I am returning to some familiar ground, the impact of Donald Trump, because of an article in the prestigious Financial Times. Philip Stephens, the associate editor and senior commentator of that influential journal writes:
“You hear two things about the US in national capitals around the world.
- The first is that America is no longer the superpower it was;
- The second that they have put everything important on hold until they see the outcome of the US presidential election.
Now add a third: a Donald Trump presidency is beyond their worst nightmares.”
I agree with him that “American declinism has long been overdone … [But] what has changed during the past decade or so is that there are now some checks — shifting power balances internationally and the political mood domestically.“
The Americans almost always “put everything important (to others) on hold” while they make up their own minds about their own strategies … who can blame them?
On the third count, I also agree with Mr Stephens:
“Populist politicians of right and left across the democratic world are playing similar tunes. Marine Le Pen, the leader of France’s National Front, promotes the same Islamophobia, as does the rightwing Alternative für Deutschland party. In Britain, the pro-Brexit camp is relying on popular hostility towards the political elites to wrench the country out of its own continent … [And] politics tends to accommodate itself to events … [But, Mr Trump is different:] his platform mixes leftwing economic populism with a singularly ugly rightwing nationalism. What passes for his foreign policy can best be described as bellicose isolationism. Walling off Mexico and barring Muslims from the US — these are not policies that can be easily unsaid;” and
“It is striking also that Republicans — those most confounded by Mr Trump — seem rather more certain than their Democrat opponents that he will blow up on the road to the election. Hillary Clinton would be a well-qualified president. Democrats know that does not make her a good candidate.” In fact, despite a good, and hopeful article, in The Atlantic, which suggests the Ms Clinton could unite America, I suspect that she is more “party hack” than “great” and that she will toe a left wing, isolationist, Big Labour and Hollywood driven national policy that will be as bad as Mr Trump’s.
But, maybe, the latest “Decline of the West“is just a historic inevitability whose time has come. Those of us who recall reading Paul Kennedy’s analysis of the Great Powers, and moving his ideas backwards to Rome and Greece and Persia and Egypt (not to mention China) will not be surprised that Pax Americana probably has to have a finite lifespan, as did Pax Britannica and Pax Romana.
What if Mr Trump is a symptom rather the cause of America’s relative (and, yes indeed, overstated) decline? What if it really is time for an interregnum of sorts, a period of instability such as we saw in, say, the late 19th and early 20th centuries, or in the late 17th and early 18th centuries when revolutions and charismatic megalomaniacs “disturbed the peace,” or in the late 16th century when an upstart England overturned the stable, predictable world order?
Maybe Americans already understand, intuitively, as I suspect many Brits did circa 1890, that they simply cannot continue to be, as Mr Stephens says, “the only nation with the capacity to intervene just about everywhere.” Maybe Mr Trump, with his seemingly amazing ability to tap into and enunciate Americans insecurities and fears, is simply expressing a historical imperative: change happens, like it or not.
I remain convinced that both Ms Clinton and Mr Trump would be poor to disastrous presidents, and I can only hope that a Hugely well funded third party candidate can emerge, step up and speak to “middle America’s” values and mount a ferocious campaign and defeat them both in the forthcoming general election. But even a third party candidate cannot address the unease that underlies politics in America today. The winds of change are still blowing … Barak Obama, Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump are just “answers, blowin’ in the wind” but, as in the 1960s, no one really understands how to ask the question or, even, what question should be asked.
Another Canadian observer, the anthropologist Professor Maximilian Forte of Concordia University suggests, in his blog, that: “The primary dividing line of this election is globalization, specifically neoliberal globalization, and more specifically: the plight of the working class in the wake of free trade. In more traditional terms if you like, the contest is Hillary Clinton vs. Sanders plus Trump—two out of the three remaining major candidates have emerged as a protest against trickle-down economics, free trade, the dominance of financial elites, and “the establishment” more generally.” I think he’s on to something and I believe that something mirrors Britain in the 1890s and around the dawn of the 20th century. Many Brits were, simply, tired of being the “free market” champion while others, America and Germany, in particular, took advantage of their (economic) policies and muscled into their markets with better, cheaper products and those same Brits were equally tired of being the world’s policeman ~ keeping the sea lanes free for American ships to carry German goods to what had been British markets.
What does it mean for Canada?
If people like Professor Forte and others are right, if both Ms Clinton and Mr Trump represent the sum of American fears and ennui then Canada must be prepared to work in a world without the firm, fixed policy principles that emerged under President Harry Truman and which lasted, more or less, for about 70 years. This will involve, at least, three things:
- We must be prepared to cary more of the burden of keeping the peace and, increasingly, making and enforcing the peace;
- Canada must also be prepared to play a greater, more active role in promoting free(er) trade; and
- Finally Canada must make itself more attractive for business as America becomes more protectionist and isolationist.
It will not be the end of civilization as we know it if Donald Trump becomes President of the United States, but it might create a challenging environment … but that might well exist if Hillary Clinton, or anyone else is elected, if the shift in American popular opinion is widespread and enduring.