MG in-depth

An American America

A look at what Trump’s election means for the US and the world

North America

The president’s agenda will no doubt be drafted by himself and by his strategists. That said, it will, however, be rewritten by American counterpowers and bureaucracies. It will be redefined by the geopolitical, socioeconomic and cultural environment we are all engrossed in, including the White House. The rest is for the media.

The world will change Trump more than Trump will change the world.

The president’s agenda will no doubt be drafted by himself and by his strategists. That said, it will, however, be rewritten by American counterpowers and bureaucracies. It will be redefined by the geopolitical, socioeconomic and cultural environment we are all engrossed in, including the White House. The rest is for the media. The great loser in these presidential elections has been the mainstream media, starting with the very famous New York Times, reduced to a Clintonian Pravda. Alien to the country’s instinct and heart, the mainstream press presented a communications performance aimed at confirming the nation’s cosmopolitan elite’s liberal certainties. According to former CIA analyst Graham Fuller, this resulted in a “massive American intelligence failure”, due to a “deeply engrained American characteristic”, consisting of a “failure to grasp reality” [1]. Perhaps it is because we are living in a ‘post-truth’ era, as certified by the Oxford Dictionaries which named ‘post-truth’ as the word of the year for 2016. These are times of narrations, hence the dominium of propaganda. Nor can one neglect the very American concept of soft power. Every serious analysis therefore begins with the deconstruction of current media messages, be they official, off-the record or present on social networks. This is an experience that The Donald is also preparing to face with his unmistakeable style, in view of the inauguration of his mandate, announced as revolutionary. The collision between such a developed ego and the misery of everyday management to which his position obliges him, is expected to be spectacular, especially now that geopolitical dynamics have started to move at a mad pace, designing chaotic scenarios that normally announce the passing of an era. So what should one expect from the United States and its extrovert leader?


In order to understand the Trump phenomenon it is best to begin with the atmosphere of the times rather than the person, and even less with the mask worn during the election campaign. The election of the New York tycoon is not so much an earthquake – we shall see later of what magnitude – but rather a seismograph of current social-political change. So-called globalisation is now condemned, its economic and social injustice denounced, while institutions incapable of opposing all this are delegitimised. This determines a full frontal conflict between two vague bodies, each loaded, however, with reciprocal controversial dynamite: the people and the elites. In the eyes of “the people”, these elites that are the holders of the revenue of power, money and (in) formation, seem interested in their own affairs instead of leading the country. Not an avant-garde; an oligarchy. The revolt of the impoverished lower-middle classes is a wave ridden by the so-called populists of which Trump is the acknowledged champion. Populism is a convenient insult. According to the political analyst Francis Fukuyama, it is the label that elites use for policies they do not like, but that are supported by citizens [2]. These same elites answer this riff-raff of deplorables (copyright Hillary Clinton) echoing the motto used by Bertolt Brecht following the repression of the workers’ uprising in East Berlin (1953), “the people had lost the government’s confidence; would it not be simpler, if the government just dissolved the people and elected another?” [3]. In a democracy that is not (yet) how things work. This is confirmed by the success achieved by Trump, a peculiar man belonging to the elite but turned man of the people. The crisis experienced by political sense accompanies and also accelerates that of globalisation. An ideology more than a theory. It is a narrative etched on a rallying cry with a broad semantic sphere exalting economic-financial interdependence as well as integration between society and culture. During the Nineties, globalisation was the catch-all card, the measure of all things. It was a synonym for American hegemony at a planetary level. The end of history. Looking back, the quarter of a century that separates us from the West’s victory in the Cold War does not remotely depict the world’s Americanisation. If anything, it portrays America’s globalisation. The “indispensable nation” renouncing its omnipotence. Translated into Trumpian apocalypticism, the subjection of a benign superpower to evil alien (in)fluxes. Prudence suggests one should not pass hasty historic verdicts. And yet the higher stages of this globalisation appear to be over. Trump’s success, on the wave of his exhibited protectionism – as well as his machismo and racist-like nativism – is the child of such a perception. All this comforted by various indicators marking a change of tendencies in global exchanges. The year 2008 marked the divide, the annus horribilis of the crisis experienced by the American private financial sector that then spread like a virus, affecting first the economy and then society, politics, the very idea of communities and hence the coexistence of those who are equal and different.

