Alberta Politics
172001-N-PN185-06 WASHINGTON, DC (Jan. 20, 2017) The 99-piece United States Navy Band marches down Pennsylvania Avenue in Washington, D.C. in support of the 58th presidential inauguration. (U.S. Navy photo by Musician First Class Eric Brown/Released)

Thanks to Donald Trump, the post-war American imperium that’s run like a Swiss watch is coming unsprung!

Posted on January 07, 2018, 1:22 am
11 mins

PHOTOS: U.S. President Donald Trump’s inaugural parade makes its way through Washington, D.C., on Jan. 20, 2017, just before the stuff hit the fan and everything went to hell in a handbasket. (Photo: United States Navy.) Below: President Trump, former president Barack Obama, the late Canadian Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau, and former Australian PM and foreign minister Kevin Rudd. (All portrait photos from the Wikimedia Commons.)

Does anyone even remember the idea behind the Project for a New American Century?

Well, my fellow Canadians, we shouldn’t have put all our eggs in that basket, just as we were warned by Prime Minister Trudeau – Pierre Trudeau, that is.

Our American cousins spent the half century after World War II brilliantly crafting a intricate new world order to work in their interest. As their resource-rich nextdoor neighbour, this was mostly to our benefit too, at least if you weren’t too sensitive about national sovereignty.

If you can be bothered to remember amid all the excitement now emanating from the Imperial Capital on the Potomac, the PNAC was not just the think tank of the same name but the entire scheme whereby a bunch of neoliberal intellectuals proposed to renew American hegemony for another 100 years, transformed along harsh laissez-faire lines reminiscent of the 18th and 19th centuries. Informed of it, Karl Marx would probably have muttered, “Just as I thought!”

I’m going to climb out on a limb here and predict that, whatever happens next, that particular project is almost as dead as the proverbial mackerel. To mix metaphors, this time we’re really not in Kansas any more! And if you think that’s a good thing from Canada’s perspective, you may eventually want to revise that opinion.

The people who created the postwar American Century may not have been particularly nice guys, and the homeland they served may have been no shining democratic city on a hill, but you have to give them credit for having the genius to use the power they were handed by history in 1945 to create a complex interconnected clockwork empire that, managed properly, truly could have thrived for another century.

Things may have been coming unravelled here and there, but up until 2016 there was lots of life left in the old new order. And while it may not have been a kinder and gentler one, as American conservatives used to promise, the highly competent U.S. foreign policy professionals of most of the past 70 years had a strategy for keeping this mighty global ship of states afloat and mostly on course as it plowed through the post-historical era.

Then came Trump.

This isn’t the mid-19th Century, when the continental American Empire could afford to have four incompetent chief executives within a 12-year span and still survive. As noted in this space Friday, had it not been for Abraham Lincoln, that probably would have proved fatal to the Republic even then.

However, despite their many flaws, with the possible exceptions of Gerald Ford and Ronald Reagan, the United States had mostly competent presidents at the helm from Franklin D. Roosevelt to Barack Obama. What’s more, in every case, including the Ford and Reagan administrations, the leadership cadre and foreign policy establishments were competently managed and the American ship of state plowed on through wars and economic upheavals alike

With the first anniversary of the swearing in of Donald J. Trump as President of the United States still almost two weeks away, however, things seem to have come badly unsprung.

For reasons not fully understood, Mr. Trump seems determined to shake up or break up much of the intricate machinery that made the postwar American Empire run like a Swiss watch – NATO, the permanent subjugation of Japan and the Koreas, the delicate creative adversarialism of the Middle East and Indian Subcontinent, and the vast and growing network of “trade agreements,” working universally in the United States’ favour, from Bretton Woods through the North American Free Trade Agreement to the Trans-Pacific Partnership.

There are lots of theories about why the chaotic Trump Administration, in less than a year, has been able to throw so many spanners into the works without the grownups in the U.S. Government restoring order. Paul Krugman, the New York Times’s economics columnist, on Friday blamed the Republican Party’s cynical strategy “to exploit racism to advance the right-wing economic agenda.”

It’s an interesting argument, worth reading. “With Trump they lost control: the base wanted someone who was blatantly racist and wouldn’t pretend to be anything else. And that’s what they got, with corruption, incompetence, and treason on the side,” Dr. Krugman writes. Now, he argues, “they’re stuck. They knowingly made a deal with the devil, and can’t back out.”

Maybe. And maybe the Democratic Party’s cynical strategy to use Mr. Trump’s unpopularity to recover majorities in the House and Senate is part of the problem too. As Zhou Enlai supposedly told Henry Kissinger, who was visiting China with President Richard Nixon at the time, it’s too soon to tell.

What we can tell, already, is that as things come unstuck, they come unstuck fast.

Mr. Trump’s first act as president was to pull the plug on the TPP, to the quiet relief of Canadian progressives. NAFTA may or may not have gone for the high jump. The jury’s still out. Whatever, it’s been pretty chaotic every day since. On New Year’s Day, Boss Tweet took to Twitter to assail the government of Pakistan for giving America “nothing but lies & deceit.”

