The greatest gunfight in the history of cowboy films is in The Good, the Bad and the Ugly. It’s a three-cornered shootout between Blondie (Clint Eastwood), Tuco (Eli Wallach) and Angel Eyes (Lee Van Cleef). The crucial point is that before the shooting starts, Blondie has emptied Tuco’s revolver of bullets.
To members of Washington’s foreign policy establishment, regardless of party affiliation, Donald Trump’s decision to exit one nuclear deal (with Iran) only to enter another (with North Korea) is beyond baffling. “At a time when we are all rooting for diplomacy with North Korea to succeed,” wrote former president Barack Obama last week, “walking away from the JCPOA [joint comprehensive plan of action] risks losing a deal that accomplishes — with Iran — the very outcome that we are pursuing with the North Koreans.”
“If the terms of the Iran deal were applied to North Korea,” wrote CNN’s Fareed Zakaria on Thursday, “it would require Pyongyang to destroy its nuclear weapons.” Richard Haass, of the Council on Foreign Relations, was equally dismayed: Trump’s decision to abandon the Iran deal “could lead North Korea to question the utility of signing an agreement with the US”.
These guys clearly never saw The Good, the Bad and the Ugly. Like Eastwood’s Blondie, Trump understands that only one of his antagonists has a loaded gun. North Korea needs to be treated differently from Iran, just as the Bad had to be treated differently from the Ugly.
I wish I had a dollar — or a fistful of dollars — for every article I have read in the past year about the foolishness or recklessness of Trump’s foreign policy. The funny thing is how few of the people writing such pieces pointed out the much greater foolishness and recklessness of his predecessor’s foreign policy. True, Obama’s cool professorial style was far more congenial to national security professionals than Trump’s tweetstorms. But let’s judge foreign policy by its results.
As I argued in July 2015, the goal of Obama’s Iran deal was not just to postpone the Iranian acquisition of nuclear weapons by 10 years. For it to be more than a mere deferral, it also had to improve the relative strategic position of the United States and its allies so that by 2025 they would be in a stronger position to stop Iran entering the club of nuclear armed powers.
As Obama himself put it then, his hope was that by “building on this deal, we can continue to have conversations with Iran that incentivise them to behave differently in the region, to be less aggressive, less hostile, more co-operative . . . in resolving issues like Syria or what’s happening in Iraq, to stop encouraging Houthis in Yemen”.
This echoed what he had told The New Yorker back in 2014. “If we were able to get Iran to operate in a responsible fashion — not funding terrorist organisations, not trying to stir up sectarian discontent in other countries, and not developing a nuclear weapon — you could see an equilibrium developing between Sunni, or predominantly Sunni, Gulf states and Iran.”
Obama’s goal was a balance of power in the region. The key question, as I said at the time, was whether or not the Iran deal would increase regional stability. The outcome has been much as I predicted. In return for merely slowing down its pursuit of weapons of mass destruction, Iran was handed $150bn in previously frozen assets, as well as a trade bonanza as sanctions were lifted.
Under the deal there was no threat to “snap back” sanctions if Tehran opted to use its new resources to increase its military support for Hezbollah and Hamas, Bashar al-Assad’s regime in Syria and Shi’ite Houthi rebels in Yemen. And so it did just that.
Equally predictably, Iran’s rivals in the region — particularly Saudi Arabia and Israel — responded by stepping up their military efforts in these theatres. Obama thought that by buying time he would get closer to a regional balance. The outcome was just the opposite: escalating conflict. The whole strategy sounded so clever and calculated. In practice it was foolish and reckless.
What about Obama’s North Korea policy? In essence, his administration applied ineffectual sanctions that did nothing whatsoever to slow down Kim Jong-un’s nuclear arms programme. As Obama left the White House, we were assured that North Korea was still roughly five years away from having intercontinental ballistic missiles and a nuclear warhead small enough to fit on them. Within months of Trump’s inauguration, it became clear that North Korea had in fact been just five months away from possessing those assets.