The most evident signs of economic de-globalisation are three.

Firstly, the drastic fall in capital mobility; financial flows related to global gross GDP fell from 2007’s 57%, on the eve of the crisis, to 36% in 2015.

Secondly, the weakening of international trade (graph 1); since 2008 the ratio between trade and production has been flat, just below 60%. This year, the rise in volume of services and goods trading will be inferior to the global GDP’s growth (2% compared to 2.4%).

Thirdly, the fall in direct foreign investments, the growth of which has halved compared to the 3.3% reached in 2007 [4].

If to this one adds protectionist policies activated in various countries and the failure of the excessively ambitious strategic-commercial projects created by Obama for the Atlantic area (TTIP) and the Asian-Pacific (TPP) – a mix of free trade and the geopolitical containment of apparent partners (Germany) and explicit rivals (Russia and China) – one deducts that oleographs concerning the economy’s global destiny depict a recent past rather than the coming future. Thus the overheating and introversion of the social-political climate in America as well as elsewhere. The insulating wealth of super-billionaires and the impoverishment of middle and lower classes (graph 2), which some economists and most of Western public opinion attribute to the dark side of globalisation, fuel the discredit of established powers, intolerance of migrants and diffidence as far as the outside world is concerned – a zero sum jungle. Better a controlled dependence on one’s own national state than uncontrolled interdependence on an anonymous and therefore irresponsible globalisation. The once again rising nationalism in the West, following a seventy-year-long parenthesis, is not the child of past ideologies. It arises instead from bewilderment caused by globalism, by friction between the politically correct and common sense, from the need for warmth that individuals find in belonging to their ancestral land, not in the algorithms of electronic finance. To use a German metaphor, this is nostalgia for the hearth (Heimat) rather than the homeland (Vaterland).

One does not expect politics to provide interconnections with the markets of others; one demands the defence of national interests, which each identifies with their own. The sense of injustice cause by an excessive difference in income is especially acute in the United States, where managers, co-responsible for the failure of banks overwhelmed by subprime mortgages, went home with multi-million dollar golden handshakes, while the salary of a CEO is more than 300 times larger than the wages of an average employee. And the sum of the assets owned by the Walton family and the Koch brothers is equal to that of 150 million Americans, 44% of the population [5].

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For the moment anti-globalist moods in liberal-democracies are channelled into the streets and the polling booths. It would, however, be rash to exclude that this will soon turn into widespread violence. It is rather foolish nowadays to discuss the American Dream in the United States, where 1% of the population is richer than the remaining 99%, social mobility is relatively low and prospects for the young depend largely on their parents’ status (graphs 3, 4, 5). To the class factor one must then add the ethnic one; the uprising of whites, all the more enraged since they are accustomed to the privileges and rank owed to the country’s founding race. Here the sense of expropriation by post-industrial globalisation is aroused not only among blue collar workers in the “rust belt”, but also by a sense of belonging to the masses of forgotten men, those who Franklin Delano Roosevelt had relied on in the decade of the Great Depression. It is those white workers, the rejects of globalism neglected by pollsters, based above all in the ‘flyover States’ – the American heartland that does not feel represented by the cosmopolitan coastal areas and viscerally mistrusts central government – who have carried Trump towards the White House (maps 1 and 2). It is their anger, revealing the depth of the racial issue in a country self-proclaimed as a melting pot, which the nation’s managerial class will still have to address once the Trump season has passed. And predictably for many decades. When expectations fall it is time for demagogue. And the red baseball caps asking to “make America great again”, the Trump campaign’s slogan, speak of the paradox of an apparently inconceivable frustration; that of being the world’s Number One and yet ill at ease in that role. Is this true? Such a question requires two types of analysis. The first aimed at establishing whether the American colossus is really experiencing a crisis and then, should the answer be affirmative, it will be necessary to establish whether such a situation is irreversible or not.