On Friday, the Trump Administration announced it was cutting off $1.3 billion of what in foreign relations is euphemistically called aid to Pakistan – that is, one could argue, bribes to keep a reluctant ally at least manageably in line.

Almost immediately, the South China Morning Post, quoting sources close to the People’s Liberation Army, reported that China would build its second overseas naval base soon in … Pakistan.

China’s huge investment in the Pakistani port of Gwadar is hardly a secret. And Pakistani officials have denied the naval-base story. Still, the timing of the Morning Post report is evocative, to say the least. As the English-language Hong Kong newspaper observed in a commentary on the developments: “In South Asia, there is one clear winner from Donald Trump’s Tweet tantrums this week: China, which suddenly finds its leverage over Pakistan multiplying as a result of the U.S. president’s mood swings.”

President Obama had a strategy to contain China’s military and economic ambitions, the so-called pivot to Asia. “Without such a move, there was a danger that China, with its hardline, realist view of international relations, would conclude that an economically exhausted United States was losing its staying power in the Pacific,” wrote Kevin Rudd, a former Australian prime minister and foreign minister, in Foreign Affairs Magazine in 2013.

President Trump appears to have no plan beyond getting up grumpy and signing on to his Twitter account.

So, from the Chinese perspective, sometimes you may have to strike while the iron is hot!

At the risk of sounding like Steve Bannon, Mr. Trump’s sinister alt-right former key advisor, now that it’s out, it may be pretty hard to put that genie back in the bottle.

So let’s just imagine you were the leader of a weaker power, but an important power nonetheless, entertaining thoughts of America in 2019 and wishing you could put the old world order on its back foot while you establish, or perhaps reestablish, your position. Wouldn’t it just be the ticket to have an old, mad, despised, and Twitter-obsessed president in the Oval Office?

I’m not saying the Russians did it, or for that matter the Chinese. On the contrary, despite the continuing Russiagate hysteria, all the evidence suggests that our American neighbours did this all by themselves – through the self-inflicted curse of imperial hubris that led them to believe their immaculately tended diplomatic garden didn’t need to be nurtured or maintained any more.

But if you were a Russian or Chinese leader, you could hardly be completely displeased by the development.

Nor am I saying the American State, deep or otherwise, won’t find a way to put Humpty back together again. But that gets harder by the day.

Something like this was bound to happen sooner or later, although we all assumed it would be much, much later. Now that it has … hang onto your hats!

11 Comments to: Thanks to Donald Trump, the post-war American imperium that’s run like a Swiss watch is coming unsprung!

  1. Scotty on Denman

    January 7th, 2018

    I, too, mark the beginning of this epoch as the end of the 32-year world war misadventure, 1945, when sapiens staged the dramatic production in the theatre of world history, crystalizing an era of such planned promise it was only fitting it started with a Big Bang.

    “Then came Trump,” yes, indeed. And he really has thrown a “spanner” (is that some kinda Little England talk? Spellcheck wants “spinner”—like Sara or Kellyanne) into the works. As brilliant as post-war American strategists might have been, the works were destined to break. And as cynically shrewd (in the basest way) as Trump might seem by making sure he lands ass-down on top of the collapsed tower of Late American Hegemony, he neither precipitated nor controls Manifeckless Destiny. A pawn, no doubt, but for whom probably nobody knows. Not even the most powerful man in the world.

    I’d rather call thinkers in the Republican Party, which, I agree, designed a racist ploy to secure American economic hegemony, ‘tacticians,’ not ‘strategists.’ Doubtless they consider their amoral plan the best way to sustain hegemony, to survive any kick at the vitals, to continue to thrive, as any strategic goal must. But the globalization bronco-ride is as unsustainable as infinite growth, surviving war only possible at a safe distance, and ‘thriving’ just barely more than surviving. Technology fosters strategy, as always, but now also a way to enforce mass consumerism, itself dependent on continual introduction of techno-innovation —which requires assiduously built-in obsolescence. The techno-stratego-capitalism triangle of globalization has eliminated safe distances (perhaps the twitter throne in Trumps bathroom is a quarky exception) so we’re forced to pay in jeopardy of burial in stuff we buy, half of it unneeded, but for which we’ve become so indebted. Techno-innovation, mass consumerism and resultant waste (whole landforms, seas and stratospheres of it), dangerously tricky weapons to guard profit and profitability, and enforced buying on credit cannot have a strategy, not without a future. They are merely tactical stop-gaps needed to manoeuvre around increasingly numerous and ponderous monuments of refuse and movable nations of human refugees. America is exceptional only in that it happens to be riding the bronc right when the shit starts coming down.

