The president’s age-old strategy is to bully China and Europe. It seems to be working
To most highly educated people I know, Donald Trump is a terrible, horrible, no good, very bad president. But might he have the makings of a rather effective emperor? The death of the republic is not something that I, a soon-to-be-citizen, would welcome. Yet it’s a possibility that needs to be considered, precisely because so many smart people persist in underestimating Trump.
For two years the People with At Least Two University Degrees (Paltuds) have been gnashing their teeth about Trump’s every utterance and move. To the foreign policy experts he is a bull in a china shop, trampling the “rules-based international order”. To the economics establishment he is a human wrecking ball, smashing more than half a century of consensus that free trade really works better than protectionism.
No, no, no, the international-relations types exclaim. Don’t upset your European allies. Don’t walk out of the Paris climate accord. Don’t threaten North Korea. Don’t agree to a summit with Kim Jong-un. Don’t scrap the Iran deal. This will all end in disaster — either the Third World War or a peaceful Chinese takeover of the world. Or a Russian takeover of Europe. Or something terrible, horrible, no good, very bad.
Stop, stop, stop, wail the economists. Don’t impose tariffs on anyone — especially not your allies. Don’t demand reductions in the US-China trade deficit. Don’t pass huge tax cuts. This will all end in disaster — either a Great Depression or galloping inflation. Or something terrible, horrible, no good, very bad.
A striking feature of all this dire commentary is how wrong it has been so far. Despite all the Cassandra talk, America could still meet its Paris target for reducing carbon dioxide emissions. Europeans have largely accepted that they need to spend more on their own defence. Kim has halted his missile and warhead tests and come to the negotiating table (if not quite on his hands and knees, as Rudy Giuliani claimed last week). And Iran is reeling from the reimposition of sanctions and a concerted US-Israeli-Arab military pushback.
Despite all the trade war talk, the US economy is at full employment, the dollar is rallying, the stock market is up 30% since Trump’s election and the only countries in any trouble are the usual suspects with their usual problems (such as Turkey). It is not that Trump is an underrated genius, or an idiot savant. It is just that his intuitive, instinctive, impulsive way of operating, familiar to those who have done business with him, is exposing some basic flaws in the conceptual framework of the Paltuds.
Yes, there is much to be said in principle for an international order based on explicit rules; and, yes, those rules should favour free trade over protectionism. But if, in practice, your liberal international order allows China to overtake you, first economically and then strategically, there is probably something wrong with it.
The key to the Trump presidency is that it is probably the last opportunity America has to stop or at least slow China’s ascendancy. And while it may not be intellectually very satisfying, Trump’s approach to the problem, which is to assert US power in unpredictable and disruptive ways, may in fact be the only viable option left.
Think of the world as a three-empire system. Forget the World Cup and its fantasy that all nations have an equal shot and giant-killing Davids can sometimes slay Goliaths. In the real World Cup of power, Goliaths rule. As Thucydides says the Athenians told the Melians: “The strong do what they can and the weak suffer what they must.”
The strong in today’s world are the United States, China and Europe, in that order. Each empire is evolving in a different direction. The American empire, having experienced overextension in Afghanistan and Iraq, has not retreated into isolation but continues to exert lethal force and still dominates the world’s oceans. Its latest step down the road to empire is domestic: Trump’s claim that he can pardon himself is part of the fundamental challenge he poses to the formal and informal rules of the republic.
A moment of truth is fast approaching when Robert Mueller’s report exposes all kinds of crimes and misdemeanours, some of them very probably of the “high” variety that would justify impeachment. Probably the Democrats will win back the House of Representatives in November and proceed to impeach Trump. But what will happen if his approval rating holds up — perhaps even improves? What if he simply brazens it out, as Richard Nixon did not? That would be the Roman moment.
All the accompanying symptoms of the transition from republic to empire are visible. The plebs despise the elites. An old and noble senatorial order personified by John McCain is dying. A cultural civil war rages on social media, the modern-day forum, with all civility cast aside and character assassination a daily occurrence. The president-emperor dominates public discourse by issuing 280-character edicts, picking fights with gladiators — sorry, American football players — and arbitrarily pardoning convicted criminals.
Meanwhile, the Chinese empire becomes ever-more centralised, ever-more invasive of its citizens’ privacy and ever-more overt in its overseas expansion. The western world regards Xi Jinping as an almighty potentate. Few observers appreciate the acute sense of weakness that has motivated his tightening grip on party and state and his surveillance of his own people. Few see the risks of imperial ventures such as the Belt and Road initiative, which is drawing Chinese investment into economically unpromising and strategically dangerous locations.
The weakest of the three empires is the EU. True, its institutions in Brussels have the power to impose rules, fines and taxes on the biggest US and Chinese corporations. But Europe lacks its own tech giants. Its navies, armies and air forces have melted away. And the political consensus on which it has been based for the past 60 years — between social democrats and moderate conservatives in every member state — is crumbling under a nationalist-populist assault.
The logic of Trumpism is simply to bully the other empires, exploiting the fact that they are both weaker than the United States, in order to extract concessions and claim victories. The Chinese fear a trade war and will end up buying a very large amount of American produce in order to avoid one. The Europeans dare not stand up to Trump over his Iran sanctions and secretly agree with him about China, and so are reduced to impotent seething (Angela Merkel) or sycophancy (Emmanuel Macron, until last week). If they unite against him (as on the eve of the G7), he brings up Russia and divides them again.
To the Paltuds, all this is incomprehensible. They will continue to find fault with Trump’s every success, nitpicking their way through the small print, failing to realise that in the imperial transition such details cease to matter.
Octavian, too, was terrible, horrible, no good, very bad in the eyes of many of his Roman contemporaries. As Augustus, however, he triumphed.
It is one of history’s most disquieting lessons. It will be a pity if Paltuds and plebs alike have to relearn it the hard way.
Niall Ferguson is the Milbank Family senior fellow at the Hoover Institution, Stanford