As 2017 draws to a close, the world has seldom been so binary. You either love Donald Trump or you loathe him. You either adore Brexit or abhor it. This polarisation has been fostered by the giant online social networks of our time and the phenomenon that students of networks know as “homophily”. In plain English: birds of a feather flock together.
Facebook encourages you to like or not like what you see in your news feed. Twitter allows you to retweet or like other people’s tweets or block those users who offend your sensibilities. Pretty soon you are in a filter bubble inhabited exclusively by people who share your view of the world. The result is a paradise not just for fake news but also for extreme views.
In the wake of the exposure of Harvey Weinstein as a sexual predator, shrill voices insist all men are potential rapists. Since the death of a (white) protester in Charlottesville, Virginia, other zealots insist all white people are racists. White men must therefore be racist rapists. Dare to dissent from this new doctrine and you will only confirm the hypothesis — because you would say that, wouldn’t you, if you were a racist rapist.
In this binary world, there is not much room for ambivalence. I have had a tough time this year explaining even to friends why I can like some aspects of the Trump administration while at the same time disliking others. And I wish I’d had a bitcoin for every time someone has complained that my position on Brexit has flip-flopped. No: I’m just ambivalent.
I had a great deal of sympathy last year with those voters who expressed their dissatisfaction with the status quo by voting for Brexit or Trump. But I was also keenly aware there would be significant difficulties with both these populist ventures, as has indeed proved to be the case. This was not flip-flopping. This was what used to be known, in a bygone era, as nuance.
A good occasion for more ambivalence is the Trump administration’s new national security strategy (NSS), published last week. As usual, there were plenty of commentators ready to denounce it and to predict the imminent end of days, similar to the calamities supposed to follow the ending of net neutrality — the policy requiring internet service providers to treat all data equally — and the passage of the Republican tax cuts. In reality, this new NSS is a great improvement on the last administration’s essays in “strategic patience”.
Gone are the highfalutin but vacuous proclamations of virtue that were Barack Obama’s presidential signature tune. Instead we have a muscular and unambiguous identification of the principal threats to America and a clear commitment to meet those threats by force if necessary.
The idea that this document will destroy the “liberal international order” supposedly established in 1945 and unleash the Third World War is absurd. On the contrary, it was high time to call out China, which has become increasingly brazen in its assertion of power, not only in the South China Sea but further afield too.
This was Obama’s 2015 NSS: “The scope of our co-operation with China is unprecedented . . . The United States welcomes the rise of a stable, peaceful and prosperous China. We seek to develop a constructive relationship with China that delivers benefits for our two peoples and promotes security and prosperity in Asia and around the world. We seek co-operation on shared regional and global challenges . . . While there will be competition, we reject the inevitability of confrontation.”
Compare and contrast with the 2017 edition: “China seeks to displace the United States in the Indo-Pacific region, expand the reaches of its state-driven economic model and reorder the region in its favour . . . China gathers and exploits data on an unrivalled scale and spreads features of its authoritarian system, including corruption and the use of surveillance.
“It is building the most capable and well-funded military in the world, after our own. Its nuclear arsenal is growing and diversifying . . . China is using economic inducements and penalties, influence operations and implied military threats to persuade other states to heed its political and security agenda.”
I know which I prefer. I also agree wholeheartedly that it was naive to assume — as the past three administrations tended to — that including Russia and China “in international institutions and global commerce would turn them into benign actors and trustworthy partners”.
A new report on China’s “sharp power” by the National Endowment for Democracy shows just how wrong this was.
Those who worry about the alleged collusion between the Trump campaign and the Kremlin last year ought to welcome the NSS’s tough talk about Russia. Those who feared Trump would terminate Nato should be reassured.
My concern about the NSS is simply that it is a fundamentally old-fashioned document. Its main preoccupations are with threats posed by established nation states — China, Russia, North Korea, Iran — to America and its allies. The document says much less about the new threats that all nation states now face.
Earlier this year I participated in an eye-opening conference at the Hoover Institution at Stanford University, California, convened by the former secretary of state George Shultz. At the age of 97, Shultz remains astonishingly forward-looking. As he argues, cyber-warfare has the potential to disrupt vital infrastructure without warning. A new strain of influenza could devastate the world’s population with astonishing speed. Nano-technology could fundamentally alter the calculus of conflict by threatening conventional forces with overwhelming swarms of hostile devices.
Climate change is conventionally cited as the principal common danger facing all the world’s states. But it is only one of a number of such dangers and by no means the most proximate. The new NSS alludes to some of these threats, but it does not make clear how America is going to combat them. Coming in the wake of a tax bill that significantly reduces the federal government’s tax base for the foreseeable future, the NSS can make only vague commitments to increase expenditure on national security.
The new NSS is therefore just another aspect of Trump’s administration about which it is right to feel ambivalent. It’s an improvement on the bromides of the Obama era. But it falls a long way short of explaining how America can be made great again.
As the authors of NSS 2017 note, however: “China, Russia and other state and non-state actors recognise that the United States often views the world in binary terms, with states being either ‘at peace’ or ‘at war’, when it is actually an arena of continuous competition.”
This insight applies equally well in the realm of domestic politics, where binary thinking is the enemy of rigorous thought.
And if you like only parts of what I’ve just told you, that’s just fine with me.
Niall Ferguson’s new book is The Square and the Tower: Networks, Hierarchies and the Struggle for Global Power (Allen Lane)