At the moment, the United States of America is headed towards full employment. Quibble about the stats if you like, but President Trump has been there long enough to make a difference irrespective of how much is directly attributable.
He also seems to be making international moves that are paying off. For the first time, the leaders of France and Germany are proposing a cross-European defence force, and there’s no way that would happened without Trump consistently questioning the role of NATO and individual national Defence contributions.
For the first time since Bill Clinton’s second term, there is going to be a summit with North Korea. President Trump is also pushing to total evacuation of US armed forces from Syria (of course that doesn’t mean he won’t intervene).
President Trump has also started to implement trade tariffs on steel and aluminium, and neither the sharemarkets nor the entire global economic order have seen their skies fall in. Of course, I hear you say, there’s still time.
Perhaps the idea that it’s necessary to have national objectives and realistic plans to achieve them, is overrated. Seems to be working for Trump.
There are plenty that argue that grand strategy forms a conceptual framework that helps determine where you want to go and how you ought to get there. The alternative is supposed to bring ad hoc, incoherent, and ultimately unsuccessful decision-making.
The thing is, Trump looks like he is making up successful strategies without waiting to write them down or fully formulating them in advance.
The almost total opposite of this more tactical form of government to President Trump, is that of the Chinese Premier Xi Jinping. The headline unemployment is also pretty strong there.
But he could not be more explicit about where China has been where it is, where it is going, and how precisely it will get there.
He set that out in his address to his own Congress just two months ago. His rollout of the Belt and Road initiative, his increasing control of resources throughout the world, the controlled expansion into the South China Sea, it’s all there in black and white.
This is quite consistent from China’s great Marxist version of modernism, which involves marshalling not only the full instruments of the state, but also the land and its rivers, the sea and its islands, and all of its international partnerships, and the people itself, towards singular ends. Very, very few countries in the world still practise this degree of autocratic sovereign drive at that scale. But there is no doubt this degree of deliberate and long term grand strategy is working for China.
If it all works, China will continue to have a growing economy, a slower-growing and wealthier population, a reliable set of resources, a durable and unassailable set of trade links a and ports and routes, and a rapidly decreasing carbon footprint.
We have our own tiny echo of grand strategy, within Minister Shaw’s plans for decreasing carbon production within New Zealand. Only the faintest shadows of its form are emerging, but it is intended to be a long term, bipartisan, all-encompassing, whole-of-nation effort to transition to a low-carbon economy and society and environment.
This is but a faint pulse of the kinds of grand agreements that were formed in New Zealand from the 1960s to the late 1970s, in our own high-modernist phase. Back in the day, great compacts were regularly formed across unions and industrial sectors, with across-the-board wage rises, and the presumption that whole industrial sectors could be corralled within one large room and changes in government policy were very carefully negotiated. Anyone remember triple time? We still see occasional heroic leaders in the High Court and Supreme Court have to directly challenge the state to get wage rises, as in the care worker case, but it is fought tooth and nail all the way against the state, rather than alongside it as part of a meeting together of state, business, and people towards one grand strategy.
What we are observing through Trump’s version of political leadership is the kind that business leaders now tend to employ; emergent strategy. This assumes that the ends as well as the means should change based on circumstances. Successful strategies should form without being fully formulated in advance – and indeed the complexity and speed of the world often makes such formulations impossible. The important thing is not to plan but to learn.
The most conscious and explicit grand strategy formed in New Zealand in recent decades was the Growth and Innovation Framework, formed in the first term of the Clark administration. You get a sense of it from the Prime Minister here.
As the name suggests, it sought to enable the entire country not only to grow, but to lift productivity and wealth through innovation. It was launched amidst great fanfare by the Prime Minister, with significant buy-in from both the business and social sectors, and from central government agencies. It proved too hard to sustain across all the government agencies, and too hard to inculcate into Ministers as a grand narrative that drove every budget and every policy rollout. Grand narratives are grand because what they narrate is the social imaginary itself, but nothing of the kind has ever been tried here since.
Instead, slightly less grand strategies have been required to respond, for example, to the Christchurch and Kaikoura earthquakes, to the accelerated growth of Auckland, and to the management of singular resources such as fishing. Here plans are formed to respond to events, and little more. The instruments of the state itself have continued to evolve, but by no means do they rise to the level of supercoherence required to implement a grand strategy.
The key test for the Trump administration’s performance is not whether it is pursuing some long-term plan behind the scenes, but whether it is capable of allowing successful strategies to develop incrementally. Not having a grand plan isn’t stopping him from succeeding either at home or abroad.
Whereas the measures for Xi Jinping’s China are as clear as a set of Key Performance Indicators in a really large contract: is there singularity of messaging and of debate; is there sufficient resources to build all the goods ordered; is the population getting overall wealthier sufficient that they see no pressing need for democratic reform; are trade and security routes set for their necessary long term draw of resources from the world; are they continuing to succeed as a country.
The test for New Zealand’s current government, between the U.S. and China in strategic theory and in lived reality, is whether it can get out of perpetual repair mode and into something that determines our best possible future. That may or may not require a national strategy – but it sure requires something like strategy to emerge.