Trump’s approach is almost exactly the opposite of Obama’s. Here the parallel with the Eastwood film must be set aside. (Knowing that Tuco has no bullets, Blondie simply shoots Angel Eyes then makes Tuco dig for the gold they are after.) Trump began with the Bad, not the Ugly. He explicitly threatened Pyongyang with “fire and fury”.
For a time, Kim acted defiant but the fact that South Korea and China feared Trump was in earnest had its effect. The South Koreans offered olive branches. The Chinese squeezed North Korea’s economic windpipe. Trump then made a key concession: he agreed to a summit meeting with Kim. Next month in Singapore we shall see what comes of it. My guess is the deal will make Trump’s knee-jerk critics themselves look foolish. He won’t get complete denuclearisation, but he will get some. Meanwhile, large-scale South Korean and Chinese investment in North Korea will start the process of prising open the hermit kingdom.
I don’t suppose the Scandinavians will give Trump the Nobel peace prize, any more than they will rescind Obama’s for screwing up Syria, but that’s not the point. The point will be that Trump achieved a breakthrough where Obama utterly failed.
Now for Iran. Trump’s strategy in year one was to reassure his country’s traditional allies in the region — not only the Saudis and Israelis, but also the other Arab states — that he was on their side against Iranian expansionism. Apart from the little local difficulty of Qatar, that was achieved. In year two he is not only reapplying American sanctions on Iran — and remember that they affect not only US companies but European ones too — but also applying pressure on the ground in all those countries where the Iranians have intervened. Step forward the new national security team, secretary of state Mike Pompeo and national security adviser John Bolton — names calculated to make the mullahs quake.
“You see, in this world there’s two kinds of people, my friend,” Blondie tells Tuco after that memorable gunfight. “Those with loaded guns and those who dig.” Thanks to the Obama administration’s ineffectual tactics, the North Koreans got themselves into the former category: it became a nuclear state. But Iran now has to dig.
Economically weak enough to suffer a wave of riots in December and January, the Iranians will not find it easy to withstand the snap-back of sanctions and the roll-back of its forces abroad. And if you think the Russians will help them, you must have missed Binyamin Netanyahu shaking hands with Vladimir Putin in the Kremlin last week.
Niall Ferguson is the Milbank Family senior fellow at the Hoover Institution, Stanford
A hundred years ago the First World War was entering its final phase. The last desperate effort by the Germans to achieve a decisive breakthrough on the western front was petering out. The summer of 1918 would see the tables turned, as the British Army launched what proved to be the offensive that won the war.
No one in either Berlin or London had set out to expend so vast a quantity of blood and treasure on four years of industrialised slaughter. As I argued 20 years ago in The Pity of War, the First World War was perhaps the greatest error of modern history.
Historians often look back to the events of the 1890s and 1900s in an effort to trace the origins of the Anglo-German antagonism. The long-established narrative goes something like this. The German economy was overtaking the British economy, a trend summed up in the words “Made in Germany” that were stamped on a rising proportion of imported manufactures.
Germany had imperial ambitions too, acquiring colonies in Asia and Africa. And it was building a fleet that was obviously intended to rival the Royal Navy.
Increasingly, as their economy boomed, the Germans saw their political system — in which the parliament (the Reichstag) had much less power than its British equivalent, and the monarch much more power — as superior. Their material successes bolstered an already deep-rooted nationalism. A Pan-German League was formed to make the case for more German territorial expansion.
The ultimate result was that Britain and Germany followed the ancient example of Sparta and Athens: the incumbent power and the rising power ended up going to war. The Harvard political scientist Graham Allison calls it the “Thucydides trap”, after the historian of the Peloponnesian War.
Are America and China on the way to repeating this classic historical mistake? Having just spent a fascinating week in Beijing and Shanghai, I fear they may be.
