Four ways Trump will change the world
Trump has changed the US, but can he change the world? The question may seem premature, because he has not even been sworn into office yet. Yet, there are four signs that the Trump presidency could change the world. But for better or for worse? That is the question.
Trump comes with a bundle of radical policies, many of them still vague, unexplained in any significant detail during his campaign. However, he champions two sets of ideas that no US president since World War II considered. Firstly, he rejects the premise of “American exceptionalism” and its corollary of America’s “indispensable” moral leadership of the world. By extension this means that he rejects the ideas and practices of regime change and spreading democracy and human rights and, simultaneously, that he favours an isolationist approach or stronger focus on domestic concerns. Secondly, he rejects globalisation and free trade agreements, and favours protectionist policies that will encourage the return of industries and jobs to the US. This type of thinking is not restricted to the US. Trump, who closely watched the British drive to exit from the EU, knows how great the fear and anger is among the poor and middle classes in the West at immigration, the liberalisation of trade and globalisation.
Trump’s election in the US and the results of the British “Brexit” referendum in June are two streams in the same river, a river that had its source in 2008 when the world was struck by the worst economic stagnation since the Great Depression of 1929-1932.
Governments and their central banks spent trillions of dollars to rescue banks and companies that were “too big to fail”. The big banks, the transnational companies and the financial and big business elites were able to get back on their feet. Everyone recovered apart from the “99 per cent”, the ordinary people whose total wealth amounts to less than that of the “one per cent” who control the country’s wealth, and whose taxes paid for the bailouts. Not only did they not recover, their conditions worsened as a result of cutbacks in government spending in Europe and the US on public services and healthcare, and because their wages remained fixed while prices soared. It is not surprising that the US and the UK have the widest class gaps among Western industrialised nations.
From the midst of those developments in 2008 came the wellspring of antagonism against the economic and political elites, globalisation and free trade, and the preference for protectionism, isolation and shutting doors. From Newcastle to Ohio, the enemy became the “establishment”, the “elite”, “open borders”, “globalisation”, “free trade” and “immigrants” who were stealing jobs, killing local industries and tearing down national identities.
As Gary Gerstle, American history professor at Cambridge University, told Al-Ahram Weekly, “the British vote to withdraw from Europe and the Americans’ election of Trump occurred amidst a growing sense among the majority of the people in Europe and the US that the political and financial systems are ‘designed’ to work against their interests. During the past three years, the working and middle classes in the West found themselves having to pay the costs for globalisation on their own. The hostility towards immigration and immigrants deepened in this context. Probably the first thing that an American worker who has been laid off his job in Detroit thinks when he comes across a Mexican in the street is “What are you doing here?”
It’s all about identity and the economy. This is why Trump focussed on immigrants and why it was inevitable that he would win on the basis of his advocacy of protectionism, closing doors and halting immigration.
So what are the four ways Trump might change the world?
REVERSING THE COURSE OF FREE TRADE AND RETHINKING GLOBALISATION: Against the backdrop of mounting popular hatred towards the political and economic establishments, doubt and suspicion in globalisation and its effects, and opposition to immigration and free trade agreements, Trump adopted a rhetoric designed to win the votes of the working and middle classes.
Trump wants to revive labour intensive industries that will create jobs for millions of Americans. The entails reinstating the nation state as the main player in the international arena, as opposed to transnational corporations. In this regard, Trump has pledged to increase customs taxes on imports coming from China by 45 per cent and on exports from Mexico by 35 per cent. This is a radical measure. But trade is one of the areas where the president can act without having to seek congressional approval.
Trump has also indicated that he wants to reopen negotiations with Mexico and Canada on NAFTA rules of origin, which he believes is the reason why tens of thousands of Americans lost their jobs after American industries moved to Mexico.
In addition, he has threatened to pull the US out of the World Trade Organisation (WTO) which, following the announcement of Trump’s electoral victory, issued a statement saying that it was prepared to discuss the sources of Washington’s concern, especially with regard to jobs in the US. The free trade agreement between the US and South Korea could face the same fate. Trump has said that the agreement has cost the US more than 100,000 jobs.
In view of such positions, many observers in Europe believe that Trump will have no inclination to pursue the Transpacific Partnership (TPP) Agreement that Obama signed with 11 Pacific Rim countries. In fact, Trump has said that he would prevent its passage. The free trade agreement or Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP) that the US and EU are negotiating over at present is unlikely to see a better future. There have been continual demonstrations against it in European streets and with Trump in the White House negotiations will probably be put on hold.
Globalisation benefitted the wealthy, the transnational corporations and the big banks, but it harmed the poor and working classes around the world. Free trade agreements are no longer about removing customs barriers in order to stimulate international trade. Rather, they are about making the world a huge “investment opportunity” for global capital with nothing in place to protect the interests of local inhabitants or mechanisms to monitor the performance and practices of international capital around the world. Many of these agreements give the representatives of international capital a free hand in contractual agreement with local labour and in behaviour towards the environment, and they offer tax exemptions and facilities that are unavailable to local industries.