That said, let us state our answer in advance. Yes, the United States is experiencing a relative decline. No, it will not return to be what it was at the height of the imperium. And yet, it will remain the main power of this planet for a long time and by a great margin, in the absence of catastrophes we prefer not to envisage. As Henry Kissinger often says, the path followed by this America is restricted by a dual inescapable bond; that of no longer being capable of dominating the world, nor being able to withdraw from it. Trump instead seems to believe – as did Obama, albeit with a totally different rhetoric – that a certain degree of withdrawal from global affairs is a condition for the re-establishment of lost greatness. This applies at home and abroad (coloured map 1).

Let us address this subject. The United States is a sui generis superpower, an “empire without an empire” [6] and “with no emperor” [7], founded not so much on territorial expansion as on control over strategic dominions; the seas, the skies, space and the electromagnetic spectrum. In the first three areas, especially the maritime one, America plays a robust role, although there is no lack of rising challengers. The fourth is too anarchic and multiform to be subject to any sovereign authority. Furthermore, America’s security apparatus, based on its formidable armed forces and less performing intelligence system, is worth more in terms of power than in achievements. This is confirmed by catastrophic and unfinished military campaigns in Afghanistan and in Iraq (map 3). American strategic predominance has been rendered less impelling by the end of deterrence eroded by a hybrid war on Russia, by the proliferation of atomic weapons (North Korea docet) and the “war without boundaries” fought by terrorists and also by hackers. As far as the empire’s material base is concerned, it is impossible to sufficiently emphasise the quality of American scientific research and technology, capable of attracting and testing the best brains on our planet. Nor should one dramatize China’s supposed economic rise to the top of the ranking and not only because of evident limitations to growth as well as geopolitical and social stability in the Middle Kingdom. The gap between the United States and the People’s Republic of China in terms of per capita GDP and purchasing power parity remains immense; US $56,084 compared to US $14,340 in 2015. However, the volume of the global economy provided by the American productive sector has halved compared to the post-World War II zenith, when it amounted to half of global output. It is now 22% compared to China’s 15.1%, with a downward trend, were it only because of a totally changed demographic context. In 1950 the planet had 2.5 billion inhabitants, while now there are almost 7.5 billion and by the end of the century this figure may rise to 11 billion. America has almost 320 million inhabitants and, taking into account constant levels of immigration, the figure should not be more than 400 million in 2100, about 3% of humankind.

From a geopolitical perspective, the American economy’s Achilles Heel is its foreign debt, held mainly by China and Japan (coloured map 2). It is true that the ambiguous bond between creditor and debtor implies reciprocal conditioning, not the immediate subjection of the second to the first. However, from the American perspective one cannot forget to observe that it is precisely its growth model that is fuelled by absorbing external resources – capital, goods, commodities, energy (increasingly less) and last but not least brains – in order to support aggregate domestic demand and nourish state expenditure, starting with resources for defence, which amount to six times the investments made in education. Growing debt makes Washington decidedly sensitive to the external environment and permeable to opposing interests.

The American empire’s historical peculiarity is its ideological diffusion

The “nation on the hill” is self-legitimised by the Messianism passed down by the Founding Fathers to future generations, according to which the interests of America as the power for Good are supposedly universal. The American republic, which does not like to be known as an empire in the deplorable European sense of the word, is an ideocracy. Ultimately, the measure of its success lies in the rest of the world’s readiness to recognise it as a paradigm to be admired and copied. This is hegemony in the fullest sense of the word. When such imperial charm appears to fade, as is happening at this beginning of a new century, Americans are inclined to initially over-react (the unfortunate “war on terror”), hence over exposing themselves in not very important strategic areas, to then withdraw into their own shell.

It is too early to say what the United States’ foreign policy will be in The Donald’s era, and not only because of structural, domestic and foreign conditioning that will result in the leader’s intentions – assuming they are coherent and understandable – having unforeseen consequences even when they are not simply obliterated. This also because he is the first non-politician to be elected to the White House since Eisenhower. The process involving the transformation of an amateur into a professional takes time.