China’s economy has already, by at least one measure, overtaken that of America. The Chinese have come up with a strategy to catch up in terms of technology too. It’s called “Made in China 2025”.
President Xi Jinping has his own version of the Germans’ imperial Weltpolitik: the Belt and Road initiative, which implies a global expansion of Chinese infrastructure and influence. And the People’s Liberation Army is pursuing the goal (as one Chinese academic told me) of being the world’s strongest military by the time the People’s Republic celebrates its centenary in 2049.
Like the Germans a century ago, the Chinese no longer worry that Anglophone democracy might be superior to their political system. The Communist Party’s monopoly on power is now touted as a source of strength. Xi was praised by everyone I spoke to, rather as I imagine Kaiser Wilhelm II once was in Berlin.
As for nationalism, there is no mistaking its growing importance. “There is also a Chinese populism,” I was warned.
Yet, as the events of 1918 proved, Germany overestimated itself and underestimated Britain. I fear some Chinese are beginning to make this mistake about America, with the encouragement of other Asians. My old friend Kishore Mahbubani, formerly Singapore’s UN representative, has just published a punchy little book entitled Has the West Lost It?. His answer is a blunt yes.
“The biggest act of strategic folly that America could commit,” he writes, “would be to make a futile attempt to derail China’s successful development before China clearly emerges as No 1 in the world again.”
When we met last week in Beijing, Mahbubani told me he thinks America is nevertheless going to make that mistake — beginning with Donald Trump’s declaration of a trade war — because “the West subconsciously cannot accept China’s rise”.
Such talk encourages a certain bravado in Beijing. Chinese officials I met insisted they could withstand a trade war. Several made the argument that such a war would not last long anyway because the American democratic system would undermine the US negotiating position. Were not the mid-term elections a mere six months away? Were not American farmers already grumbling about the impact of the trade war on their exports of soya beans to China?
It is indeed possible that Trump’s Art of the Deal will be defeated by the rather more subtle Art of War immortalised by the ancient Chinese sage Sun Tzu. Yet the reality is that the Chinese depend more on the current global trade arrangements than the Americans and stand to lose more in a trade war. The US market matters much more to China than the Chinese market matters to America.
Moreover, China’s economy is not quite as strong as it may appear. One influential economist I met made clear that while he did not anticipate a Chinese financial crisis, he did think that the continued debt-propelled operation of unprofitable state-owned enterprises was undermining the efficiency of the economy.
The Chinese people toil under a vast debt mountain. After decades of abundance, China’s workforce is now shrinking and the population ageing in ways that are strongly reminiscent of Japan in 1990s. That surely points to lower growth in future.
Western observers tend to take the rise of Xi at face value, assuming that the concentration of power in his hands is a sign of strength. Perhaps it is. But I was struck by the observation of one former minister that Xi’s ascendancy had averted a huge political crisis in 2012. He had “saved the party, the country and the military” — presumably from a drastic decline in popular legitimacy stemming from rampant corruption. A state that requires dictatorship to be stable is not as strong as it looks — just as one based on individual liberty is not as weak as it looks.
There are two ways this can now go. America and China can fall together into the Thucydides trap, starting with a trade war and escalating into a real one. The alternative is what Henry Kissinger in his book On China called “co-evolution”. That second route is not going to be easy. But it surely must be preferable to repeating the history of the Anglo-German antagonism.
A hundred and four years ago, not many Britons — certainly not my grandfather John Ferguson — knew much about their country’s treaty obligation to uphold the neutrality of Belgium. Only when Germany invaded Belgium in August 1914 did our government inform its citizens this was grounds for war.
Equally, I imagine not many Americans appreciate that, under the Taiwan Relations Act (1979), America would regard “any effort to determine the future of Taiwan by other than peaceful means . . . [as] a threat to the peace and security of the western Pacific area”, and it “maintain[s] the capacity . . . to resist any resort to force . . . that would jeopardise the security, or the social or economic system, of the people on Taiwan”.
