Almost since the end of World War II the global might of the US has rested on the size of its economy, the superiority of its military machine and its authority over flocks of allies, mainly in western Europe, the Middle East, the western Pacific and Latin America.
The process of simultaneous decomposition and restructuring of the global system, which began perhaps with the 9/11 terrorist attacks or with the 2008 “great recession” is reaching a fever pitch. Donald Trump is the chief executioner in that dramatic process. His coming to power was another symptom of the malady of the old world order and he has since acted mostly as a wrecking ball, although, paradoxically, he would like to be seen as a dyed-in-the wool American Conservative, but then that breed has always been known for distrusting and even reviling international institutions and agreements, in keeping with George Washington’s warning against “foreign entanglements”.
Another paradox is that while Trump swears by “America First” and thereby incites all other countries to do the same and forsake any cooperative dealings that are not to their exclusive advantage, he still needs other states to work with the US, but seems to rely solely on force to secure acquiescence. Like many Americans he believes or at least wants others to believe that his country is so overwhelmingly powerful that the rest of the world eventually has no desirable option other than following Washington’s instructions to play in the planetary orchestra under the American baton.
However, this Boltonian theory of irresistible American hegemony has never fully applied in practice and is less true now than any time in the last 60 years.
Almost since the end of World War II the global might of the US has rested on the size of its economy, the superiority of its military machine and its authority over flocks of allies, mainly in western Europe, the Middle East, the western Pacific and Latin America. In particular, the American leadership over major free-market economies such as Britain, Germany, France, Italy, Japan and South Korea and its “petro-dollar” based control of the largest oil and gas producers—Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Qatar, the UAE, Nigeria, Angola, Mexico and Venezuela—ensured that, after the demise of the USSR, there were few checks and balances to raw American power.
In essence, the US-dominated world was a new avatar of the British Empire and Washington implicitly took, with London’s grudging cooperation, the reins of most Commonwealth member-countries. The British elite and the “City” benefited by developing and managing the global network of offshore tax-haven jurisdictions under the US umbrella and today it is estimated that tens of trillions in dollars and equivalent are lying in these colonies and protectorates, from Bermuda to Gibraltar and from Jersey to Nauru, whose shadowy tax-evading systems are controlled from London.
Empires can take a long time to die and the US-British condominium still stands tall, but several developments pose major threats to that construct, many of them internal. In the case of the US, the extreme financialisation of the economy, through which industrial production has been largely outsourced abroad, has led to almost absurd levels of economic inequality and social injustice, which the old claims of freedom and equality can no longer hide.
The Trump administration is attempting to partly reverse the decline, while magnifying these flaws at the same time. On the one hand protectionist measures are taken to discourage imports and repatriate jobs and investments, while on the other, taxes are being slashed in the hope that making entrepreneurs richer and less regulated will more or less benefit the entire population by attracting offshore and foreign capital. In the short term, this policy produces many positive effects at home, in term of investor elation, stock market behaviour and public confidence, but the delayed consequences are likely to be far less exhilarating as high domestic production costs will trigger inflation and incite the market to purchase even more foreign goods—the US trade deficit with China in last September was the highest ever, at about $60 billion—despite the tariffs while a ballooning deficit will further sap the economy. Another giant market crash is just waiting to happen as many analysts are warning since the chronic ills of public and private over-indebtedness (aggravated by more runaway military expenditures) and jobless growth are getting worse.
An inner contradiction of Trumpism is that while officially rejecting the logic of global “benign” imperialism by insisting that nothing that America does for its allies comes free and that America has no ideology or public goods to share, the President endorses, willingly or reluctantly, the self-proclaimed right to interfere in the affairs of other countries to ensure their compliance with US interests and wishes. In other words, Trump, thinking as a hardcore businessman, wants his nation to enjoy all the privileges of supremacy, without giving any benefits in return to the confederates and tributaries. As a casino operator he knows that the bank always wins and that there are no friends, only clients who end up being dupes.
An empire that provides advantages only to its rulers is not long-lasting and the same law applies to a world currency managed solely for the political and economic gain of its emitters.
We can see another application of this theory in the untenable position of social media platforms such as Microsoft, Google, Amazon, Facebook, Apple and others that perform public services, but are US private companies more or less affiliated to one American political party whose ideology they openly uphold. Essential facilities and needs all over the world cannot be controlled by a monopolistic business syndicate in the service of one’s nation interests. Parallel, non American, public, not-for profit, decentralised Internet platforms and service providers are now emerging all over the world.
Outside the US the regional structures that hitherto supported the US-led liberal system are beginning to fall apart, even if it still early to describe the international architecture that will replace them.
- In the Far East, which is now the priority for the US because of the rise of its main competitor and adversary China, the two Koreas are rapidly coming together in disregard of US attempts to manage a transition to its advantage. In his eagerness to win a diplomatic victory and turn Pyongyang into another US satellite, Trump has been played by the wily King Jong Un, who, with the support of China and Russia, has managed to forge a pact with his Southern cousins. A north-east Asian economic community, probably including Japan may be within reach as part of the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partership in the medium term, whereas the US military presence in the region is becoming increasingly irrelevant and toxic in that new context.
- Europe is undergoing multiple centrifugal pressures which may well lead to its implosion and NATO is one of the casualties of that fissiparousness. The continental European nations are increasingly drawn towards Eurasia for strategic and economic reasons and the widening gap between Britain and the EU (whether there is a hard Brexit or a quasi-Brexit) shows the divergence of geopolitical interests between the Anglo-Saxon empire and the rest of Europe.
- West Asia’s balance of power has changed in recent years. Iran and its de facto allies, Iraq, Lebanon, Qatar and Syria can no longer be contained by threats, sabotage and sanctions. Turkey is reasserting some of its erstwhile Ottoman preponderance and an increasingly dysfunctional Saudi Arabia, hitherto a pillar of US power in the region, may either collapse soon or change its position and move closer to China, India and Russia in order to save its regime threatened by the rising hostility it invites in both the West and the Muslim world. Israel is isolated and relies almost solely on the US to perpetuate its contested and controversial race-based polity at a high economic and strategic cost to its western backers.
- Finally, although India remains “multi-aligned” and is eager to improve its relations with the US, Trump’s industrial, trading and strategic policies are in general neither congruent with New Delhi’s interest nor even friendly to the world’s largest democracy. The American President has made it clear that, like the British Government under Palmerston he has no permanent friends or enemies but only permanent (or momentary) interests. India is only useful to his administration if it buys US weapons and consumer goods, reduces its business with Russia and Iran and acts as an ally against China.
The cold war climate created by Trump’s revanchist unilateralism and disrespect to friends and allies, by the US’ rampant resort to unilateral political and financial sanctions on other countries and by manipulations of public opinion through various “intelligence” black-ops may lead us into one or various great wars in the coming years. The US might see no other way to reassert hegemony in the face of the twilight of the dollar as the world’s currency, coupled with the end of its military relevance in many parts of the world, including South Korea, Japan, Afghanistan, Syria, Turkey and Europe.
Trump’s accession has ushered in an Indian summer for the US economy, but Indian summers sooner or later fade into winter and we can only hope that the latter won’t be nuclear, given that the President wants to cancel the 1987 intermediate range nuclear missile treaty with Russia, after so many other international agreements.