Is This the End of the American Century?
ANGLO AMERICA, 1 Apr 2019
4 Apr 2019 – On 13 October 1806 a young German philosopher, Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel, had an encounter with world history. En route to their annihilation of the Prussian forces 24 hours later, Napoleon and his army were marching through the East German university town of Jena. Hegel couldn’t disguise his terror that in the ensuing chaos the recently completed manuscript of The Phenomenology of Spirit might get lost in the mail. But neither could he resist the drama of the moment. As he wrote to his friend Friedrich Niethammer, ‘I saw the emperor – this world-soul (Weltseele) – riding out of the city on reconnaissance. It is indeed a wonderful sensation to see such an individual, who, concentrated here at a single point, astride a horse, reaches out over the world and masters it.’
Two hundred years later, in rather more sedate circumstances, the Berkeley historian Daniel J. Sargent, addressing the American Historical Association, also evoked the world spirit. But this time it came in the person of Donald Trump and he was riding not on horseback, but on a golf cart. Trump can be compared to Napoleon, according to Sargent, because they are both destroyers of international order. In the wake of the French Revolution, Napoleon wrecked what was left of the legitimate order of Europe. Trump, in turn, has apparently ended the American world order, or, as Sargent prefers to call it, Pax Americana.
Sargent’s is an extraordinary suggestion, even though overenthusiastic historic comparisons have now become commonplace. Early in 2017 I was among those who thought they were seeing the end of the American century. But, even then, in the early days of the Trump administration, it seemed crucial to draw a distinction between American power and American political authority. Two years on, that distinction seems more important than ever.
The idea that Trump is a wrecker of the American-led world order rests on three claims. First, he is manifestly unfit for high office. That such a man can be elected president of the United States reveals a deep degeneration of American political culture and permanently damages the country’s credibility. Second, his capricious and crude pursuit of ‘America first’ has weakened America’s alliances and instigated a departure from globalisation based on free trade. Finally, he has triggered this crisis at a moment when China poses an unprecedented challenge to Western-led globalisation. Each of these claims is hard to deny, but do they in fact add up to a historically significant shift in the foundations of America’s global power?
No question, Trump has done massive damage to the dignity of the American presidency. Even allowing for the personal and political failings of some previous incumbents, he marks a new low. What ought to be of no less concern is that he has received so little open criticism from the supposedly respectable ranks of the Republican leadership. Similarly, American big business leaders, though sceptical of Trump, have profited from his administration’s tax cuts and eagerly assisted in dismantling the apparatus of environmental and financial regulation. He has been applauded by the section of the US media that caters to the right. And a solid minority of the electorate continues to give him its wholehearted support. What is worrying, therefore, isn’t simply Trump himself, but the forces in America that enable him.
Of course, Trump isn’t the first Republican president to evoke a mixture of outrage, horror and derision both at home and abroad. Both Ronald Reagan and George W. Bush were accused, in their time, of endangering the legitimacy of the American world order. The cultural conservatism and overt nationalism of the American right is fiercely at odds with bien pensant global opinion. This culture clash has historical roots in America’s domestic struggles over civil rights, the women’s and gay liberation struggles, and in the worldwide protest movement against America’s brutal war in Vietnam. Since the days of Nixon and the ‘Southern strategy’, the Republicans have been progressively digging in, consolidating their grip on the white electorate in the South and Midwest. By the 1980s the Republican Party was an uneasy coalition between a free-market, pro-business elite and a xenophobic working and lower-middle-class base. This was always a fragile arrangement, held together by rampant nationalism and a suspicion of big government. It was able to govern in large part owing to the willingness of Democratic Party centrists to help with the heavy lifting. The Nafta free-trade agreement between the US, Mexico and Canada was initiated by George H.W. Bush, but carried over the line in 1993 by Bill Clinton, against the opposition of the American labour movement. It was Clinton’s administration that righted the fiscal ship after the deficit excesses of the Reagan era, only for the budget to be blown back into deficit by the wars and tax cuts of the George W. Bush administration.