A rigid alliance system, Kissinger argued in his book Diplomacy, condemned Britain and Germany to war in 1914. Today’s statesmen in Washington and Beijing must eschew rigidity. To repeat the mistakes that sent my grandfather to the hell of Flanders fields would be — to put it mildly — a pity.
Niall Ferguson is the Milbank Family senior fellow at the Hoover Institution, Stanford
Some teams — generally the ones I support — tend to win at home and lose away. The same is true of some American presidents. Lyndon Johnson’s most enduring victories were legislative (civil rights and the Great Society), yet his presidency was destroyed abroad, in Vietnam.
Woodrow Wilson was just the opposite. He won abroad — ending the First World War and establishing the League of Nations — but lost at home, failing to get the league ratified by the Senate and suffering a debilitating stroke in the process.
As things stand, a year and a half since his election victory, Donald Trump seems destined for domestic disaster. True, he won a prominent new convert to his cause last week, in the unlikely figure of the rapper Kanye West. “You don’t have to agree with trump,” he tweeted on Wednesday, “but the mob can’t make me not love him. We are both dragon energy. He is my brother.”
This is not what you’re supposed to say in either Wakanda or Woke-anda, and all hell duly broke loose. For Trump, however, this was a solitary ray of sunshine in an otherwise darkening sky. Robert Mueller’s investigation rolls inexorably onwards, its scope expanding with every passing week, like a vast, bone-chilling cold front. James Comey is on his book tour, dripping sanctimonious drops on the president’s character in every interview he does. Trump’s aptly named old flame Stormy Daniels is not done with the president either. Worst of all is the human cloud that is Trump’s erstwhile consigliere Michael Cohen, who these days drifts around Manhattan, heavy with the moist vapour of potentially incriminating evidence.
By comparison with all this, the latest personnel pratfalls are barely newsworthy. On Thursday, Trump’s nominee to run the Department of Veterans Affairs, the presidential physician Ronny L Jackson, had to withdraw amid allegations of misconduct. The same day the head of the Environmental Protection Agency, Scott Pruitt, was hauled over the coals by a House committee for ethical lapses and profligate spending.
That the president is oppressed by his local difficulties is clear. Last week he dialled in to his favourite television show, Fox & Friends, to give vent to his frustrations. It was a tirade that left even the show’s Trumpophile presenters looking groggy.
And yet all of this could be mitigated, if not negated, by a few big away wins. It is not because he enjoys Mr Trump’s company that his French counterpart, Emmanuel Macron, came to Washington last week. It is because, no matter how much they may loathe his personality, Europeans cannot get around the fact that Donald Trump is the most powerful man in the most powerful country in the world. Monsieur Macron’s sycophancy is strategic, like everything he does.
Like the mutant Pikachu he (from a distance) resembles, Trump has one Pokémon superpower. Though in a state of permanent distraction, he retains an unerring instinct for the weakness of any adversary. Jeb Bush thought he was entitled to the Republican nomination; Trump zeroed in on his “low energy”. Hillary Clinton believed the presidency was hers; Trump zeroed in on her high crookery.
The same has applied in the realm of foreign policy. European leaders — especially the German chancellor, Angela Merkel — believed they were entitled to the American security umbrella, gratis. Then Trump hinted that the US commitment to Nato might not, after all, be unconditional. Before you could say “Auf Wiedersehen, pet”, up went those defence budgets.
The North Korean leader, Kim Jong-un, thought he could test nuclear warheads and long-range missiles to his heart’s content. Trump threatened him with “fire and fury”, while at the same time leaning on China to impose economic sanctions on Pyongyang. Lo and behold, “Little Rocket Man” crossed the demilitarised zone on Friday, taking the first steps to peace on the Korean peninsula.
