World

We the Enemy: Trump in a value-free world

J. BROOKS SPECTOR contemplates the potential for the ruin of the liberal international project, although he finds a whisper of hope in a collection of other national figures who are not of the opinion that being a serial real estate bankruptcy perpetrator (and the lessons learned) is sufficient background to be the leader at the top of the liberal world order.

In years gone by, Walt Kelly’s beloved comic, “Pogo”, graced hundreds of American newspapers as it chronicled the furry and scaly denizens of a swamp whose lives were a close echo to the foibles of America’s political class. Kelly had given one of his most famous quips to his character, Pogo Possum, saying, “We have met the enemy – and he is us”. It was a reworking of Commodore Oliver Hazard Perry’s dispatch to Washington in the War of 1812 – “We have met the enemy and they are ours”in the wake of Perry’s unlikely victory against the British Navy on Lake Eire with his hastily constructed flotilla.

Pogo’s words have come to define unconscious foolishness carried out by people bent on destroying their own circumstances, environment, or legacy, even as they believe otherwise. While first used some 60 years ago to lament the destruction of Pogo and his friends’ wetland habitat by unthinking humans, it now is an apt description of ongoing efforts to destroy the global post-World War II consensus that has helped keep the world from sliding into yet another major war – and the unfathomable destruction that would ensue from such a disaster.

Such a lament has been described sharply by Princeton University’s John Ikenberry in the current issue of Foreign Affairs. In his article, “The Plot Against American Foreign Policy”, Ikenberry argues:

Is the world witnessing the demise of the U.S.-led liberal order? If so, this is not how it was supposed to happen. The great threats were supposed to come from hostile revisionist powers seeking to overturn the postwar order. The United States and Europe were supposed to stand shoulder to shoulder to protect the gains reaped from 70 years of co-operation. Instead, the world’s most powerful state has begun to sabotage the order it created. A hostile revisionist power has indeed arrived on the scene, but it sits in the Oval Office, the beating heart of the free world. Across ancient and modern eras, orders built by great powers have come and gone – but they have usually ended in murder, not suicide.

U.S. President Donald Trump’s every instinct runs counter to the ideas that have underpinned the postwar international system. Trade, alliances, international law, multilateralism, environmental protection, torture, and human rights – on all these core issues, Trump has made pronouncements that, if acted on, would bring to an end the United States’ role as guarantor of the liberal world order. He has broken with 70 years of tradition by signalling the end of U.S. support for the European Union: endorsing Brexit and making common cause with right-wing European parties that seek to unravel the postwar European project. In his inaugural address, Trump declared, “From this moment on, it’s going to be America first,” and he announced his intention to rethink the central accomplishments of the U.S.-led order – the trade and alliance systems. Where previous presidents have invoked the country’s past foreign policy triumphs, Trump describes ‘horrible deals’ and allies that ‘aren’t paying their bills’. His is a vision of a dark and dangerous world in which the United States is besieged by Islamic terrorism, immigrants and crime as its wealth and confidence fade. In his revisionist narrative, the era of Pax Americana – the period in which the United States wielded the most power on the world stage – is defined above all by national loss and decline.”

Well, okay, this global order hasn’t been the second coming, but, compared to what went before it, it has a lot to be said for it. And despite the vast inequalities that may have been unleashed from the global economic growth that took hold under the shelter of those global financial institutions and systems in the past 70 years, many hundreds of millions of people have been decisively liberated from the most grinding poverty because of that global order.

Ikenberry goes on to argue that the new American president’s challenge to the liberal international order is that much more dangerous to the larger global environment because it has also come equipped with a casual disregard and lack of respect for the norms and values of liberal democracy itself through a thousand cuts, as with his callow attacks on American judges and the nation’s judicial system. Instead of any embrace of the nation’s political traditions or the very real accomplishments of liberal democracy, the world is getting Trumpian statements about his deep admiration of the behaviour and actions of such global authoritarians as, among others, Russia’s President Putin, Egyptian leader al-Sisi, Turkish President Erdoğan, Saudi King Salman, and Philippine President Duterte. This is not a hopeful sign.