Meanwhile, the broad church of the Republican Party began to radicalise. In the 1990s, with Newt Gingrich and Karl Rove setting the tone, the battle lines hardened. With the Iraq War going horribly, and the Democrats taking control of Congress in 2006, the right became ever more dominant within the Republican Party. In 2008, in the midst of the financial crisis, the Republicans in Congress abandoned the Bush administration. The financial crisis-fighting of Hank Paulson as Bush’s Treasury secretary and Ben Bernanke at the Fed relied on the Democrats for congressional support. Elite leadership of the Republican Party collapsed. John McCain chose the shockingly unqualified Sarah Palin as a running mate in the 2008 election because she was hugely popular with the Republican base, who revelled in the outrage she triggered among liberals. Barack Obama’s victory in that election only exacerbated the lurch to the right. The Republicans in Congress put up a wall of opposition and indulged the populist right in openly questioning his legitimacy as president. The defeat of the centrist Mitt Romney in 2012 caused a further, decisive slide to the right, opening the door for Trump. In 2016 no major corporation was willing to sponsor the convention that nominated Trump as the Republican presidential candidate: their brand advisers were too worried that Confederate flags would be waving in the convention hall. His is the voice of the right-wing base, energised by funding from a small group of highly ideological oligarchs, no longer constrained by the globalist business elite.
A cynic might say that Trump simply says out loud what many on the right have long thought in private. He is clearly a racist, but the mass incarceration of black men since the 1970s has been a bipartisan policy. His inflammatory remarks about immigration are appalling, but it isn’t as though liberal centrists would advocate a policy of open borders. The question – and it is a real question – is whether his disinhibited rhetoric announces a disastrous slide from the hypocrisies and compromises of the previous status quo into something even darker. The concern is that he will trigger an illiberal chain reaction both at home and abroad.
At G20, G7 and Nato summits, the mood is tense. The rumour that the US is planning to charge host governments ‘cost plus 50 per cent’ for the military bases it has planted all over the world is the latest instance of a stance that at times seems to reduce American power to a protection racket. But for all the indignation this causes, what matters is the effect Trump’s disruptive political style has on the global power balance and whether it indicates a historic rupture of the American world order. How much difference does the US being rude to European Nato members, refusing to co-operate with the WTO, or playing hardball on car imports really make?
This is not merely a debating point. It is the challenge being advanced by the Trump administration itself in its encounters with its allies and partners. Do America’s alliances – do international institutions – really matter? The administration is even testing the proposition that transnational technological and business linkages must be taken as given. Might it not be better for the US simply to ‘uncouple’? Where Trump’s critics argue that at a time when China’s power is increasing the US should strengthen its alliances abroad, the Trumpists take the opposite view. For them it is precisely in order to face down China that the US must shake up the Western alliance and redefine its terms so that it serves American interests more clearly. What we are witnessing isn’t just a process of dismantling and destruction, but a deliberate strategy of stress testing. It is a strategy Trump personifies, but it goes well beyond him.
In October 2018 the giant Nimitz-class aircraft carrier USS Harry S. Truman unexpectedly pulled out of the Eastern Mediterranean, where its planes had been bombarding IS’s positions in Syria. It sailed into the Atlantic and then suddenly and without warning headed north. Aircraft carriers don’t do this: their itineraries are planned years ahead. This was different. The Truman and its escorts headed full steam to the Arctic, making it the first carrier group to deploy there for 27 years, backing up Nato’s war games in Norway. The consternation this caused delighted the Pentagon. Unpredictable ‘dynamic force employment’ is a key part of its new strategy to wrong-foot America’s challengers.
The Harry S. Truman is a controversial ship. The Pentagon would like to scrap it in favour of more modern vessels. Congress is pushing back. The White House wants more and bigger carrier groups; the navy says it wants 12 of them. The Nimitz-class behemoths commissioned between 1975 and 2009 are to be replaced by a new fleet of even more gigantic and complex Ford-class vessels. All have their priorities, but what everyone in Washington agrees on is the need for a huge military build-up.
