defeat and ignominy (Vietnam) to stalemates (as in Iraq and Afghanistan). Victory has eluded the United States in major conflicts all along. Despite possessing unparalleled might in the history of civilization, the United States has been unable to impose its will with victorious outcomes.

George W. Bush was not troubled by this if he understood it while Obama understood it alright without having a solution in hand. Along came Donald Trump. A reasonably successful businessman, he had enough negative personality traits to sink the Titanic. Washington hated him (and still does). Wall Street had mixed views. Establishment United States was expected to encircle and crush his eccentricities. In terms of the world order, it would have meant more of the same: geopolitics maintaining dominance over geo-economics and strategists juggling with words like unipolar, bipolar and so forth aimlessly and fruitlessly.

Except that Donald Trump broke free of the Washington, Wall Street and Establishment cabals, and decided to rewrite history on his own terms. He would probably not even be aware that he was privileging geo-economics over geopolitics when he decided to pursue the vision of America First but the outcome has been just the same. It would of course not have mattered if the United States was a geo-economic power without the supportive might. In that case, the United States would be merely an economic power like Japan with very little influence on world politics. Where Trump got it right (by fluke, if you wish) was to give geo-economics its rightful place before geopolitics and link it to the America First campaign. Once the politics (America First is splendid for Trump’s domestic politics) and economics meshed, America’s declining trend under presidents before Trump was swiftly arrested.

Today, China is reeling from Trump’s geo-economic policies. Trade war forms the capstone to it. If China were a democracy, America would not feel threatened. Besides, China would have sued for peace long ago. China is a dictatorship. The prestige of the strongman rides on China’s geo-economic and geopolitical successes. The Chinese export-led growth is unnatural. That it was not challenged so far does not mean it was beyond questioning. Trump did just that. China huffed and puffed but it could not scare the United States. China’s rise is curtailed not by force of arms but economics. Trump made clear his opposition to war almost as soon as he chose to contest the presidency. He said he opposed the Iraq War and was appalled by the turn of events in Afghanistan and wanted American troops back home at the earliest. He has not been able to cut America’s foreign military commitments to zero but he has found a better way to influence and transform world opinion. This is through geo-economics. He has made the United States relevant again.

The United States example applies equally to all countries. Countries have relevance on the world stage only if they have geo-economic power. Geopolitics has little standalone traction. Russia has geopolitical power but is a geo-economic cipher. It has no future under Vladimir Putin. China was doing fine geo-economically until Xi Jinping rudely displaced it with geopolitical expansions in the South China Sea and the East China Sea and gave an ugly geopolitical dimension to geo-economics with the imposition of BRI on China’s allies and momentarily weakened trading partners. India under Narendra Modi has not caught the change. It speaks the tired and discredited language of geopolitics when the age of geo-economics has arrived. Perhaps a non-Modi government would see the writing on the wall.