“The Objects before me are too grand and multifarious for my comprehension. We have not men fit for the times.”
John Adams wrote these words he was discussing the challenge of creating a new nation out of the thirteen American colonies and winning independence. The men he referred to so dismissively turned out to be the Founding Fathers, a group who would shape the course of history and create the most powerful nation in the world.
The world’s lone superpower is confronted with violent change in the Middle East, an aggressive Russian nation dominated by a security state, a warming global climate, and a digital revolution that threatens to completely disrupt global economics.
Donald Trump is a man perhaps reflective of the times, for some, but he is in no way fit for the challenges they present.
Implications of America First
Trump’s philosophy of ‘America First’ harkens back to the political movement before World War Two for the United States to remain separated from the conflicts of European powers. Advocates of America First argued they could build a Fortress America that would protect them from the outside threat of totalitarianism. The current resurgence of isolationism may be a natural product of prolonged war in Asia and the growth of terrorism, but it is highly dangerous in the globalised twenty first century.
While the Second Gulf War has made many cynical about the role of the U.S. overseas, in general the security apparatus and international policy led by the U.S. has tended to advocate for peace, collective security, and human rights. Donald Trump has consistently hinted that he would prefer America to vacate its position in international organisations and step back from longstanding alliances, and is uninterested in humanitarian crises abroad. Unfortunately, the alternative powers that might fill any potential void of American influence care little for democracy or human rights.
More alarmingly, Trump has demonstrated again and again that he allows personal insults to influence his words. As president his words will have real diplomatic impact. Those most informed of national security expressed concerns throughout his campaign that Donald Trump, patently unqualified for issues of international security, was too much of a liability given his thin skin and reactionary tendencies. Such an unsteady personality is ill suited for sensitive international issues.
Russian Nationalism, Anew
The time for treating the Russian government with good faith is over.
American intelligence agencies are united in their belief that hackers in Russia stole and leaked emails from within the Democratic Party. This is absolutely unprecedented in American history; Trump would do well to consider how this would have appalled Ronald Reagan, Theodore Roosevelt, and George Washington. It should alarm every American that this has happened, yet many Trump supporters wantonly ignore these warnings, for fear of weakening Trump’s mandate. As for Trump himself, he has quietly accepted that Russia was involved, but is seeking to sidestep the broader implications.
Analysing Vladimir Putin’s foreign policy is tricky. A former KGB officer, who spent the 1990s rejecting the liberalisation of Russia, he rose to power after the 1999 Moscow apartment bombings, in which his security organisation, the FSB, is heavily implicated. Over the following years Russian democracy has been dominated by a security state of old KGB figures, focused on expansion and reclaiming Russian position.
It appears that Putin wants Trump in the White House for two reasons. Firstly, he represents America stepping back from world affairs, leaving a more unstable, fractured system in which Russia can operate more freely. Second, because Trump’s brand of strongman, personality politics mirrors Putin’s own; it is a powerful statement that the world’s most important democracy can fall prey to Putin-esque politics.
Russia, a nation that jails political dissidents and activisits, represents a threat to international peace.”Green men”, Russian backed soldiers who entered Crimea without any formal declaration of war, could start emerging in other parts of Ukraine and Baltic states given the opportunity. Trump is focused on portraying himself as able to ‘deal with’ Putin in the U.S. media, but so far this posture of strength is little more than a media tactic.
Iran and the Middle East
The president elect’s loose rhetoric regarding the situation in Syria and Iraq displays no appreciation for the problems of intervention in the Middle East. The reality TV star’s ‘secret plan’ to defeat ISIS has thus far failed to materialise. What is more concerning is that much of the Republican Party maintains a naive, unwavering belief that military force alone affect change in a region riven with religious and cultural nuances.
While the American election played out the Syrian rebels have been all but defeated, meaning that whatever outcome the future holds for the country it looks likely that Assad, a brutal dictator who has used chemical weapons on women and children, will remain in power. This is partly due to support of Russia and the lack of any resistance from the incoming Trump administration. This is the implication of an America abandoning its responsibilities overseas and sets a terrible precedent for human rights across the world.
As for Israel, Trump’s pandering to conventional Republican doctrine indicates renewed support of the Netanyahu government during a time when Israeli attitudes towards Palestinians are becoming more hawkish. The relationship between Netanyahu and Obama soured in the president’s second term, with Obama unwilling to back Israel’s more antagonistic approach to Palestine, and the Israeli premier believing the U.S. administration was turning its back on an old ally. The 2014 conflict between Israel and Palestine left many Palestinian civilians killed, and the prospect of a two state solution while Netanyahu and Trump are in power seems slim.
There are also concerns over the future of Iranian-U.S. relations. Trump has also elevated a number of figures in his new administration who have shown particularly hawkish stances towards Iran. General ‘Mad Dog’ Mattis, respected by both Democrats and Republicans, is Trump’s pick for Defense Secretary. Yet the decision to lift this retired general to the responsibility of running the Pentagon brings some very hardline views on Iran. Combined with the opinions of Trump’s new national security advisor, another retired general, Michael Flynn, American relations with Iran may sour quickly during a highly sensitive time in the Middle East.
Fading American Influence
In the long term, Donald Trump’s economic policies portend a potential fading of American influence overseas.
There is already discussions of a budding Russia-China deal taking the place of the Trans Pacific Partnership. The TPP itself was controversial during the election, with many on both sides of the aisle believing it served corporate America more than ordinary workers. Clinton said she would not sign the treaty without significant changes to benefit struggling American workers; Donald Trump has said the deal is out as soon as he enters office.
Some of the criticisms of the TPP are legitimate; open trade has seriously damaged the competitiveness of a number of old industrial and manufacturing jobs. However, rejecting the TPP will not turn back the clock on these economic sectors: they will likely remain uncompetitive internationally, unless the Trump administration sets out a program of tariffs to protect American producers or there is significant devaluation of the dollar.
The primary beneficiary of America leaning away from international trade agreements may be China. The government in Beijing has the luxury of long term planning, and Chinese companies are increasingly pouring capital into projects across Asia, Africa and Latin America. The United States, by leaving the negotiation table of the TPP, would not necessarily be able to significantly recover any of its old industries, but cedes its own influence to China. If Trump’s China policy does backfire in this way, the implications of such a shift in relative economic power creates considerable instability in the coming decades.
Abandoning Climate Change
Then there’s climate change. During the campaign Trump said he would take America out of international climate change agreements and tear up Obama’s Clean Power Plan.
Yet immediately after the election, Donald Trump signalled that he may rethink his position on climate change, and may even keep the United States in the international agreements signed in Paris recently. Since then, his emerging right wing cabinet, including Reince Priebus and Stephen Bannon, have clarified his position, stating that the Trump White House will generally deny the link between the global climate and human actions.
Trump has nominated Myron Ebell as head of the Environment Protection Agency. Ebell is a committed sceptic of human influence in climate change, and was formerly leading the lobby group the Competitive Enterprise Institute. Meanwhile, former Texas governor Rick Perry now leads the Department of Energy, a department he proposed scrapping in 2011 as he ran in the Republican presidential primary. The Perry, Trump, Ebell triumvirate suggests a broad dismissal of scientific evidence over the next four years.
If the most powerful nation in the world reneges on its agreements on addressing global warming, it sends a signal to the emergent economic drivers of China, India, Brazil, and others, that they should not take such treaties too seriously. It is a cause that is best championed by the Americans, given the inherent reluctance of Asian, Latin American, and African nations to proactively build climate change plans, and Trump’s flaking on existing agreements could set the global cause back a generation or more.
Part three will deal with the political and historical impact of Trump’s win