The resignation of General James Mattis as defence secretary at the end of 2018 sparked yet another round of speculation about the politicking going on inside the Trump administration. But we would do better to pay more attention to his interim replacement, Patrick Shanahan, and the agenda he is pursuing. Shanahan, who spent thirty years at Boeing, is described by one insider as ‘a living, breathing product of the military-industrial complex’. Under Mattis he was the organisational muscle in a Defence Department with a new focus, not on counterinsurgency, but on future conflicts between great powers. Shanahan’s stock in trade is advanced technology: hypersonics, directed energy, space, cyber, quantum science and autonomous war-fighting by AI. And he has the budget to deliver. The Trump administration has asked for a staggering $750 billion for defence in 2020, more than the spending of the next seven countries in the world put together.
Declinists will point out that the US no longer has a monopoly on high-tech weaponry. But that is grist to the mill of the Trump-era strategists. They recognise the threat that great-power competition poses. Their plan is to compete and to win. In any case, most of the other substantial military spenders are American allies or protectorates, like Saudi Arabia or the European members of Nato. The only real challenges are presented by Russia and China. Russia is troublesome and the breakdown in nuclear arms control poses important and expensive questions for the future. But Russia is the old enemy. Shanahan’s mantra is ‘China, China, China’.
The ‘pivot’ in American strategy to face China was initiated not by Trump but by Obama in 2011, under Secretary of State Hillary Clinton. Even then, despite their far more tactful leadership, it caused some crashing of gears. The problem is that containing China is not what Washington’s system of alliances is designed to do. From the early 1970s, the days of Nixon and Kissinger, China was enrolled as a US partner in keeping the balance of power with the Soviet Union. Given half a chance, Trump would like to essay a reverse-Kissinger and recruit Russia as an ally against China. But Congress and the defence community will have none of that. Instead, the US is doubling down on its Cold War alliances in urging both South Korea and Japan to increase their defence efforts. This has the additional benefit that they will have to buy more American equipment. If the Vietnamese regime too were to veer America’s way, Washington would surely welcome it with open arms.
None of this is to say that Trump’s version of the pivot is coherent. If containment of China is the aim, America’s Asian partners must wonder why the president scrapped the Trans-Pacific Partnership trade and investment deal within days of taking office. That elaborate package was the foundation of Obama’s China-containment strategy. But for Trump and his cohorts that is muddled thinking. You cannot build American strength on the back of a giant trade deficit. Washington is no longer willing to pay for military co-operation with economic concessions: it wants both greater contributions and more balanced trade.
In Europe the Trump administration is proceeding on the same basis. Trump’s antipathy towards the EU and its political culture is disconcerting. But the problem of burden-sharing has haunted Nato since its inception, and until the 1980s, at least, the Europeans were significant contributors. Until 1989 Germany’s Bundeswehr was a heavily armoured and mechanised force of 500,000 men with a mobilisation strength of 1.5 million. Though its loyalty to the Federal Republic wasn’t in doubt, it was unmistakably a descendant of Germany’s military past. The break following the end of the Cold War was dramatic, not just in Germany but across Europe. Spending collapsed; conscription was abolished; Europe’s contribution to Nato’s effective strength dwindled. There were also deep disagreements between Germany, France and the US over strategic priorities, particularly on Iraq and the war on terror. But differences in threat-perception are no excuse for the dereliction of Europe’s security landscape. If Europe really feels as safe as it claims to, it should have the courage to push for even deeper cuts. Instead, it continues to maintain military establishments which, taken together, make it the world’s second or third largest military spender, depending on how you add up the Chinese budget. But given that it is spread across 28 poorly co-ordinated, undersized forces, Europe’s $270 billion in defence spending isn’t enough to buy an adequate deployable military capacity. Aside from its value as a work-creation measure, the only justification for this huge waste of resources is that it keeps the Americans on board.
The result is a balance of hard power that has for the last thirty years been extraordinarily lopsided. Never before in history has military power been as skewed as it is today. For better or worse, it is America’s preponderance that shapes whatever we call the international order. And given how freely that power has been used, to call it a Pax Americana seems inapposite. A generation of American soldiers has grown used to fighting wars on totally asymmetrical terms. That for them is what the American world order means. And far from abandoning or weakening it, the Trump administration is making urgent efforts to consolidate and reinforce that asymmetry.
