Saturday, February 11, 2017


U.S. President Donald Trump is thin-skinned, narcissistic and obsesses over peripheral matters to a shocking extent.

There is method in his madness, however. Together with his alter ego and chief advisor Steve Bannon, Trump has conceived a new world order that is deeply at odds with the prevailing American global system.

Since 1945, America’s political leadership has developed an international, liberal global order with the United States at its centre. The system privileged the American dollar and American corporations, backing up this “free world” order with the might of the U.S. military, on which Washington spent more than the next ten countries combined. The purpose of the system was to keep America at the core and to push the Soviet Union and its dependencies to the periphery. The struggle was ideological and geo-strategic.

In the end, of course, the Soviet system collapsed. The ideological threat from Moscow was gone and Russia was reduced to being an authoritarian capitalist state, whose only claim to global power was its vast nuclear arsenal and lethal missile delivery system. Under Vladimir Putin’s brutal regime, Russia has clawed back some of its regional power as seen in its seizure of Crimea, its assault on eastern Ukraine, its menacing posture vis a vis Poland and the Baltic States, and further afield its alliance with the Assad regime in Syria.

The American response to Russia has been to keep its own alliance system intact and to continue to preside over the liberal international order.

That is, until now. Trump and Bannon have an alternative system in mind. As the front man in the duo, Trump never comes out and presents the complete alternative so that it can be grasped systematically. But he has been very open about the pieces of the puzzle. To understand the whole, we have to fit the following pieces together.

* Trump has declared that the United States has been overly generous with other countries and that this has undermined America’s economic strength, productive capacity and ability to create and sustain jobs at home. In part, this is a response to the economic distress felt by people in the “rust belt” states. Even more it is a visceral reaction against the rise of minorities to an ever more prominent place in American society. By the middle of this century, it is estimated that Latinos could constitute twenty-five per cent of the U.S. population, African Americans fifteen per cent, and Asians, indigenous peoples, Pacific Islanders and other immigrants ten per cent. This would reduce non-Hispanic whites, the traditional core of the American national project, to merely half the population of the United States.

Trump has combined economic outrage with xenophobic attacks on Mexicans and Muslims.

* A second piece was Trump’s repeated expressions of admiration for Vladimir Putin. He made it clear both before and after his inauguration that he would pursue closer relations with Moscow and would not be averse to dismantling sanctions against Russia.

* A third piece, closely linked to the second, has been Trump’s statements in support of the United Kingdom’s decision to secede from the European Union. He has said that it would not surprise him if other EU countries followed Britain’s example. He has criticized German Chancellor Angela Merkel for her government’s policy of welcoming huge numbers of Syrian refugees to Germany. In addition to disparaging the EU, a reversal of the position of previous U.S. presidents, Trump has denigrated NATO as a critical pillar in the defence policy of the United States.

Friendly to Russia and negative toward the EU and NATO—these are critical pieces of the Trump puzzle.

Following the inauguration Trump was quick to carry through on the xenophobic elements of his program. He announced that the much-touted wall along the Mexican border would be built and would ultimately be paid for by Mexico. So nakedly insulting was Trump on the issue—he even hinted that the U.S. could send troops down there to deal with “bad hombres”—that Mexican President Enrique Pena Nieto cancelled a planned trip to Washington. Then came the emergency 90-day ban prohibiting citizens of seven majority Muslim countries from entering the United States. On this issue, Trump has been blocked so far in the courts.

America’s liberal internationalism has always given precedence to the American national interest. However, as a feature of that system, the U.S. established an economic order in which most countries had to play by a common set of rules much of the time. This was the price, the United States paid for the enormous benefits it enjoyed as the global hegemonic power. But the world-view of Donald Trump and Steve Bannon holds that this system has proven too costly to America.

Assembling the pieces of the puzzle, we can see the new world order espoused by the two.

An entente with Russia would allow the world’s two leading nuclear powers to seek naked dominance in their respective spheres. Russia would be allowed a freer hand in its “near abroad” with dire potential consequences for Ukraine and other eastern European countries bordering on Russia. In its own much larger sphere, the United States would be free to pursue its economic, political and military goals without much regard for the interests of so-called allied powers. The guise of defending the “free world” against Russia would be abandoned along with the rules based trading system of the WTO, the World Bank, the International Monetary Fund, and regional trade blocs, erected under American leadership. Trump has already ditched the Trans Pacific Partnership and has often said that NAFTA is the worst trade deal ever established.

Trump and Bannon would prefer a new and more openly brutal system of bilateral relations between the U.S. and other countries. Bilateralism would allow the U.S. to exert maximum pressure on trading partners, one by one.

Such a global arrangement would not be the first time in history that major powers have made common cause in pursuit of their own interests. In the late 19th century German Chancellor Otto von Bismarck fostered such an alliance among Germany, Austria-Hungary, and Russia. It was an unstable system and ultimately it collapsed.

The point is that Trump and Bannon are aiming at such a fundamental reordering of the world. Whether they would want to include China in what would become a League of the Three Empires is not yet clear. Initially Trump hinted at stirring up trouble with China over the status of Taiwan. However, in a recent telephone conversation with Xi Jinping, described as “extremely cordial” Trump told the Chinese President that he intended to honour the One China Policy.

As the saying goes, Rome wasn’t built in a day. The Trump-Bannon New World Order cannot be constructed in a day. It will be fiercely resisted along the way. Those who are resisting it will be enormously better prepared if they understand the Trump-Bannon conception as a whole and are not merely distracted by its bits and pieces.