Putting aside the constant turmoil within the Trump White House over its poisonous management style and incessant backbiting, the chief executive’s desires to divide the nation along racial lines, and an effort to roll back every last vestige of domestic policies put in force by Donald Trump’s predecessor, internationally the president has helped set a dangerous course as well. Hold on to something, the winds of destruction are rising.
Back in 1844, American painter and inventor Samuel FB Morse had demonstrated the first usable commercial telegraph. He had used a telegraphic line newly put in place between Washington and Baltimore – after he had largely set out the messaging system that eventually became universally known as Morse Code.
The first recorded message, sent both ways, was carefully selected to be a celebration of the wonder of this newest technology, in an age of other rapidly emerging technological wonders.
Morse’s message was: “What hath God wrought?” drawn from the Biblical Book of Numbers, verse 22:23. Not too surprisingly, however, some were not completely impressed by this newest wonder. There are always Luddites.
A few years after that first epochal message, essayist-philosopher Henry David Thoreau wrote that he had recently learned a telegraph had been installed between Maine and Texas. But Thoreau dismissed this with a kind of written shrug, wondering what would happen and what it would mean if, it turned out, Maine actually had nothing to say to Texas. (Fifteen years later, the American Civil War became the first armed conflict in which armies, in this case the Union’s forces, were strategically directed from an early White House-style situation room, always alive with constant telegraphic communications from the battle zones.)
The telegraph, of course, was just the first in an increasingly rapid stream of revolutionary advances in communication that came about during the 19th and 20th centuries. From the telegraph, it was just a short jump to the telephone, then on to radio and television, and now, in our own time, onward to the fax, smartphones, email, the internet, and a continuing, growing profusion of social media.
And so, drawing on Morse’s famous exclamation about that impending global sea change, this image is transferred to the contemporary geopolitical realm. And so, with no intention or hint of blasphemy, offer, instead, the phrase and theme: “What hath Trump wrought?”
Now, nearly two years into this brave new world, there has been yet another fundamental sea change in the world. But, this time around, it is not only the “how” of our communicating, but also the “what” being communicated that has become the sea change. It should thus come as little surprise to readers that we are speaking of the election of Donald Trump as America’s 45th president and the policies he has been propounding.
It is, in fact, too easy to say dismissively that he is a kind of dangerous loose cannon, perversely set loose upon the world. Dangerous, yes, he is, but there is method to it, rather than simply random outrages. Basic principles actually can be identified and examined.
Prior to the Trumpian ascendency, for the past 70-plus years, a new global order had been constructed to bring an end to the ever more devastating cycle of destruction arising during two world wars, and that had been hammered into place to establish a new fabric of global economic relations. And, over time, it had been nurtured, expanded, and made ever more stable, despite a series of seismic shocks that could have brought it low.
As a starting point, as World War II was being won by the Allies, the UN had been expressly established to prevent the future scourge of wars. On that foundation, and allied to it, the International Bank for Reconstruction and Development (now the World Bank), the International Monetary Fund to help stabilise economies and currencies, and the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade to avert the terrifying outcomes of the trade and tariff wars of the 1930s, all came into being. For these, the world owes a debt to British economist John Maynard Keynes who had largely crafted the intellectual underpinnings of these structures.
And then, soon enough, among the Western European nations themselves (goaded on by some farsighted American leaders as well via the offer of what became the Marshall Plan), there was a recognition of an urgent need to rebuild the economic powerhouse of Europe.
Allied with this was the realisation that any future conflict between Germany and France would likely spell the near or total end of western civilisation. Taken together, these became key stimuli for the establishment of West Germany, and the establishment of the European Coal and Steel Community that had led, in turn, to the European Economic Community ( then the EU), and then, eventually, other elements of a near-unification economically, such as the European Central Bank.
Concurrently, while that goal of global peace was never realised, what was perhaps a second-best solution was achieved. As the nuclear weapons-tipped Cold War (with the division of the European continent between east and west) became reality, led by the US, the Nato alliance was established to secure a system of mutual defence – collective security. there were still numerous proxy wars and other conflicts, but no general global conflict.
Concurrently, the Soviet Russian-led Warsaw Pact proved militarily capable. And for decades, the Warsaw Pact was able to restrain defections and to serve largely as a balance to the Nato alliance.
Some members attempted – unsuccessfully – to break away, as with Hungary in 1956 and Czechoslovakia in 1968, in the face of Soviet military might. But, by the time of Lech Walesa in Poland and Mikhail Gorbachev’s ascendency in Moscow, the by-then disintegrating Warsaw Pact proved unable to contain a hollowing out of the Soviet experiment. Nevertheless, despite this massive geopolitical shock, the larger global system held – and even absorbed the shock of the utter collapse of the Soviet system.