While waiting to see what happens, one can, however, set out a few ideas concerning future President Trump’s vision of the world based on his own rare statements pertaining to geopolitics and a number of his recent appointments. Here they are in five points.

  1. The United States is overexposed around the world and under-performing at a domestic level. It is urgent to decrease the external fronts, if necessary subcontracting them out to friends, allies and occasional partners. Alliances will not be broken, starting with NATO, but instead reduced by rank, costs and importance – effectively changing them into algebraic sums of asymmetrical bilateral agreements – attributing greater responsibilities and expenses to Europeans, specialised in sponging off others, and avoiding being caught up in their geopolitical lunacies.
  2. The main threat to the United States’ security does not come from China or from Russia, but from jihadist terrorism. Such terrorism must be opposed by the largest coalition possible; including “tyrant friends” as suggested by the next National Security advisor, General Michael Flynn, in a pamphlet written together with one of the most uninhibited veteran neo-cons, the former (?) spy Michael Ledeen [8]. Trump’s opening to Russia, instantly welcomed by Putin, is primarily inspired by the security emergency. As Deng Xiaoping taught us, it does not matter whether a cat is white or black, so long as it catches the mice.
  3. We must ensure that our opponents, who no longer take us seriously, respect us. Obama’s vague decisions, which culminated in an about turn on bombings against al-Asad, are just as dangerous as the humanitarian wars so dear to Hillary and to the neo-cons. In the Middle East “we must defeat the terrorists and promote regional stability, not radical change”. To be clear, better al-Sisi and al-Asad than the Muslim Brotherhood and the Arab Springs.
  4. As far as China is concerned, it too could be affiliated to the anti-jihadist agreement as it is now one of America’s natural enemies. Trump wants to reduce debt held by Beijing without starting a trade war that would be destructive for both countries. The re-starting point is the sinking of the Trans-Pacific Partnership, a sort of Asian translation of NATO under a deceptive geo-economic guise. In the absence of this, Trump seems to be betting on a bland containment of China in association with Asian friends and allies – mainly Japan and South Korea – which for that matter pursue their own agendas conditioned by the economic-trade relations they have established with their albeit feared great neighbour (coloured map 4).
  5. Trump’s harsh approach to Mexico in three steps; the deportation of at least two million illegal immigrants labelled as “criminals”, the completion of a wall along the border (reduced for some stretches to a cheaper barbed wire fence) and the revision if not the annulment of NAFTA to protect the interests of American industries and workers. The first step is credible (2.5 million illegal immigrants, almost all Hispanic, were already deported under Obama, map 4); the second point is theatrical, reasonably cheap to build but expensive from an image perspective; the third is unrealistic even in its moderate version, unless Congress is converted (coloured map 5).

Readers will observe that the point concerning Europe is missing. However deep we dug, we have not managed to find statements made by Trump referring to the European Union, not even mentioned in the only speech devoted entirely to foreign policy made by the candidate [9].

Trump presents himself as a retrenchment president, oriented at reducing exposure often at geopolitical risk. Following Eisenhower or Nixon’s traditions, and in a way also Obama’s, foreign policy is the maidservant of domestic priorities and military force a very last resort. At least until an emergency overturns this order as happened on 9/11. The differences with his more or less august predecessors lie in the degree of the American empire’s intrinsic dysfunctionality and in the entropy of the international system. What kind of world will Trump’s America have to deal with?

It is fashionable to discuss a multipolar world. Based on everything said so far, what emerges, if anything, is an apolar nebula, with America primum inter impares, China a problematic challenger, Russia a tense sapper and Germany and Japan crippled by the past yet still on the right side of the shadow line. All the rest is chaos or wishful thinking.

