- Date published:
12:00 pm, February 18th, 2017 - 60 comments
Categories: capitalism, China, Economy, Europe, Globalisation, International, Japan, us politics - Tags: donald trump, vladimir putin
We live in interesting times.
In the United States an outsider has succeeded in becoming POTUS. He scared the bejeebers out of many of us by promising all sorts of crazy things like building a wall to stop Mexicans from immigrating, making them pay for it, basically destroying the Environmental Protection Authority, killing the Affordable Care Act which provides millions of Americans with health care they will no longer have, supporting torture, undermining family planning throughout most of the world, reopening projects that will accelerate global warming … etcetera etcetera etcetera …
The land of the free and the home of the brave is not looking so free or brave any more. But the situation that it was already in was one that allowed Trump’s rallying cry of “make America great again” strike a chord and allowed him to be elected, failed electoral system, gerrymandered seats, voter suppression and all. What is going on?
Nick Bryant from the BBC summarised America’s decline in these terms in pre Trump days:
Standing on the Washington Mall at the turn of the new millennium, it was impossible not to be struck by America’s power and global pre-eminence.
Victory in the Cold War made it the hegemon in a unipolar world.
Few argued when the 20th Century was dubbed the “American Century”, a term first coined in the early 1940s when the country was still overcoming its isolationist instincts.
Even the New Year’s fireworks, which illuminated the obelisk of the Washington Monument in a way that made it resemble a giant number one, projected the country’s supremacy as the world’s sole superpower.
Over the past 15 years, America’s fortunes have changed with dizzying speed.
First came the tremors: the dot-com bust and a disputed presidential election in 2000. Then came the massive convulsions: the destruction of the Twin Towers in 2001 and the collapse of Lehman Brothers in 2008.
Long wars in Afghanistan and Iraq have exacted an enormous blood price – the lives of 6,852 American military personnel – not to mention immense financial expense, estimated to be as high as $6 trillion (£3.9tn).
The detention centre at Guantanamo Bay has undermined American ideals, just as the NSA and Wikileaks spying scandals have undercut American diplomacy.
George W Bush, a president with a Manichean worldview, was widely seen as over-eager to project America’s military might, without adequately considering the long-term consequences.
Barack Obama, who campaigned in 2008 on a platform of extricating America from its unpopular and exhausting wars, has drawn criticism for disengaging too much.
Under both presidents – the first an impulsive unilateralist, the second an instinctive multilateralist content sometimes to lead from behind – America’s global standing has been diminished.
And at the same time as America’s fortunes have been declining the focus of economic activity has changed from the west to the east. Professor Michael Cox from the London School of Economics and Political Science describes the changes in this way:
Few but the most pessimistic envisaged that any other power would likely rise to balance its vast power in the future. On the contrary, after having seen off the USSR, and then having experienced an eight year economic boom of its own, America and Americans could reasonably look forward to another very American century. In fact, so buoyant was the mood by the end of the 1990s, that several writers began to talk of the United States as the new Rome on the Potomac, even a modern “empire” possessing global reach, an infinite surplus of soft power, and a vast military machine to match. For some indeed the US had become the greatest power in history with one very obvious distinguishing feature: unlike its great power predecessors from the Romans to the British, this one would never decline.
It is often said that before every great fall there is a period of grace. So it was perhaps with the last hubristic decade of the twentieth century. But the fall when it came was profound indeed; to such an extent that one American magazine was later forced to concede that the years between 2000 and 2010 had been nothing less than “the decade from hell”.
It began of course with 9/11 and the strategically inept response to this by the Bush administration. It continued with the gradual erosion of economic certainty which finally culminated with the great geopolitical setback of the western financial crisis. And it went from bad to worse in some eyes when it became increasingly clear that the West itself was facing a massive challenge from other non-western players in the world capitalist economy.
When Goldman Sachs launched the idea of the “BRICs” in 2001, only economists (and not many of them) took the idea very seriously. But as the years passed, and the economic data began to flow in, it began to look as if the author of the original notion, Jim O‟Neill, had been brilliantly prescient. Indeed, his core idea based on careful economic study – namely that the future economic order would be less dominated by the West than it would be by giant economies like Brazil, Russia, India and China – seemed to provide irrefutable proof that the world was in the midst of a global revolution.
The causes of this were multiple. But one thing was obvious. The axis of the international system which had for several centuries revolved around the Atlantic was moving elsewhere – either towards Asia as a region, or more generally towards something vaguely referred to by the influential columnist, Fareed Zakaria, as the “rest”.
Nor was this Zakaria or O’Neill’s view alone. In 2004 the then editor of Foreign Affairs had warned the West that there was a potentially disturbing “power shift in the making”. A few years on and one of the more influential liberal writers on world politics made much the same point. It was no longer a question of whether wealth and power were moving away from the West and the North, according to John Ikenberry. That much was self-evident. The big question now he continued was “what kind of global political order” would emerge as a consequence.
Both of the above passages were written pre POTUS Trump.
The current POTUS seems to have a real thing for Russia which is interesting because ever since the second World War the US and the USSR have been sworn enemies. Sure after the disintegration of the USSR it was no longer a threat although after intensive privatisation of state owned assets an oligarchy class developed which had ultra right wing views of how things should occur and the place has looked rather unstable. And it seems that Trump’s and Putin’s world views are starting to converge. They both lead states that were formerly pre eminent but more recently have clearly been on the decline. I guess they now have a lot in common not only in the situation they find themselves in but also in their approach to finding a solution.
And on the other hand we have China.
Since the second world war China has developed from a basket case terrorised by Japan to a Communist state to now having the largest economy in the world, a position that it has held for 18 of the last 20 centuries. So in one respect this is not China emerging, it is a resumption of business as usual.
Suddenly China is offering real world leadership on the most important issues that we are facing. For instance in climate change the world’s best chance may be for China to continue with the accelerated roll out of green technology that it has recently engaged in.
And this has geopolitical implications. From Salon:
Beijing is poised to cash in on the goodwill it could earn by taking on leadership in dealing with what for many other governments is one of the most urgent issues on their agenda.
“Proactively taking action against climate change will improve China’s international image and allow it to occupy the moral high ground,” Zou Ji, deputy director of the National Centre for Climate Change Strategy and a senior Chinese climate talks negotiator, told Reuters.
Zou said that if Trump abandons efforts to implement the Paris agreement, “China’s influence and voice are likely to increase in global climate governance, which will then spill over into other areas of global governance and increase China’s global standing, power and leadership.”
What are the implications for world peace of this changing of the current order? The last couple of times the dominant world order has changed the process did not go so well.
Ian Morris from Stanford University has summarised the situation in these terms:
When power and wealth shifted across the Atlantic from Europe to America in the mid-20th Century, the process was horrifyingly violent. As we move into the mid-21st century, power and wealth will shift across the Pacific from America to China.
The great challenge for the next generation is not how to stop geography from working; it is how to manage its effects without a Third World War.
That last sentence really struck a chord with me. With Trump having access to the nuclear code and his White House being that slack that the holder of the Nuclear briefcase had his photo published on social media in a selfie with a rich Republican donor I am afraid that anything is possible.
We live in interesting times …