The long­est pe­riod of great power peace and rel­a­tive pros­per­ity in his­tory hangs by a thread. Three men can cut it

The Irish Times - Weekend Review - - NEWS REVIEW -

For more than 70 years, the United States has led an in­ter­na­tional or­der or­gan­ised around al­liances, an open global econ­omy, and mul­ti­lat­er­al­ism. This im­per­fect or­der had its fair share of mis­takes, prob­lems, and crises but it also pro­duced the long­est pe­riod of great power peace and rel­a­tive pros­per­ity in his­tory. Today, it hangs by a thread. Three men can cut it.

In Don­ald Trump, Amer­ica has a rogue president who has a 30-year track record of op­pos­ing key el­e­ments of the or­der, in­clud­ing free trade and al­liances. Vladimir Putin wants to over­throw the or­der be­cause he be­lieves it poses a di­rect threat to his regime. Xi Jin­ping’s China ben­e­fits from the open global econ­omy but he would dearly like to re­place the United States as the pre- em­i­nent power in East Asia.

And yet some­how, the old or­der en­dures, at least for now. Trump was so un­pre­pared to gov­ern that he turned to a num­ber of gen­er­als and CEOs – the so- called “adults in the room” – who have worked closely to­gether to con­tain his worst im­pulses and to main­tain a tra­di­tional US for­eign pol­icy as much as pos­si­ble.

The adults – Jim Mat­tis, Rex Tiller­son, H R McMaster, John Kelly and Gary Cohn – have had some suc­cess, pre­vent­ing Trump from start­ing a trade war with China or from pulling out of Nato. Trump con­tin­ues to tweet ir­re­spon­si­bly and he over­ruled his ad­vis­ers to de­cer­tify the Iran deal and pull out of the Paris cli­mate ac­cord, but he finds him­self more con­tained and boxed in than he would like.

Mean­while, Putin and Xi have been cau­tious and are bid­ing their time. Both have do­mes­tic pol­i­tics to worry about – Xi with the re­cently con­cluded 19th party congress and Putin with next year’s Rus­sian pres­i­den­tial elec­tion. Putin’s elec­tion is un­fair and fraud­u­lent of course but much can still go wrong for him, as it did in 2012 when protests rocked Moscow.

One year on from the most shock­ing elec­tion in Amer­i­can his­tory, the world could be for­given for qui­etly ask­ing the ques­tion: are we safe? Is this as bad as it gets?

The an­swer is un­know­able of course but un­for­tu­nately there is good rea­son to be­lieve pre­cisely the op­po­site. Per­haps, in the age of Trump, this is as good as it gets and it just gets worse from here.

There is no es­cap­ing the fact that Trump is a unique fig­ure in Amer­i­can pres­i­den­tial his­tory. He is unique ide­o­log­i­cally. No other post­war president be­lieved the rad­i­cal things he be­lieves. He is unique cog­ni­tively and in how he pro­cesses in­for­ma­tion. No other president trusted crazy cable talk shows over his own in­tel­li­gence agen­cies. He is unique tem­per­a­men­tally. No other president, not even Nixon, was as thin-skinned or as in­se­cure. And he is unique in­tel­lec­tu­ally. No other president knew less about his­tory and cur­rent af­fairs than Trump. And no one cared less about what they did not know.

The no­tion that Amer­ica and the world can mud­dle through the next three years with­out some­thing break­ing rests on the as­sump­tion that maybe this time the iden­tity of the president does not mat­ter. Per­haps the sys­tem is stronger than the man.

The first nine and half months of his pres­i­dency pro­vides some ev­i­dence for this propo­si­tion. But the prob­lem is that Trump does not want to be nor­malised. He is not an in­ex­pe­ri­enced gov­er­nor who learns on the job, like Jimmy Carter, Bill Clin­ton, or Ge­orge W Bush. He is de­ter­mined to find ways to dis­rupt and up­end world af­fairs on a whim. And, as president he is in­vested with enor­mous power.

He was broadly con­tained by the “adults in the room” be­cause he had no one truly loyal to him who was qual­i­fied to hold high of­fice and could be con­firmed by the Se­nate. He brought the few peo­ple he did have into the White House, where Se­nate con­for­ma­tion is not re­quired, but Michael Flynn was quickly f orced to re­sign and Steve Ban­non was marginalised from the na­tional se­cu­rity de­ci­sion-mak­ing.

How­ever, as time goes on, Trump will find peo­ple who will em­power him, in­stead of try­ing to con­tain him. Some of th­ese will be ju­nior of­fi­cials who gain ex­pe­ri­ence. Oth­ers may be op­por­tunists who see a chance to gain high of­fice by pledg­ing to be more of a loy­al­ist than the cur­rent cabi­net. Se­na­tor Tom Cot­ton of Arkansas, ru­moured to be a fu­ture CIA direc­tor or sec­re­tary of de­fence, al­ready seems to be play­ing this role, say­ing that cabi­net mem­bers should re­sign if they can­not im­ple­ment Trump’s vi­sion.

And if the Repub­li­can Party does well in the mid- term elec­tions, with more pro-Trump can­di­dates on the bal­lot cour­tesy of Ban­non’s pri­mary chal­lenges, t hen Trump will feel em­pow­ered to loosen the shack­les even more. He and his true be­liev­ers will grad­u­ally fig­ure out how to con­trol the bu­reau­cracy and tilt pol­icy in their di­rec­tion. They will grow tired of adult su­per­vi­sion.