How can the US afford its military, the Europeans ask. Is this just another instance of America’s unbalanced constitution? Isn’t there a risk of overstretch? That was certainly the worry at the end of the 1980s, and it recurred in the fears stoked during the Bush era by critics of the Iraq War and budget hawks in the Democratic Party. It doesn’t play much of a role in the current debate about American power, and for good reason. The fact is that for societies at the West’s current level of affluence, military spending is not shockingly disproportionate. The Nato target, which the Europeans huff and puff over, is 2 per cent of GDP; US spending is between 3 and 4 per cent of GDP. And to regard this straightforwardly as a cost is to think in cameralist terms. The overwhelming majority of the Pentagon’s budget is spent in the US or with close allies. The hundreds of billions flow into businesses and communities as profit, wages and tax revenue. What’s more, the Pentagon is responsible for America’s most future-oriented industrial policy. Defence R&D was one of the midwives of Silicon Valley, the greatest legitimating story of modern American capitalism.
If Congress chose, defence spending could easily be funded with taxation. That is what both the Clinton and Obama administrations attempted. The Republicans do things differently. Three of the last four Republican administrations – Reagan, George W. Bush and now Trump – combined enormous tax cuts for the better-off with a huge surge in defence spending. Why? Because they can. As Dick Cheney declared, to the horror of beltway centrists: ‘Reagan showed that deficits don’t matter.’ US Treasuries will be a liability for future American taxpayers, but by the same token they constitute by far the most important pool of safe assets for global investors. Foreign investors hold $6.2 trillion in US public debt, 39 per cent of the debt held by investors other than America’s own government agencies. US taxpayers will be making heavy repayments long into the future. But they will make those payments in a currency that the US itself prints. Foreigners are happy to lend in dollars because the dollar is the pre-eminent global reserve currency.
The hegemony of the dollar-Treasury nexus in global finance remains unchallenged. The dollar’s role in global finance didn’t just survive the crisis of 2008: it was reinforced by it. As the world’s banks gasped for dollar liquidity, the Federal Reserve transformed itself into a global lender of last resort. As part of his election campaign in 2016, Trump undertook an extraordinary vendetta against Janet Yellen, the Fed chair. But he was more restrained after he took office, and his appointment of Jerome Powell as her successor was arguably his most important concession to mainstream policy opinion. Needless to say, Trump is no respecter of the Fed’s ‘independence’. When it began tightening interest rates in 2018 he pushed back aggressively. (As a man who knows a thing or two about debts, he prefers borrowing costs to be low.) His bullying scandalised polite opinion. But rather than undermining the dollar as a global currency, his interventions were music to the ears of hard-pressed borrowers in emerging markets. The same applies to the giant fiscal stimulus that the Republicans launched with their tax cuts: despite rumblings of a trade war, it has kept the American demand for imports – a key element of its global leadership – at record levels.
The world economic order that America oversees was not built through consistent discipline on the part of Washington. Discipline is for crisis cases on the periphery, and dispensing it is the job of agencies like the IMF and the World Bank. Both have been through phases of weakness; in a world in which private funding is cheap and abundant even for some of the poorest countries in the world, the World Bank is struggling to define its role. But the IMF is in fine fettle, largely because the Obama administration pushed the G20 to add $1 trillion to its funding in 2009. So far the Trump administration has shown no interest in sabotaging Christine Lagarde. Over the latest bailout for Argentina, the Americans were notably co-operative. A key issue will be the rollover of the crisis-era emergency funding; from the point of view of international economic governance that may prove to be the most clear-cut test yet of the stance of the Trump presidency.