Yes, I know, Kim wouldn’t be the first North Korean leader to make a deal and then cheat on it. Still, even habitual critics of the president have been forced to acknowledge that he has made more progress on the Korean question in a single year than his predecessor — he of the eloquent speeches — made in eight. It turns out that the madman theory of diplomacy really works, if the world seriously thinks you’re mad.
Iran believed it could sign its nuclear deal with Obama and get sanctions lifted, while continuing its flagrant and bloody meddling in Iraq, Lebanon, Syria and Yemen. Enter Trump, casting aspersions on the nuclear deal and resuscitating America’s traditional alliances with Israel and the Saudis. Cue protests in Iranian cities against the government.
Next up is the big one: China. The world seemed to be going Xi Jinping’s way last year. He was the toast of Davos, “The world’s most powerful man” on the cover of The Economist. Even Trump’s superpower seemed to fail him at Mar-a-Lago, where he stuck to the globalist script drawn up by the Goldman Sachs alumni.
But then, on his way back from his Asia trip last year, the president came to his senses. The most powerful man in the world was not Xi. It was He, Himself, “the Donald”. And the best way to prove that was to threaten China with a trade war. The Chinese reaction — public pledges of retaliation, private offers of concessions — tells you all you need to know. They don’t like cold steel tariffs up them.
The foreign policy professionals will tell you that Trump’s chronic lack of preparation will doom his Asian foreign policy to failure. Maybe so. But the domestic politics professionals said just the same about his 2016 campaign.
Richard Nixon did not have much of a domestic record to campaign on in 1972. Because the Democrats controlled Congress, his legislative record was modest. He had imposed wage and price controls in a misguided attempt to suppress inflation, and his approval rating was just north of 50%. But the Democrats nominated a left-leaning candidate, Senator George “amnesty, abortion and acid” McGovern.
Nixon smashed McGovern with one foreign policy win after another. He visited China and met Chairman Mao in February 1972, then went to Moscow in May and signed two agreements to limit nuclear weapons. On October 26, Henry Kissinger declared that peace was “at hand” in Vietnam. McGovern won just one state.
Donald Trump may find himself in a similar predicament in 2020, with the difference that his impeachment may already have started before he is up for re-election. Inflation will be up by then. But the Democrats will nominate a progressive candidate. Trump will have no choice but to campaign on foreign policy.
He will have lost at home. But he could still win on away goals.
Niall Ferguson is the Milbank Family senior fellow at the Hoover Institution, Stanford
I Our Picture of the Doniverse
What do we know about the Doniverse and how do we know it? Where did the Doniverse come from and where is it going? Did the Doniverse have a beginning, and if so, what happened before then? Recent breakthroughs in politics, made possible in part by new technologies, suggest answers to some of these longstanding questions that may ultimately provide a single theory that describes the whole Doniverse.
Today, however, scientists describe the Doniverse in terms of two basic partial theories — the general theory of relativity and bunkum mechanics. The general theory of relativity describes the force of graft-ity as it acts on Trump’s relatives. Bunkum mechanics, on the other hand, deals with phenomena on extremely small scales such as the particles known as tweets.
II Spin and Truth
Albert Einstein’s famous equation E=mc² (where “E” is energy, “m” is mass, and “c” is the speed of lies) means that nothing may travel faster than the speed of lies. In other words, the theory of relativity put an end to the idea of absolute truth! We must accept that truth is not completely separate from and independent of spin, but is combined with it to form an object called spin-truth.
Spin-truth is not flat, as had been previously assumed: it is curved, or “warped”. The fact that spin is curved means that lies no longer appear to travel in straight lines. General relativity predicts that lies should be bent by graft-itational fields.
Another prediction of general relativity is that truth should appear to run slower near a massive body. This is because there is a relation between the energy of lies and their frequency (that is, the number of waves of lie per second). The theory of relativity gets rid of absolute truth. Consider a pair of twins. Suppose that one twin lives aboard the International Space Station for a year while the other stays in America. The second twin would go nuts faster than the first.