Para­dox­i­cally, as Trump gains more con­trol over his ad­min­is­tra­tion, he will be­come weaker on the world stage. Amer­ica’s strength is rooted in its pre­dictabil­ity. Trump’s defin­ing char­ac­ter­is­tics are an in­de­ci­sive­ness born out of ig­no­rance and an in­abil­ity to learn quickly and a weak­ness born out of in­se­cu­rity. He seeks the trap­pings of strength but like Kaiser Wil­helm II he is prone to rash de­ci­sions and like Napoleon III he is eas­ily ma­nip­u­lated by for­eign pow­ers who know what but­tons to push. It is this in­trin­sic weak­ness that cre­ates fur­ther open­ings for Xi and Putin.

Xi’s goal ap­pears to be to over­throw the in­ter­na­tional or­der while pre­tend­ing to be its pro­tec­tor. Un­der his rule, China has pur­sued mer­can­tilist eco­nomic poli­cies much more in line with Trump’s world­view than with the prin­ci­ples of an open global econ­omy. And yet Trump’s folly al­lows Xi to por­tray him­self as the cham­pion of glob­al­i­sa­tion. On se­cu­rity, he is telling the re­gion that China is re­li­able and here to stay while the US is in de­cline and can­not be trusted to play its tra­di­tional role.

Now that the 19th party congress is out of the way, Xi’s China is likely to be­come even more as­sertive in its re­gion. Like Putin’s Rus­sia, it will also step up its politi­cal in­ter­fer­ence in other coun­tries, es­pe­cially in South East Asia. While Xi pres­sures the west, he will also pre­serve the pos­si­bil­ity of a bar­gain or se­ries of bar­gains with Trump that puts China in the pi­lot’s seat in East Asia.

Putin though is the real wild­card. He has the abil­ity and mo­ti­va­tion to wreak havoc. He now knows he can in­ter­fere in US elec­tions on be­half of the Repub­li­cans with­out sanc­tion or re­sponse from Trump. If he can cal­i­brate it cor­rectly, he could strengthen the pro-Rus­sia po­si­tion among the Bre­it­bart and Amer­ica First Repub­li­cans. He will also con­tinue to wage his politi­cal war against the Euro­pean Union, see­ing it as part of that US-led in­ter­na­tional or­der that poses so many dan­gers to him.

Putin be­lieves he is re­spond­ing to a politi­cal war the US and the EU has waged against him. He be­lieves that NGOs, sup­port for hu­man rights and democ­racy, and the free press are all part of a western strat­egy to or­ches­trate rev­o­lu­tions to top­ple his regime. For Putin, this is the real threat – much more so than Nato troops or mil­i­tary in­ter­ven­tions. Rus­sian politi­cal war­fare is his re­sponse.

The big ques­tion is whether he would make a big move to test Trump’s re­solve. Would he in­vade the Baltic states to ex­pose the mu­tual de­fence clause of Nato as empty and ob­so­lete? Prob­a­bly not. Putin is risk ac­cep­tant but such a move would bring a real risk of a ma­jor power war, which he wants to avoid. Bet­ter to wage a covert war un­der the radar. Es­pe­cially since it is al­ready pro­duc­ing re­sults.

It is the com­bi­na­tion of Trump, Xi and Putin that makes the present sit­u­a­tion so dan­ger­ous. If Trump was elected in the 1990s, it would have been ugly but the rest of the world would have been in rel­a­tively good shape. Today though, the world is frag­ile and preda­tors lurk in the

shad­ows.

Ma­jor cri­sis

The real test will come if and when a ma­jor cri­sis oc­curs. All eyes are cur­rently on North Korean dic­ta­tor Kim Jong Un who is mas­ter­ing the tech­nol­ogy to de­stroy Amer­i­can and Euro­pean cities with nu­clear mis­siles. Kim is ra­tio­nal enough not to launch th­ese weapons against the west, know­ing that would bring about his own de­struc­tion, but he is also ruth­less enough to try to use the lever­age they pro­vide to re­alise his grand­fa­ther’s dream of uni­fy­ing the penin­sula on North Korea’s terms. The likely re­sult is a se­ries of crises and brinks­man­ship to test the will of Amer­ica and its al­lies. The US is un­likely to launch a pre­ven­tive strike on North Korea, not least be­cause sec­re­tary Mat­tis would never agree to it. But war could also oc­cur by ac­ci­dent or mis­cal­cu­la­tion. A war on the Korean penin­sula would be dev­as­tat­ing in terms of the loss of life. It would also be the great­est geopo­lit­i­cal shock to the in­ter­na­tional or­der since the col­lapse of the Soviet Union.

It’s not just mil­i­tary crises we have to worry about. The 2008 fi­nan­cial cri­sis was worse than the 1929 crash for the first few months. It lev­elled off be­cause of the re­spon­si­ble de­ci­sions taken by the US, China, and the EU. Would Trump act as re­spon­si­bly if a fi­nan­cial cri­sis oc­curred on his watch or would he re­peat the mis­takes of the early 1930s by blam­ing other na­tions and im­pos­ing mas­sive tar­iffs? There is a non-triv­ial prob­a­bil­ity he would choose the lat­ter course, mak­ing a de­pres­sion much more likely.

It would be an an­a­lyt­i­cal er­ror to in­fer from the first year since Trump’s elec­tion that we will con­tinue to mud­dle through. Small signs of nor­mal­ity in the na­tional se­cu­rity bu­reau­cracy do not nec­es­sar­ily por­tend a lin­ear trend of im­prove­ment. Make no mis­take – this is a great Amer­i­can and global cri­sis that con­tin­ues to un­fold. In ret­ro­spect, we may look back on 2017 as the phoney war when the three ma­jor pro­tag­o­nists – a modern axis of dis­or­der – read­ied them­selves to act in a rad­i­cally changed world.

Thomas Wright is a se­nior fel­low at the Brook­ings In­sti­tu­tion and au­thor of All Mea­sures Short of War: The Con­test for the 21st Cen­tury and the Fu­ture of Amer­i­can Power

Be­come weaker

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