The really profound element of crisis in this Trumpian worldview is that it is coming amidst “a larger crisis across the liberal democratic world”. As such, Trump is less the prime cause than a symptom of the failings of liberal democracy, although because of his accession to high office, “his agenda promises to further undermine its foundations”.

And we can locate Donald Trump’s recent engagement with the Persian Gulf nations as a precise embodiment of this sad, larger picture. He had found reasons to distain the Paris Climate Accord in his comments to the G-7 leaders and put-down after put-down to NATO allies. Nevertheless, in his visit to Saudi Arabia, the president fully embraced – and endorsed – the agenda of the Saudi royal family, effectively anointing them as guardians and proconsuls for the Persian Gulf. This was regardless of that nation’s own failures or flaws in dealing with liberal democratic values – and without even a murmur of the importance of such democratic ideals towards the king, princes and their legion of hangers-on. And, in the process, Trump granted to them an eye-wateringly prodigious shopping list of hi-tech, high-end weaponry for the coming decade and beyond, all in order to ensure this local hegemon was firmly ensconced in place for years yet to come.

Meanwhile, across the Persian Gulf, Saudi Arabia’s chief protagonist for regional supremacy, Iran, was carrying out what was a largely free presidential election at precisely the same time. Iran, admittedly, is not now the avatar of all of those liberal global values, and, of course, it has been helping underwrite combative non-state terror groups like Hezbollah in their interference in various conflicts in the region.

But to give a full embrace to Saudi Arabia – without even a modest footnote of disapproval or demurral – despite that nation’s deeply authoritarian political and social circumstances, and to choose that moment to castigate Iran for its international record, represents a disregard for the possibilities inherent in the evolution of the Iranian polity and society over time. And it was also a concrete expression of the view that the absolutist reign of the Saudi royal family will rule forever, unabated, in their politically obscurantist way. Moreover, it was a stunning rebuke that western liberal values are just so much pious cant – and that they were a waste of breath when the big men get together and lay their hands on one of those magic glowing orbs.

And then, just a short time after Trump’s return from the Middle East, and with a tacit signal of approval from him, the Saudis led a diplomatic, telecommunications and travel quarantine of Qatar over its royal family’s and others’ reported support for non-state actor terrorists. Qatar is outrageously wealthy due to the abundance of natural gas within its territory, and it has a sovereign wealth fund sufficiently large to buy pretty much anything the Qatari emir wants to get hold of. The irony, of course, is that the very crimes the Saudis (and a number of others in the Persian Gulf region) have accused the Qataris of carrying out could just as easily be laid at the feet of a fair number of Saudi individuals and institutions as well.

In fact, the Trumpian line (hardly coherent enough to be a “doctrine”) is worse than simply being agnostic on those US and international liberal norms and standards, in the face of meeting up, face to face, with King Salman and his sword dancers. Quixotically, given the expansion of the US military in Qatar to replace much of an earlier footprint of bases and personnel in Saudi Arabia, the US tie with Qatar in the US’ power projection in the Middle East has become a crucial feature of the post-9/11 world. The jets based there are essential in the US’s campaign against ISIL in Iraq and Syria. And this major US basing commitment has, coincidentally, given the Qataris a sense of security against being pushed too hard, too fast, too much by the Saudis.

But this transactional, value-free Trump-Saudi approach could not even find coherence within the Trump administration. That should not be too surprising given its lack of any roots within a larger values agenda, given that it was being based solely on the idea that crushing ISIL was the only thing that mattered in the Trumpian foreign policy brief.

(We can leave aside the question of just how Trump got himself there, except to note he has still failed even to nominate the entire top layer of State Department leadership or ambassadorial corps, let alone name any of them for their Senate confirmation hearings. With a secretary of state inexperienced in international diplomacy, his administration is without the benefit of any experience or guidance, save the gut feelings of that personal nomenklatura resident in the White House: Jared Kushner; Steve Bannon; Steve Miller; and Kellyanne Conway. Yes, his national security adviser is a pro, but he is working in an environment that is virtually devoid of any commitments or feelings of allegiance to larger values. One wonders if they even consulted the Department of Defence over its views about how the US bases – and their mission – would fare, once Qatar had been isolated and humbled by the Saudis and the other Gulf states who had quickly fallen into line.)

