Tomorrow is the day it could all go wrong for Boris Johnson. It is bad enough opinion polls have him on course to win a handsome majority when Britain votes in 11 days’ time: that alone is enough to make me want to bet on a hung parliament. Worse, President Donald Trump is due to arrive in London within 24 hours.
To say that Trump is unpopular in the UK would be an understatement. Earlier this year, a YouGov poll showed that two-thirds of Britons had a negative opinion of Trump, compared with just 11% who felt that way about his predecessor, Barack Obama.
A month ago, YouGov asked 3,729 British adults: “Do you think getting President Trump’s endorsement is helpful or unhelpful for British politicians?” One in 10 thought it would be “fairly helpful” or “very helpful”; 15% said “fairly unhelpful” and 39% “very unhelpful”.
The last time Trump referred to the prime minister was on Nigel Farage’s LBC radio show on Halloween, when he called him a “fantastic man”, adding that the Labour leader, Jeremy Corbyn, would take the country “into such bad places” if he emerged as prime minister. Trump went on to say that “under certain aspects” of Johnson’s Brexit deal, “we can’t make a trade deal with the UK”.
As Corbyn licks the wounds inflicted on him last week by Andrew Neil — whose style of interrogation makes a half-time “hairdryer” bollocking by Sir Alex Ferguson seem humane — the Labour leader can only hope Trump delivers more of the same tomorrow. In Corbyn’s dreams, Trump not only endorses Johnson but also proposes the privatisation of the NHS as part of a US-UK (pronounced “You suck”) trade agreement.
Trump’s reason for being in London is not to salvage Corbyn’s campaign, but to attend a Nato meeting. Now, if Trump is unpopular in Britain, he is positively detested on the Continent. The overwhelming majority of Germans had confidence in Obama; just 10% feel that way about Trump, according to Pew Research. His numbers are even worse in France and Spain.
“Whose side should your country take in a dispute between the United States and Russia?” asked the European Council on Foreign Relations in a poll published in September. In every Nato member surveyed, with the sole exception of Poland, the majority — ranging from 53% of Danes to 81% of Greeks — favoured neutrality.
Since running for president, Trump has repeatedly cast doubt on the future of the Atlantic alliance. Last week, as if to fuel the fire, CNN ran the headline: “Trump administration to cut its financial contribution to Nato.” This was, as Trump would say, fake news. In reality, a deal had been reached between Nato members to reduce America’s contribution to Nato’s small ($2.5bn, or £1.9bn) central budget and to increase the contribution of the Europeans, especially Germany.
This is a sop to Trump, whose reason for resenting Nato is the decades-old and entirely justified American complaint that the Europeans don’t pay their fair share of the cost of defending their own continent. Fact: despite repeated US protests, only six European Nato members (among them the UK) spend more than 2% of GDP on defence, while America spends just over 3.4%.
Last month, the French president, Emmanuel Macron, gave an interview to The Economist in which he referred to “the brain death of Nato”. Asked for his view of article 5 of the North Atlantic Treaty, which binds members to regard an attack on any member as an attack on all members, Macron replied: “I don’t know, but what will article 5 mean tomorrow? Will [Trump] be prepared to activate solidarity? If something happens at our borders?”
If this question does not get answered one way or another in 2020, it seems very likely to be answered within the next four years should Trump be re-elected president on November 3 next year.
Second terms are rarely triumphant. After Ronald Reagan won re-election, a senior adviser told The New York Times that his 1984 state of the union address was the road map for his second-term policy agenda. “What you’ve seen is pretty much what you’ll see,” the adviser said. Bill Clinton, George W Bush and Obama all followed the Reagan playbook. Most had relatively unsuccessful second terms, achieving little domestically and focusing on foreign policy.
Clinton intervened in Kosovo, enlarged Nato and tried to broker peace in the Middle East; Bush ordered the troop surge in Iraq; Obama negotiated the Iran nuclear deal and the Paris climate agreement.
Trump might seek new measures of fiscal stimulus if the US economy slows further or tips into recession. However, if the Democrats retain control of the House of Representatives, as seems likely, it is hard to see how much common ground could be found, especially with memories of a failed impeachment still fresh. Healthcare and immigration reform seem remote prospects.
The incentives would therefore be, as usual, for the president to focus on foreign policy. That is a thought to freeze the blood, for this — as former national security adviser John Bolton recently warned — would be “America first” unbound.
For most of his first term, Trump has been held in check by men with national security experience. Bolton was one; the secretary of state, Mike Pompeo, is another. The other erstwhile “adults in the room”, Jim Mattis and HR McMaster, are now my colleagues at the Hoover Institution.