Trump’s reductionism could follow rules that differ from those established by Obama. In starting over from Obama’s vocation for retrenchment, Trump will be faced with a domestic risk and an external opportunity. At a domestic level he will have to settle not only the disagreements between agencies delegated to foreign policy, between Congress’s different souls and those of his own electorate, but also friction within his own administration, in which unrepentant neocons, Islamophobic ultranationalists and the traditional right will do battle. This will result in disagreements that could sabotage all anti-jihadist agreements with Putin or resurrect the match with Iran. The external opportunity instead consists in elevating the rebalancing of power to a semi-global level, involving Russia.

Obama leaves Trump the legacy of dual containment aimed at Moscow and Beijing, resulting in pushing one into the arms of the other. Berlin may hook onto this odd couple, transforming an apparently infrastructural project – the new silk roads invented by China – into a geopolitical alignment (coloured map 8). The worst of all possible worlds from Washington’s perspective. The prefiguration of that Eurasian superpower America has always devoted itself to preventing. Otherwise why did the United States win two world wars and the Cold War?

With the common jihadist enemy as the objective – or excuse, if one were to think ill – Trump could extract Russia from its unnatural embrace with China arising from the Ukraine war, use its resources on the ground in Mesopotamia against Islamic State and various al Qaeda-like groups, cut America loose from the catastrophic prospect of having to test NATO’s unity in a conflict with Moscow, which some Baltic members of the Alliance – as well as a number of Russian hotheads – consider desirable. Furthermore, by moving closer to Russia, Trump would be travelling backwards along the pathway opened by Nixon in 1972 befriending Mao, this time using Moscow against Beijing, to complete from the north-east the anti-Chinese cordon sanitaire that Obama has outlined to the south-east. With such a move, Washington would reveal the misleading nature of the Russian-Chinese agreement. Putin’s strategic objective does not consist of taking Ukraine or Syria, nor is it to be reduced to a useful idiot by Xi Jinping.

The Russian president wants to be treated by the United States no longer as a regional power but as an equal partner. At least formally. As far as Xi Jinping’s China is concerned, the country has not suddenly fallen in love with its historical Russian rival. It intends instead to raise the spectre of the Russian-Chinese pact to apply pressure on the United States, demanding the right to participate in the redrafting of new geo-economic standards aimed at regulating post-Bretton Woods power relations. This while preparing for the full frontal clash, possibly to be postponed to the second half of the century, when the Middle Kingdom is expected to have adequate military power for such a conflict – unless of course it should implode before then (map 5).

Once it has removed Russia from China’s embrace, the Asian rebus should be less difficult to manage for America, on condition that Trump’s electoral threats to allies, accused of eating free of charge at the security banquet provided by the United States, should remain just threats. Unless he wishes to auto-expel the United States from the region.

Balance of power involves an implicit admission of renouncing a full imperial model. Balance of power is historically diametrically opposed to American culture. It is a reassuring mask that does not resolve the contradiction between the empire and withdrawal from the responsibilities and costs involved. “Empires do not need balance of power”, explains Kissinger, they reject the international system because they “aspire to be it” [10]. America’s religion excludes a sharing of primacy. These, however, are not times for idealistic purism. Survival instincts oblige Washington to conform to reality rather than dream of changing it. Moreover, it is the mandate voters have conferred on Trump. If intelligently managed, this neo-realist approach would allow the United States to soften, defer and perhaps temporarily subvert its decline. It is certainly a modus operandi that envisages a coherent approach between Congress, bureaucracies, the president and the administration. This is improbable. But there are no alternatives on the horizon that could guarantee that the American empire’s decline will not assume whirlwind speed or deviate towards war scenarios that we Europeans would find it hard to back out of.