A stark illustration of the asymmetrical structure of American world order came in recent months in the use of the dollar-based system of invoicing for international trade to threaten sanctions against those tempted to do business with Iran. This outraged global opinion; the Europeans were even roused to talk about the need for ‘economic sovereignty’. What they are upset about isn’t the lack of order, but America’s use of it. To many, Trump’s withdrawal from the Iran nuclear agreement is another indication of American unreliability and unilateralism. But why is anyone surprised? It took extraordinary political finesse on the part of the Obama administration to secure backing for the Iran deal in Washington. It was always more than likely that a Republican administration would repudiate it. That may be disagreeable but it can hardly be described as a rupture with the norms of American world order. The system is hierarchical. While others are bound, America retains the sovereign freedom to choose. And that includes the right to revert to the cold war it has been waging against the Iranian Revolution since 1979.
The same harsh logic applies when it comes to the Paris Agreement on climate change. Clearly, it is a disaster that the US has pulled out. But Congress and the George W. Bush administration did the same to the Kyoto Protocol at the beginning of the century. Moves like this should not be interpreted as a rejection of international order tout court, let alone as an abdication of American leadership. The Trump administration has a clear vision of an energy-based system of American leadership and influence. It is based on the transformative technological and business breakthrough of fracking, which has broken the grip of Russia and the Saudis on oil markets and is turning the US into a net exporter of hydrocarbons for the first time since the 1950s. Liquefied natural gas is the fuel of the future. Terminals are being built at full speed on the Texas shoreline. Fracking was originally a wildcat affair but big corporate money is now pouring in. The oil giant ExxonMobil is back (after a weak commercial patch and Rex Tillerson’s humiliating stint at the State Department), investing heavily in huge new discoveries in Latin America. All this will be horrifying to anyone convinced that the future of humanity depends urgently on decarbonisation. But again it is unhelpful, if the aim is to grasp the reality of international order, to conflate it with a specifically liberal interpretation of that idea.
If Republican policy is just Republican policy, American military power is waxing not waning, and the dollar remains at the hub of the global economy, what exactly is it that is broken? The clearest site of rupture is trade, and the associated geopolitical escalation with China. The US is engaged in a sustained and effective boycott of the WTO arbitration system. But the WTO has been ailing for a long time. Since the Doha round of negotiations became deadlocked in the early 2000s it has made little contribution to trade liberalisation. In any case, the idea that legal agreements such as those done at the WTO are what drives globalisation puts the cart before the horse. What really matter are technology and the raw economics of labour costs. The container and the microchip are far more important motors of globalisation than all the GATT rounds and WTO talks put together. If in the last ten years globalisation appears to have stalled, it has more to do with a plateau in the development of global supply chains than with backsliding into protectionism.
In this regard the Trump administration’s aggressive attack on America’s regional trade arrangements is more significant than its boycotting of the WTO. It is in regional integration agreements that the key supply chain networks are framed. The abrupt withdrawal of the US, in the first days of the Trump presidency, from TPP in the Asia-Pacific region and TTIP in the Atlantic, was a genuine shock. But it is far from clear that either arrangement would have been pursued with any energy by a Hillary Clinton administration. She would no doubt have shifted position more gracefully. But the political cost of pushing them through Congress might well have been too high.
In spring 2017 there was real concern that Trump might abruptly and unilaterally cancel Nafta – apparently the hundredth day of his presidency had been set as the occasion. But that threat was contained by a concerted mobilisation of business interests. Once the negotiations with Mexico and Canada started, the tone was rough. In Robert Lighthizer as his trade representative, Trump has found a bully after his own heart. But again, if you look back at the history of Nafta and WTO negotiations, tough talk is par for the course. In the end, a replacement for Nafta emerged, in the form of the United States Mexico Canada Agreement (USMCA). Apart from minor concessions on dairy exports to Canada and intellectual property protection for American pharmaceuticals, its main provisions concerned the car industry, which dominates North American trade. To escape tariffs, 40 per cent of any vehicle produced in Mexico must have been manufactured by workers earning $16 an hour, well above the US minimum wage and seven times the average manufacturing wage in Mexico. Three-quarters of a vehicle’s value must originate inside the free-trade zone, restricting the use of cheap imported components from Asia. This will likely induce a modification but not a wholesale dismantling of the production networks established under Nafta. Though it was not endorsed by US trade unions, it wasn’t repudiated by them either. As the American Federation of Labour and Congress of Industrial Organisations commented, the effect will depend on how it is implemented.