If re-elected, Trump would give free rein to his isolationist instincts and — perhaps just as dangerous — his tendency to mix his own private interests with US national security. If you were shocked by Trump’s pressure on the Ukrainian president to dig for dirt on Joe Biden, or if you share Bolton’s suspicion that Trump’s lenient treatment of his Turkish counterpart is connected to the Trump Organisation’s interests in Istanbul, then brace yourself for more and worse.
The leaders of Russia, Turkey and North Korea would certainly rejoice at a Trump victory. Only China and perhaps Iran might have cause to worry, as the president’s animosity towards those countries seems unlikely to diminish in a second term.
To appreciate just why all this should worry Europeans, I recommend you revisit the interview between Vladimir Putin and the Financial Times in June. Asked which world leader he most admired, Putin gave the startling reply: “Peter the Great.”
Among the territories Peter added to the Russian empire during his reign (1682-1725) as a result of victories over Poland and Sweden were Kiev (the Ukrainian capital), Ingria (the area around St Petersburg), Livonia (the northern half of modern Latvia and the southern half of modern Estonia), Estonia (the rest of modern Estonia) and a chunk of Karelia (sometimes called “Old Finland”).
As I write, Trump is preparing to fly eastwards, filling Boris with trepidation. But it is the westward moves of Putin we really need to worry about.
Niall Ferguson is the Milbank Family senior fellow at the Hoover Institution, Stanford.
Do you ever feel like you’re an ant? I often do. Especially at airports. “A soldier knows that the life of an individual ant doesn’t matter — what matters is the colony,” declares one of the soldier ants in the animated feature film Antz. “I’m supposed to do everything for the colony,” complains the depressed worker ant Z (voiced by Woody Allen, back when we were still allowed to find him funny). “And what about my needs? What about me? The whole system makes me feel insignificant.”
I was thinking a lot about ants last week because I was in China. Now, I used to avoid thinking about ants in China, because in the 20th century comparing east Asians to ants was a common western slur. During the Second World War, General William Slim — the hero of the war in Burma — was surely not the only allied commander who likened Japanese soldiers to ants.
The Chinese, too, were not infrequently referred to in this way during the Cold War. As recently as 1996, the American satirical magazine The Onion could publish the spoof headline “Chinese, ants announce alliance” (“After 8,000 years of strained relations, the people of China and the world ant community signed a treaty Monday that will establish close relations between the two civilisations”).
Imagine my surprise to discover that it has long been perfectly acceptable for the Chinese to call themselves ants. In 2014, when Jack Ma decided to rename the payments wing of the e-commerce giant Alibaba, which he had co-founded, he came up with Ant Financial. The inspiration, Ma explained, was a revolutionary slogan and popular song of 1943, Unity Is Strength. In the propaganda of the Mao Tse-tung era, ants were admirable creatures, precisely because they subordinated the individual to the collective. Back to Antz: “It’s this whole gung ho, superorganism thing.”
Yet ants can also have a negative connotation in China. Ten years ago a postdoctoral researcher at Peking University, Lian Si, coined the term “ant tribe” (yizu in Mandarin) for the large and growing population of recent university graduates eking out a miserable existence on lousy wages in overcrowded accommodation.
“They have every similarity to ants,” he wrote. “They live in colonies in cramped areas. They’re intelligent and hardworking, yet anonymous and underpaid.”
I’ve written before about the oversupply of university-educated young people. Fifty years ago, during the Cultural Revolution, almost no one of school-leaving age went to university in China: 0.13% of the relevant age group. In 2009, when Lian coined the term ant tribe, it was 22%. Today it’s 51%. In Hong Kong it’s 74%.
I spent part of last week in Hong Kong, trying to work out what had triggered the student protests that in recent weeks have set its university campuses ablaze. There have been demonstrations for months, ever since the Hong Kong government introduced a bill that would have provided for extradition to the mainland. But only in the past few weeks has the violence dramatically escalated during the protests, with masked students fighting pitched battles with police.
The protesters have repeatedly made five demands:
1) the withdrawal of the extradition bill (which the government has belatedly done)
2) an independent inquiry into police conduct
3) a retraction of the government’s characterisation of the protests as riots
4) the release of arrested protesters
5) the resignation of Hong Kong’s chief executive, Carrie Lam, and the introduction of universal suffrage.
Yet almost no one I spoke to takes these demands at face value. Some blame rising inequality and exorbitant housing costs. Another explanation is the threat of an increasingly authoritarian government in Beijing. I heard that there is also an ethnic undercurrent, with some protesters harassing mainlanders for speaking Mandarin rather than the local Cantonese, or telling residents of western heritage: “This is not your fight.”