This is known as the twins paradox, but it is a paradox only if one has the idea of absolute truth at the back of one’s mind. In the theory of relativity there is no unique absolute truth, but instead each individual has his own personal measure of truth that depends on where he is and what cable channel he is watching.
III The Expanding Doniverse
If one looks at the television on a clear, moonless night, the brightest objects one sees are likely to be the planets Ivanka, Jared, Melania and Don Jr. There will also be a very large number of stars, which are just like our own Don but much farther from us.
The discovery that the Doniverse is expanding was one of the great intellectual revolutions of the 20th century. Every day other stars get further and further away from our Don. If we add up the masses of all the stars that we can see in our galaxy and other galaxies, the total is less than one- hundredth of the amount required to halt the expansion of the Doniverse. Our galaxy and other galaxies, however, must contain a large amount of “dark matter” we cannot see directly, but which we know must be there.
When we add up all this dark matter, we still get only about one-tenth of the amount required to halt the expansion. A former FBI scientist named Robert Mueller is investigating this dark matter.
IV The Uncertainty Principle
The German scientist Max Planck suggested in 1900 that lies could not be emitted at an arbitrary rate, but only in certain packets he called tweets. In 1926 another German scientist, Werner Heisenberg, formulated his famous uncertainty principle. In order to predict the future position and veracity of a president, one has to be able to measure his present position and veracity accurately. But the more accurately you try to measure the position of the president, the less accurately you can measure his spin, and vice versa.
This approach led Heisenberg, Erwin Schrödinger, and Paul Dirac in the 1920s to reformulate politics into a new theory called bunkum politics, based on the uncertainty principle. In this theory, presidents no longer had separate, well-defined positions and veracities that could be observed. Instead they had a bunkum state, which was a combination of position and veracity.
Bunkum politics therefore introduces an unavoidable element of unpredictability or randomness into life.
V Elementary Parties and the Forces of Nature
Up to about 30 years ago it was thought that Republicans and Democrats were “elementary” parties, but experiments in which Republicans were collided with other Republicans or Democrats at high speeds indicated that they were in fact made up of smaller parties. These particles were named Pacs (political action committees).
VI Blue Holes
A set of events, a region of space time, from which it is not possible to escape is what we now call a blue hole. Stars in the galaxy that come too near the blue hole will be torn apart. A more technical term for a “blue hole” is “mid-term election”.
VII Blue Holes Ain't So Blue
The event horizon, the boundary of the blue hole, is like the edge of a shadow — the shadow of impending doom.
VIII The Origin and Fate of the Doniverse
In the case of the Doniverse, could it be that we are living in a region that just happens by chance to be smooth and uniform? No. A better model is called the chaotic inflationary model.
IX The Arrow of Time
The second law of trumpodynamics says that in any closed system disorder (or entropy) always increases with time. In other words, it is a form of Murphy’s law: things always tend to go wrong! At a later time, it is more probable that the system will be in a disordered state than in an ordered one.
X Wormholes and Time Travel
Time travel is theoretically possible through a wormhole, a thin tube of spin-truth that can connect two nearly flat regions far apart.
The alternative histories hypothesis is that when time travellers go back to the past, they enter alternative histories. Thus the possibility of time travel remains open. But not back to the creation of the Doniverse on November 8, 2016. Sorry.
XI The Unification of Physics
In G-string theory, the basic objects are not parties, which occupy a single point of space, but things that have a length but no other dimension, such as an infinitely thin piece of string. As well as parties and G-strings there were found to be other objects called p-branes.
If we do discover a grand unified theory, it should in time be understandable in broad principle by everyone, not just a few scientists. Then we shall all, philosophers, scientists and just ordinary people, be able to take part in the discussion of the question of why it is that we and the Doniverse exist.
Niall Ferguson was named broadsheet columnist of the year at last week’s British Press Awards