And the end of the European colonial system – first with India and Pakistan, then on to Africa and the remainder of those European empires in Asia, beginning in the late 1940s, on through the 1960s and 70s ( and with Namibia and Zimbabwe as latecomers) – did not shatter the larger postwar consensus. Perhaps those momentous changes even made the overall global system more stable.
Meanwhile, there was the Japanese economic miracle, followed by the rise of the “Four Little Dragons” (South Korea, Hong Kong, Singapore and Taiwan). Then it was the new authoritarian-capitalist China (under Deng Xiaoping’s admonition, “to be rich is wonderful”), after decades of turmoil and economic malaise and failed experiments and mass death, that made a huge shift in global economic arrangements. But even these economic earthquakes did not fundamentally destroy the globe’s larger economic and political structures. After all, China was eager to enter into the embrace of the World Trade Organisation (the WTO), the successor to GATT, and to trade as aggressively as possible with every other nation.
For Americans, meanwhile, the postwar world was an historic break with 150 years of aloofness from the European balance of power. American presidents – from Harry Truman to Barack Obama – and their nation bought into a world system that had been crafted by visionaries like Keynes, George Marshall, George Kennan, Dean Acheson, Jean Monnet, Konrad Adenauer, Shigeru Yoshida, and other geopolitical compatriots in Europe, America, the UK, and Japan.
But then, two years ago, promising, then threatening, a fundamental break with this broad consensus (and the ideas that underlay it), Donald Trump, a man with no real allegiance to that postwar system, rode to an unlikely presidential victory in 2016 – surprising even his own campaign. He had come to that victory on the backs of the anxieties of many older white men who were deeply angry or frightened about the rising economic and social (read largely racial and ethnic) changes sweeping the country.
Paradoxically, these people were of some of the very communities that had been bastions of support for the Democratic Party since the Great Depression. Now, of course, similar developments have been rising in many other nations such as Italy, Hungary, Turkey, Poland, and Austria – and the still not yet successful, but thoroughly disruptive, political movements in the UK, France, and Germany.
And so, focusing more specifically on the impact of Donald Trump, what are the key elements of his challenge to this global order? It seems that there are actually seven pillars to his ideology. They are:
First there is the imposition of new tariffs against such nations as Mexico, Canada, China, Europe, and Turkey in order to advance the goal of overturning multilateral agreements. In doing this, Trump has argued such tariffs are based on the need to preserve national security. This has been defined as measuring the strength of old smokestack industries (rather than encouraging new and innovative technologies), and retreating into a protectionist system where the government will pick the winners, concurrent with having to distribute a whole new array of subsidies to industries affected by all the resulting market distortions.
Second is a consistent favouring of unilateral action, as opposed to multilateral trade negotiations, thereby undermining generations of broad international engagement economically.
Third, and concurrently, there is a growing opposition to the UN and its varied missions and funds, on grounds that this body – and its other members – are all systematically taking advantage of US generosity, and its utter fecklessness in its negotiating style and ineptitude.
Fourth, the Trumpian word view offers a growing disregard, even a disdain, for Nato and its alliance structure, as well as for the EU. Here again, the plan is to berate US global partners publicly, labelling the EU a foe and insisting the Nato members take American military support totally for granted, even as those allies refuse to up their defense game at all. Freeloaders all!
Fifth is an even broader disregard for multilaterally, even globally, negotiated agreements and norms such as the Iranian nuclear accord, and the virtually global Paris climate accord. Again, the emphasis is on other nations who have taken advantage of a nearly oblivious, foolish America, stabbed in the back by weak – or worse – leaders and diplomatic representatives.
Sixth is an almost unseemly, extraordinary embrace of dictatorial authoritarians such as Vladimir Putin, North Korea’s Kim Jung-un, or Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte who similarly to Trump, casually ignore international norms when it suits them.
Seventh, the US president is increasingly demonstrating a visceral hatred of any efforts to deal with climate and immigration issues – both domestically and internationally – save through the power of a giant “no” to any agreements or co-operative approaches that are part of a larger global community.
The sum effect of all this has been, effectively, to destroy global acceptance of the US as the global leader, a place it largely held from the end of the World War II, through to the end of the Obama era, thereby destroying any reservoir of trust in American words and promises.
In all of this, some serious ironies abound. We are now in a world where Germany is now seen as the defender of global international norms and democracy; where China is increasingly the leader – at least in word, if not yet in deed – of an open global trading system; where Russia is effectively the new arbiter of global security arrangements in places like Syria or in tandem with Iran; and, finally, where we will live in a world where global norms and standards will be up to individual nations and leaders to interpret, as they choose. Whenever they choose.
Sadly, a world such as this will come to bear too much similarity to the one of the 1930s for anyone to be comfortable about the prospects for the present world – let alone its future. And this, sadly, is the world that Donald Trump hath wrought. DM