The auto industry was at the heart of the Nafta renegotiation and it is the critical element in simmering US-EU trade tensions too. Let there be no false equivalence, however: the incomprehension and disrespect shown by the White House towards the EU is unprecedented. It isn’t clear that Trump and his entourage actually grasped that America no longer maintains bilateral trade deals with individual members of the EU. Trump’s open advocacy for Brexit and encouragement of further challenges to the coherence of the EU has been extraordinary. The use of Section 232 of the Trade Expansion Act to investigate car imports from Germany as a threat to American national security is absurd. Such things mark a bewildering break with previous experience. That said, Trump’s obsession with the prevalence of German limousines in swanky parts of New York does highlight another painful imbalance in transatlantic relations: the persistent European trade surplus. Of course America contributes to this imbalance with its disinhibited fiscal policy: the better off Americans feel, the more likely they are to buy German cars. But as the Obama administration repeatedly pointed out, Europe’s dogged refusal to stimulate faster growth is as bad for Europe as it is for the world economy. The scale of the Eurozone’s overall current account surplus is highly unusual by historical standards and is both a vulnerability for Europe, leaving its producers hostage to foreign demand, and a potential source of global shocks.
Europe’s freeriding may undermine the global order, but the EU does not mount a direct challenge to US authority. China is different, and that is what truly marks out the foreign relations of our current moment as a break with the decades since the end of the Cold War. No one, including the Chinese, anticipated how rapidly the Trump administration would escalate tensions over trade in 2018 or that this would evolve into a comprehensive challenge to China’s presence in the global tech sector. The US has been putting pressure on its allies to cut the Chinese telecoms giant Huawei out of their plans for 5G, the next generation of internet technology. But here the US – and its allies – are in reactive mode: the original shock was China’s unprecedented growth.
China alone was responsible for a doubling of global steel and aluminimum capacity in the first decade of the 21st century. Its huge investment in R&D transformed it from a ‘third world’ importer of Western technology into a leading global force in 5G. As the likes of Navarro and Lighthizer see it, it was the naivety of enthusiasts for an American-led world order in the 1990s that allowed China’s communist-run state capitalism into the WTO. What the globalists did not understand was the lesson of Tiananmen Square. China would integrate, but on its own terms. That could be ignored in 1989 when China’s economy accounted for only 4 per cent of global GDP: now that figure is close to 20 per cent. As far as the American trade hawks are concerned, competition within an agreed international order is to be welcomed only so long as the competitors agree to play by America’s rules, both economic and geopolitical. This was the lesson Europe was made to learn after the Second World War. It was the lesson that Japan was taught the hard way in the 1980s and early 1990s. If China refuses to learn that lesson, it must be contained.
America retains some huge advantages. But it would be dangerous, the argument goes, simply to count on those. Sometimes American preponderance has to be defended by a ‘war of manoeuvre’. The emerging American strategy is to use threats of trade policy sanctions and aggressive counter-espionage in the tech arena, combined with a ramping up of America’s military effort, to force Beijing to accept not just America’s global preponderance but also its terms for navigation of the South China Sea. In pursuing this course the Trump presidency has a clear precedent: the push against the Soviet Union in the early 1980s by the Reagan administration, which deployed economic and political pressure to break what was perceived to be a menacing phase of Soviet expansion in the 1970s. Despite all the risks involved, for American conservatives that episode stands as the benchmark of successful grand strategy.
The reason the attempt to apply this lesson to present-day China is so shocking is that US business is entangled with China to an immeasurably greater degree than it ever was with the Soviet Union. If you are seeking a component of the American world order that is really being tested at the present moment, look no further than Apple’s supply chain in East Asia. Unlike South Korea’s Samsung, the Californian tech giant made a one-way bet on manufacturing integration with China. Almost all its iPhones are assembled there. Apple is an extreme case. But it is not alone. GM currently sells more cars in China than it does in the US. America’s farmers converted their fields wholesale to grow soy beans for export to China, only to find themselves cut out of their biggest market by Brazilian competitors. And it isn’t just American firms that are caught up in the escalation of tension. Important European, South Korean, Taiwanese and Japanese businesses have staked huge wagers on China.