The inevitable result has been that while Donald Trump has been the cheerleader for a Saudi frontal assault against Qatar (with an accompanying drumbeat that crushing ISIL is the only thing that matters), Secretary of State Rex Tillerson quickly found himself advocating a very different approach, one that spoke to dialling back the confrontation and sorting out the differences, even as White House officials insisted that everyone was on the same page. And what page was that? Nobody actually knew.

Thus it is on to a really big question. Who leads, if Donald Trump’s America won’t, or can’t? In the face of an American retreat from being the global leader, on international climate, and economic and trade matters (and perhaps even the global architecture of international trade and finance), that mantle of authority for those is sliding inexorably towards China instead. While under Trump the US will focus on reviving its coal mining sector or attempt to bring back the pick and shovel, strong back work in various sunset heavy industries, the Chinese are forging ahead on a wide range of new industry technologies and applications throughout their society. Or, as Tom Friedman argued the other day in the New York Times, despite the reality that China is making it very tough for American and other foreign businesses to carry out their efforts inside China, his most recent visit to China, Friedman wrote:

“… left me with two very strong responses. The first is that we underestimate China — and attribute all of its surge in growth to unfair trade practices — at our peril. The country has been fast and smart at adopting new technologies, particularly the mobile internet. For instance, China has moved so fast into a cashless society, where everyone pays for everything with a mobile phone, that Chinese newspapers report beggars in major cities have started to place a printout of a QR code in their begging bowls so any passer-by can scan it and use mobile payment apps like Alibaba’s Alipay or Tencent’s WeChat Wallet to contribute to the beggar’s mobile payment account.

Chinese men and women friends tell me they don’t carry purses or wallets any more, only a mobile phone, which they use for everything — including for buying vegetables from street vendors. ‘America has been dreaming of becoming a cashless society,’ Ya-Qin Zhang, president of Baidu, China’s main search engine, remarked to me, ‘but China is already there.’ It has ‘leapfrogged the rest of world’ and is now going mobile-first in everything….

And in an age when raw data from the internet of people and the internet of things is the new oil, the fact that China has 700-million people doing so many transactions daily on the mobile internet means it’s piling up massive amounts of information that can be harvested to identify trends and spur new artificial intelligence applications.

Moreover, while Trump is pulling out of the Paris climate deal, China is steadily pulling out of coal. Xin Guo, C.E.O. of Career International, told me two of his hottest job openings in China are in ‘software and new energy’ — everyone is looking for engineers for electric cars, solar and wind. Walter Fang, a top executive at iSoftStone, which helps design China’s smart, sustainable cities, told me that ‘just two weeks ago I brought in about a dozen green energy start-up companies from Massachusetts’ to show them opportunities in China….”

In international political behaviour, where the US is pulling back to a kind of harshly transactional – “you show me yours, and I’ll show you mine” – approach, the adults in the international policy room now seem, more and more, to be German Chancellor Angela Merkel and Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe – and perhaps Justin Trudeau and Emmanuel Macron thrown into the bargain. (The UK’s prime minister is left out of this roster, given the incumbent’s glaring inability to lead party or nation, and the lack of any visible alternatives in her own party – or its rivals.)

In contrast to the incumbent US leader, these other individuals seem thoroughly attuned to the view that, well, ideas really do matter in international affairs, and that the global international liberal society is worth saving and advancing. Moreover, values matter as well as trade deals do. But, even collectively, can these leaders, their nations, and the others that agree with them be sufficiently strong and unified to lead the west in this global conversation, in the absence of the west’s largest, most powerful nation? We are about to find out, it seems. DM

Photo: US President Donald J. Trump speaks during a joint news conference with President of Romania Klaus Iohannis (not pictured) in the Rose Garden of the White House, in Washington, DC, USA, 09 June 2017. EPA/MICHAEL REYNOLDS

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