Conspiracy theories abound, with locals pointing fingers at forces as diverse as the CIA, the Taiwanese governing party, one or other of Hong Kong’s property tycoons and the enemies of China’s president, Xi Jinping, within the Chinese Communist Party.
I thought I had a theory, which was simply underpolicing. In previous waves of protest in south China — for example, the Red Guard riots and bombings in 1967 — the British colonial government was quick to restore order. You might think there were more police in Hong Kong 52 years ago than now. However, that is not so. The ratio of police to population in 1967 was about 1 to 355. Today, counting civilian staff and auxiliaries, it is 1 to 280. (Admittedly, in 1967 the governor also had the Gurkhas and the Royal Navy.)
I was groping for a better explanation when I came across the theory of the ant tribe. In mainland China, where the surveillance state is ubiquitous and unblinking, the ants have no choice but to toil away. But in relatively liberal Hong Kong they were in a position — like Allen’s Z in Antz — to risk open revolt.
Theirs is a revolution of disappointed expectations. In Hong Kong as elsewhere, it turns out, a university education is not a ticket to a secure and respectable job. Many recent graduates have ended up working for one of the territory’s meal-delivery companies — if they can get a job at all. Rents are among the highest in the world. Working hours follow the 996 rule: 9am to 9pm, six days a week. It’s a monotonous, dispiriting grind.
“There is something quite frightening about the Chinese sort of mass politics and the regimentation of the ordinary being,” said Sir Roger Scruton in an interview in April that temporarily lost him a government appointment. “We invent robots, and they are in a sense creating robots out of their own people, by so constraining what can be done that each Chinese person is a kind of replica of the next one — and that’s a very frightening thing. And the concentration camps have come back, largely there to ‘re-educate’ the Muslims.”
Graffiti on the polytechnic campus last week echoed Scruton’s view, which the New Statesman had — as it later acknowledged — misrepresented as racist. “Dear world, CCP [Chinese Communist Party] will infiltrate your government. Chinese enterprises interferes [sic] your political stance. China will harvest your home like Xinjiang [home of the Muslim Uighurs]. Be aware or be next!”
The revolt of the ant tribe appears to be over in the former colony — at least for now. But the ants of Hong Kong have spoken. It remains to be seen who on the mainland is listening. To judge by last weekend’s leak to The New York Times of 403 pages of top-secret party documents about the Xinjiang internments, at least one highly placed individual feels like an ant, too.
Niall Ferguson is the Milbank Family senior fellow at the Hoover Institution, Stanford
Is the history of impeachment going to repeat itself? Or Re-Pete itself? Re-Pete’s Saloon & Grill, I should explain, is located in Black River Falls, Wisconsin, in a county that voted for Barack Obama over Mitt Romney by 57% to 42% in 2012, but for Donald Trump over Hillary Clinton by 53% to 42% four years later.
Re-Pete’s is my kind of place, although I’ve yet to visit and owe the recommendation to the journalist Mark Halperin. The regular menu states: “Water is free, too bad the beer isn’t!” The motto above the seafood section is: “Catch & release . . . into the grease!”
Halperin’s high-flying career was derailed by accusations of sexual harassment at the height of the #MeToo campaign. But he has made his apologies — for past transgressions that were indefensible but not criminal — and is now back.
Last week he observed that if the hunting types in Re-Pete’s were glued to the impeachment hearings then “the Democrats have a very strong chance of making their public case to the American people”. So on Wednesday afternoon, he rang Re-Pete’s.
MH: “Do you have the impeachment hearings on the TVs there?”
Guy from Re-Pete’s: “The what? No, we do sports stuff.”
The point is that the impeachment of Trump — the prospect of which consumes at least three-quarters of the attention of the coastal elites who watch CNN and read The New York Times — matters only if voters in swing states such as Wisconsin give a damn.
From the vantage point of Nancy Pelosi, the Speaker of the House of Representatives, this is not the road she wanted to go down, much less the hill she wanted to die on. Throughout the months when Washington lived for the release of former FBI director Robert Mueller’s report, she did her best to dampen the ardour of her fellow Democrats.
For younger legislators, as for today’s millennial journalists, impeachment is a magical word, conjuring up memories of All the President’s Men. The veteran Pelosi, by contrast, knows that Trump isn’t Richard Nixon and “Dniepergate” isn’t Watergate. But the president left her no choice.