Given these investments, one might have expected more pushback against Trump’s China strategy from US business. So far there has been little. The radical decoupling of the Chinese and American economies may be so horrible a prospect that business leaders simply prefer not to discuss it in public. They may be lying low hoping the row blows over. Or it may be that American business itself buys the increasingly pessimistic diagnosis of the US intelligence and defence community, who argue China’s persistent protectionism and economic nationalism may mean that it presents more of a threat than an opportunity. Even top ‘China hands’ like Steve Schwarzman and Hank Paulson have warned of a chill in the air.
The hardening of attitudes towards China is not confined to America. It was the Anglo-American intelligence consortium known as ‘Five Eyes’ that raised the alarm about Huawei’s capability to build back doors into the West’s most sensitive telecommunications networks. Canada and Australia are deeply concerned about Chinese penetration. The new pessimism about Sinocentric globalisation isn’t confined to security policy hawks, but shared by many mainstream economists and political scientists in US academia, the think-tank world, and journalists and commentators on Chinese affairs. The liberal version of the American world order is deeply influenced by strands of modernisation theory, the up to date version of which is encapsulated in the doctrine of the middle-income trap. Very few large countries have managed to grow beyond China’s current level of income. Those that have done so have kitted themselves out with the full set of liberal institutions and the rule of law. On this reading, China is in a precarious position. Xi’s authoritarian turn is a decisive step in the wrong direction. Further frequently cited signs of Chinese weakness include ethnic tensions and the ageing of the population as a long-term effect of the one-child policy. There is a belief, held well beyond the administration, that the tide may be turning against Beijing and that now is the moment for the West to harden the front.
This would indeed constitute a break with the narrative of globalisation since the 1990s. But it would hardly be a break in the American-led world order. To imagine the American world order as fully global is after all a relatively recent development. After 1945, the postwar order that is generally seen as the non plus ultra of American hegemony was built on the hardened divisions of the Cold War. Where China is concerned, the issue is not so much America’s intention to lead as whether others are willing to follow. Building the Cold War order in Europe and East Asia was comparatively easy. Stalin’s Soviet Union used a lot of stick and very little carrot. The same is not true of modern-day China. Its economy is the thumping heart of a gigantic East Asian industrial complex. In the event of an escalation with China, particularly in East Asia, we may find ourselves facing not so much an end of the American-led order, as an inversion of its terms. Where the US previously offered soft-power inducements to offset the threat of communist military power, backed up by hard power as a last resort, in the next phase the US may become the provider of military security against the blandishments offered by China’s growth machine.
But this is premature. As of today, two years into the Trump presidency, it is a gross exaggeration to talk of an end to the American world order. The two pillars of its global power – military and financial – are still firmly in place. What has ended is any claim on the part of American democracy to provide a political model. This is certainly a historic break. Trump closes the chapter begun by Woodrow Wilson in the First World War, with his claim that American democracy articulated the deepest feelings of liberal humanity. A hundred years later, Trump has for ever personified the sleaziness, cynicism and sheer stupidity that dominates much of American political life. What we are facing is a radical disjunction between the continuity of basic structures of power and their political legitimation.
If America’s president mounted on a golf buggy is a suitably ludicrous emblem of our current moment, the danger is that it suggests far too pastoral a scenario: American power trundling to retirement across manicured lawns. That is not our reality. Imagine instead the president and his buggy careening around the five-acre flight deck of a $13 billion, Ford-class, nuclear-powered aircraft carrier engaged in ‘dynamic force deployment’ to the South China Sea. That better captures the surreal revival of great-power politics that hangs over the present. Whether this turns out to be a violent and futile rearguard action, or a new chapter in the age of American world power, remains to be seen.
Vol. 41 No. 7 · 4 April 2019 – pages 3-7
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