“Allow me to become the shadow of your shadow”. For seventy years Europeans have taken literally this verse from “Ne me quitte pas” (Don’t leave me), a haunting musical poem by the Belgian singer-songwriter Jacques Brel. It is the expression of abandonment syndrome, psychopathology’s most ancient and heart-rending illness. Rather than lose the object of one’s love, one humiliates oneself. It is that painful feeling that Jeremy Shapiro and Nick Witney, analysing the European Council on Foreign Relations, diagnosed seven years ago among European elites traumatised by George W. Bush [11]. They suffered so greatly because of the indifference expressed by Mother America regards to a continent no longer central in its strategic moves that they described as “European” the less European of all White House residents, Barack Obama. Such angst is turning into anger now that the chair of the former president, born in Hawaii to a Kenyan father and who grew up in Indonesia, is about to be occupied by the grandson of an illegal immigrant from the Bavarian Palatinate, the son of a Scottish mother.

From a geopolitical point of view those suffering most are the Poles and the Baltic peoples, in that “New Europe” that bet on America dressed up as NATO as life insurance against the Russian Bear and discovered with horror that Trump is an admirer of Putin. In the political spectrum, this fuming depression is affecting what remains of the Old Continent’s Left, as well as the Centre and the moderate Right.

The best example is the poisonous telegram of congratulations that Angela Merkel sent the newly elected president [12]. The Chancellor included two coded messages. The first was that for Berlin the EU comes before NATO (translation of “Germany’s bond with the United States of America are closer than those with any other country outside the European Union”). Second, if Trump recants on our values, transatlantic cooperation will experience a crisis or be interrupted (translated from: “Germany and America are connected by values of democracy, freedom and respect for the law and the dignity of man, independent of origin, skin colour, religion, gender, sexual orientation or political views. I offer the next president of the United States close cooperation on the basis of these values.”). The informal leader of a shapeless European Union delivered a neo-enlightened taxonomy to dictate to the American president the conditions of cooperation, which is expected to be thorny. Should Europe exist, one could interpret Merkel’s warning as a delayed assumption of responsibility by a community that continued to consider itself dependent on its American protector even when the United States had expressed its concern for other priorities, other interests and other values. In the current intra-communitarian scrum, the Chancellery’s subtle provocation can but remind one that two introversions – one European and one American – do not create a dialogue. They could instead contribute significantly to the cacophony of global disorder.

NOTES

[1] G.E. FULLER, «President Trump», grahamefuller.com/president-trump

[2] F. RAMPINI interviews F. FUKUYAMA, “Francis Fukuyama chooses Hillary: “With Donald there is an authoritarian risk, but the lower classes have made themselves heard”, published in la Repubblica, 3/11/2016

[3] From the poem entitled “The solution” (“Die Lösung”), in B. BRECHT, Buckower Elegien, Ausgewählte Werke in sechs Bänden. Dritter Band: Gedichte 1, Frankfurt am Main 1997, Suhrkamp, p. 404

[4] See M. WOLF, “The Tide of Globalisation Is Turning”, Financial Times, 6/9/2016. See also G.C. HUFBAUER, E. JUNG, “Why Has Trade Stopped Growing? Not Much Liberalisation and Lots of Micro-Protection”, Peterson Institute for International Economics, 23/3/2016

[5] J.E. STIGLITZ, “Unequal Societies: The Global Economic and Geopolitical Situation” (slide no. 13),Quebec City, October 2016, bit.ly/2fUTg68 13

[6] See Limes, “The Empire with no Empire” no. 2/2004

[7] See Editorial for “The Empire without an Emperor”, Limes, “U.S. Confidential”, no. 4/2015, pp. 7-25

[8] See M.T. FLYNN, M. LEDEEN, The Field of Fight. How We Can Win the Global War against Radical Islam and Its Allies, New York City 2016, St. Martin’s Press

[9] See “Transcript: Donald Trump’s Foreign Policy Speech”, The New York Times, 27/4/2016

[10] H. KISSINGER, Diplomacy, New York-London-Toronto-Sydney-Tokyo-Singapore 1994, Simon & 28 Schuster, p. 21

[11] Cfr. J. SHAPIRO, N. WITNEY, “Towards a Post-American Europe: A Power Audit of EU-US Relations”, European Council on Foreign Relations, London 2009, Ecfr

[12] Cfr. A. FAIOLA, “Angela Merkel Congratulates Donald Trump – Kind of”, The Washington Post, 9/11/2016. 29