No sooner had the Mueller report fizzled out than Trump picked up the phone and tried to get the Ukrainian president, Volodymyr Zelensky, to gather opposition research on the Democratic candidate Joe Biden in return for a presidential meeting and (although this was not initially clear to Zelensky) US military assistance.
Only when the quid pro quo was going to be made public — courtesy of a CIA agent who decided to blow the whistle — did the White House release the military aid.
The three previous presidential impeachments — of Andrew Johnson, Nixon and Bill Clinton — lasted 94, 186 and 127 days respectively. Now, you may want to spend the next three to six months glued to your television. I don’t, any more than the regulars at Re-Pete’s. There’s no need, anyway, because we know what’s going to happen. First, the House will vote to impeach the president, probably along party lines. The Republican Senate majority will then have to decide if it needs to hold a trial.
In theory, the Republicans could simply vote to dismiss the House’s case. But it seems more likely that the Senate leader, Mitch McConnell, will go ahead with a trial (or at least let one begin), though with the intention of acquitting the president.
By the time it’s all over, the Democratic primaries will probably be under way. All that will matter for the subsequent nine months will be how much the impeachment process has hurt Trump in battleground states such as Wisconsin.
True, as the constitutional lawyer Philip Bobbitt argues in his indispensable new edition of Charles Black’s classic book Impeachment, it is incorrect to think of impeachment as a purely political device. If it were, it would surely have been used much more often. The two-thirds threshold for conviction in the Senate all but requires that a successful impeachment be bipartisan.
The House must base an impeachment bill on the constitution, which specifies that a president may “be removed from office on impeachment for, and conviction of, treason, bribery or other high crimes and misdemeanours”. It’s another common mistake to think that this requires a president to have committed a criminal act in the ordinary sense. What the framers of the constitution had in mind, Bobbitt argues, were “the [unique] constitutional crimes that can be committed [only] by a president” — such as seeking foreign assistance in a US presidential election.
The Democrats have dropped “quid pro quo” since the public hearings began, calculating that Latin is not much spoken in places such as Black River Falls. Now their case against Trump is all about bribery. But, says Bobbitt, for bribery to be an impeachable offence it must “be an act that actually threatens the constitutional stability and security of the state . . . one that puts the constitution in jeopardy”.
In the words of Alexander Hamilton, impeachment is a “national inquest”. It is concerned with constitutional violations and, Bobbitt argues, “has no particular policy purpose other than protecting the state”. It is not a criminal proceeding, which is why double jeopardy does not forbid the subsequent trial of an impeached official, including a president.
On that basis, is it likely these hearings will generate enough evidence of constitutional crimes to persuade 20 Republican senators to vote for impeachment? I would doubt it. But might enough voters be turned off Trump to prevent his re-election in November? That’s a more interesting question. After all, re-election would mean four more years of Trump making US foreign policy on the Ukrainian model — and without the constraints that were imposed on him by the bureaucratic and military establishments in his first term.
To judge by the latest opinion polls, registered Democrats are overwhelmingly for impeaching and removing Trump, whereas nine in 10 Republicans agree with the president that this is a witch-hunt by the deep state and the do-nothing Democrats. But what about independent voters, who these days account for more than two-fifths of the electorate?
Fewer than a third of them thought the acts revealed by the Mueller report justified Trump’s impeachment and removal. However, that proportion has risen since the partial transcript of the Trump-Zelensky telephone call was released. The latest polls suggest that between 43% and half of independents now favour impeachment and removal. I detect a realisation that in his dealings with Ukraine this year the president came much closer to committing a constitutional crime, in Bobbitt’s sense, than in his previous conduct.
They may not be watching the hearings in Re-Pete’s Saloon & Grill, but they can smell something fishy cooking in the Washington grease. And that might turn out to matter more than we now realise in 352 days’ time, when Americans get to decide if Trump got caught — and whether he should be released or deep-fried.
Niall Ferguson is the Milbank Family senior fellow at the Hoover Institution, Stanford
This is the time of year when I get the paper-flower question. Living in California, but born in Britain, I am one of a tiny number of people here who wear a poppy in the week before Remembrance Day. Hence the question: “Hey, Niall, what’s with the red paper flower?” I don’t mind explaining. I wear it in memory of my grandfathers, John Ferguson and Tom Hamilton.
The former fought the Germans on the western front for most of the First World War. The latter fought the Japanese in Burma during the Second World War. Both survived — otherwise, there would be no me — but each had his life shortened by the damage war did to his lungs. And I wear the poppy to commemorate the tens of millions of people — not only the British servicemen — whose lives were cut much shorter.