Trump is not alone in his rejection of free trade and rampant economic globalisation. The European left has similarly strong reservations. However, Trump’s dilemma is that he needs to exercise sound judgement when choosing between options in order to avert another global economic slump or a trade war with China that could lead to political upheavals, especially in Asia.
THE REJECTION OF “AMERICAN EXCEPTIONALISM”: After World War II and during the Cold War, US influence expanded across the world through two mechanisms; capitalism and the military machine, to spread democracy and human rights. Trump, who opposes American exceptionalism, which he has called “insulting” to other countries, might inaugurate the beginning of the end of US interventionism in the name of spreading Western values. This is the first time in US history that the US has had a president who openly declared his opposition to the narrative that served as the moral underpinning for US foreign policy since World War II. This moral narrative was invoked order to engineer regime change, enforce sanctions and impose economic blockades (against Iran, Cuba, North Korea and Iraq, for example).
There is no other place in the world that has paid the price for US interventionism in the name of liberalism, the spread of democracy and social engineering more than the Middle East. The American recoil inward could be the best thing that happens for the Middle East. The American interventionist agenda has always been characterised by its foremost aim: The protection of the security of Israel.
THE END OF THE US ROLE AS WORLD POLICEMAN: Trump sees international relations in terms of profit and loss calculations. NATO, in his view, is an economic and security burden, an organisation whose shelf life expired with the end of the Cold War, and one of the reasons for unnecessary tension with Russia.
During his campaign, Trump repeatedly said that NATO members and US allies from Japan to Croatia, and from South Korea to Lithuania benefit from US generosity and depend on it for the defence of their national security without paying anything in return. In 2015, NATO’s budget stood at $900 billion with the US footing $650 billion — or 72 per cent — of the bill.
According to prominent US political scientist John Mearsheimer, an exponent of the “realist” school in international relations, most NATO countries are not part of the US national security framework and the obligation to defend them in accordance with Article 5 of the NATO agreement places a huge strategic, political and economic burden on the US. “The time has come for the US to hand NATO back to Europe. It no longer needs it strategically,” Mearsheimer said. Unless there are some radical changes in the way NATO funds itself and budgets its activities, Trump is likely to take the same view.
ISLAMIST RADICALISM AS ENEMY NUMBER ONE: The few cabinet appointees that Trump has named so far — Mike Pompeo (Republican House of Representative member from Kansas) as CIA director, retired Lieutenant General Michael Flynn as national security adviser, Senator Jeff Sessions (Republican from Alabama) as attorney general, and the ultra right media tycoon Stephen Bannon as chief strategist and senior counsellor in the White House — clearly point to Trump’s intention to elevate “Islamist radicalism” as the foremost enemy to global security, in place of Russia.
His policy statements and appointments also indicate that US-European relations, which defined the contours of international politics since World War I, are approaching an unprecedented period of frigidity and mistrust. The nomination of Bannon, who is openly hostile to the idea of the EU, has undoubtedly angered many in Brussels.
FROM UTOPIA TO DYSTOPIA IN 24 HOURS: The Trump victory triggered widespread waves of frustration and fear. If Hillary Clinton had won, as the first female president in the US, this would have signified a victory for women and the movement for gender equality, the liberal left and political moderateness, ethnic and religious tolerance and plurality, and political correctness. However, that message would have been misleading and a kind of sedative for the actual state of the world. Clinton was the candidate for antitheses. She was the candidate for “Wall Street” and international capitalism and she was the candidate for the protest movements against all that, from “Occupy Wall Street” and women’s rights groups, to civil-rights organisations like “Black Lives Matter”.
With the defeat of Hillary, the world swung from utopia to dystopia in less than 24 hours. The world has entered a very gloomy, depressing, alarming phase, with insularism, intolerance and racism on the rise. Trump, in his person, ideas and political programmes, epitomises this.
Perhaps the positive aspect of the Trump victory is that it exposed the collapse of “manufactured consent” that restricted electorate’s choices exclusively to figures from the establishment. From this perspective, his election was, in a sense, a revolutionary act on the part of the many angry people in the US who see in him the solution to their problems.
However, Trump’s economic and social policies, which include lowering taxes on the rich, borrowing heavily in order to finance infrastructure projects, abolishing Obamacare, and expelling three million Latino immigrants in his first year in power, are likely to plunge the US into another bout of economic stagnation aggravated by severe social tensions. The poor and middle classes who voted for him will realise that he was not the solution. However, the fact that he was elected will remind them that it will always be possible to find alternatives from outside the establishment.