Sometimes I also point out that this is not some British eccentricity. It was an American woman, Moina Michael — a professor at Georgia University — who originally suggested wearing a poppy as a symbol of remembrance. She in turn was inspired by a Canadian, John McCrae, whose 1915 poem In Flanders Fields still resonates. Beginning in 1919, a Frenchwoman, Anna Guérin, sold artificial poppies in America to raise money for orphans in the war-torn regions of France. The tradition may have died out in America, but it is alive and well in Australia and New Zealand too.
If my interlocutor has not fled by now, I add that I would not have become a historian without such symbols of the past. For poppies, like the stone war memorials that were so numerous in the Scotland of my youth, prompted the earliest historical question in my mind: why did that happen? Why did my grandfathers, when they were still such young men — a mere teenager, in the case of John Ferguson — end up in mortal peril so far from home? It’s a version of Tolstoy’s more profound question at the end of War and Peace: “What is the power that moves nations?” It is the question I have spent my adult life trying to answer.
Remembrance, in short, has never been enough for me. We also need to learn from history. Here is one of the lessons that is too seldom learnt. Scraps of paper matter, and I don’t mean paper flowers.
What became the Great War — only later renamed the First World War after the Second had begun — might simply have been the Second Franco-German War if Britain and its empire had not joined it on August 4, 1914. Why did that happen?
Formally, Britain went to war because the German attack on Belgium violated the 1839 Treaty of London, which — under article VII of the annexe to the treaty — bound all five of the great powers of Europe to uphold Belgian neutrality. There were other reasons for intervening, naturally: the geopolitical calculation that a German victory over France, unlike in 1871, would pose a strategic threat to Britain, and the domestic political calculation that if the Liberals did not go to war, their government would fall and the Conservatives would go to war anyway. But Belgium mattered.
On August 6, the prime minister, Herbert Asquith, explained to the House of Commons “what we are fighting for”. His speech focused on Britain’s “solemn international obligation” to uphold Belgian neutrality in the name of both law and honour, and “to vindicate the principle that small nationalities are not to be crushed”. The evidence suggests that this casus belli did indeed resonate with the British public.
The German chancellor, Theobald von Bethmann-Hollweg, lamented that “England should fall upon them for the sake of the neutrality of Belgium” — for “un chiffon de papier”. But scraps of paper count, even if the 1839 treaty was only (as one cabinet minister observed) a convenient “plea . . . for intervention on behalf of France”.
How many Britons in 1914 knew the terms of that treaty? Not 16-year-old John Ferguson, I’ll be bound. And yet the commitment to Belgium, along with a sustained emphasis on German atrocities towards Belgian civilians, became central to British war propaganda.
Are there any similar commitments today, forgotten by the general public and yet capable of plunging the world into war? I can think of two. In each case, they exist on paper. In each case, they have lost or are losing credibility, so that potential foes might be forgiven for dismissing them as mere scraps of paper.
The first is article 5 of the North Atlantic Treaty of April 4, 1949, which binds each signatory to consider “an armed attack against one or more of them in Europe or North America . . . an attack against them all”, and, in that case, to take “such action as it deems necessary, including the use of armed force, to restore and maintain the security of the North Atlantic area”.
The second is the Taiwan Relations Act of April 10, 1979, which states that America will “consider any effort to determine the future of Taiwan by other than peaceful means, including by boycotts or embargoes, a threat to the peace and security of the Western Pacific area and of grave concern to the United States” and that America “will make available to Taiwan such defence articles and defence services in such quantity as may be necessary to enable Taiwan to maintain a sufficient self-defence capabilities”.
With respect to Nato, the French president, Emmanuel Macron, last week gave a damning interview. “To my mind,” he told The Economist, “what we are currently experiencing is the brain death of Nato.”
The Economist: Do you now believe that article 5 doesn’t work either; is that what you suspect?
Macron: “I don’t know, but what will article 5 mean tomorrow? Will [Donald Trump] be prepared to activate solidarity? If something happens at our borders?”
With respect to Taiwan, a similar question could easily be asked. Would Donald Trump feel bound by the 1979 act if China sought to end Taiwan’s autonomy and force it to submit to rule from Beijing? That is no remote scenario. Last Wednesday, Taiwan’s foreign minister, Joseph Wu, warned that China might resort to military aggression towards Taiwan as a means of deflecting internal political pressure as the mainland economy slows down.
So, go ahead, ask me why I am wearing a poppy. Commemoration is about more than showing respect to past generations. It is also about being alert to future dangers: red flags, as well as red flowers.
Niall Ferguson is the Milbank Family senior fellow at the Hoover Institution, Stanford