    If the Republicans can’t back out of their “deal with the devil,” they deserve to go extinct. Trump is, IMHO, merely symptomatic of the neo-right’s moribundity. But, the faster you go, the more tricky those high-speed wobbles get, and it sure looks like the Neo-Right is going to wipe out. Now on top, the asinine Trump will go down, too, only maybe not landing ass-down on top.

    The USA is the most powerful nation in history: of course middle powers will take advantage of the Trump phenomenon—and China did write a few books a few thousand years ago about how the lesser can triumph over the greater. Just ask Laotze and Suntze. Canada, too, must take advantage (there are also chapters in the Taoteching and The Art of War which specifically deal with Canada’s situation and circumstance). It’s probably going to be difficult, of course, but why shouldn’t it be? If we’ve benefitted —and we really, really have—by our consanguine relationship with the USA, we should have enough wealth left over after settling outstanding claims with Aboriginal nations to fashion a worthwhile, if Spartan, future. It’s Globalization, we’re all in this together, culpability and good will included in the calculus.

    China seems reluctant as a Gothic Duke to assume the purple mantle. Why shouldn’t they be? Instability is a millennia-long lesson for them. The USA only tolerated sharing a whole hemisphere with another nuclear power, and then only for a brief, sweaty time, and long before the globalization monster had eaten us out of house and home. China has a much different point-of-view in this respect, there being at least seven nuclear powers in its own hemisphere— that is, sweaty all the time. China can see as well as anybody that the world is entering a difficult phase—it still reminds itself that its very first treaty with a foreign power, Nirchinsk in 1689, with Russia, was a breach of its own ancient wisdom, made very reluctantly with the ‘barbarians,’ anybody outside the Middle Kingdom; China didn’t want the world then, and it does now only in the most reluctant and qualified way. Why fight to be king of a dunghill? How they must laugh at the preposterous ignoramus Trump and his enbroilment with Vladimir Curds-n-Gravy. It is a gift from heaven for the ancient civilization directly centred under it. If Ancient wisdom prevails—and if all the tumult of the last two centuries hasn’t erased it yet, it probably will—the Chinese will inform their own ‘strategic’ plan with long experience of making do. For now they move tactically. No other nation is as tactically dumb as the USA, but China respects the longterm. Since Trump can hardly conceive of a longterm, and seems proud to be noticed for it, China is happy to deak around this lumbering moron.

    I agree we tend to push the looming sixth extinction out of our minds. I believe the powerful avail the ancient narrative we sapiens have been guffing ourselves with since the very first campfire tale of our supremacy and the gods’ blessings. Why shouldn’t they? It’s worked so far. The Bible reads, with atheist clarity: God’s first commandment to Adamkind was to multiply and subdue the Earth, to master it. It’s probably our most primal narrative, and yes, like capitalism, it has worked for some time. Only problem is, neither has an epilogue or sequel, so when we start running out of Earth to subdue and infinity to profit from, we don’t know collectively (where the primal narrative is most potently hypnotizing) what to do. That’s why Trump is so apropos: he doesn’t know much, doesn’t much care, either. We fulfilled the commandment; now what? As The Donald would probably say: nobody knows about subduing the Earth as me. Now what? Who cares?

    I’m going to be hanging on to my hat, though, good and tight!

    Reply
  2. msedmonton

    January 7th, 2018

    Good article. One point of clarification: Zhou Enlai said his famous quote in France, when he was asked by the press there what he thought of the French Revolution.

    Which illustrates two things here: the long game, and also how quickly things can fall apart.

    Reply
    • Simon Renouf

      January 7th, 2018

      I’ve always loved that quote from Zhou Enlai also, but apparently it’s now been questioned as to whether he was referring to France’s “revolutions” of 1789 or May, 1968. I’ll stick with the 1789 version as it makes for a much less mundane remark.

      Reply
    • Expat Albertan

      January 7th, 2018

      Yes, but he thought he was asking about the 1968 student demonstrations in Paris when he answered. Notwithstanding, I think it is a misunderstanding that works better than what a proper response would have..

      Reply
  3. Simon Renouf

    January 7th, 2018

    David, great post as always, but I’m not convinced about the lack of direction from Moscow. One example you don’t mention is the Jerusalem announcement, which could turn out to be the biggest foreign policy blunder of Trump’s (likely abbreviated) career. Let’s ask the old question, “Cui bono?” The US has at least for now written itself out of the script for the Middle East. Who gains? Some recent headlines: “US-Russia Competition in the Middle East Is Back”, Foreign Policy, March 7, 2017; “Russia, Not the US, Is Now Calling the Shots in the Middle East”, Newsweek, August 3; 2017 : “Putin Is Filling the Middle East Power Vacuum”, Bloomberg, October 3, 2017. You could conclude that Putin is calling the shots in Washington, couldn’t you?

    Reply
    • Rocky

      January 7th, 2018

      What? Putin picks up the phone, calls The Donald on a burner and says, “I’ve got it! Recognize Jerusalem as the capital of Israel!”?? Highly unlikely. Probably, for the reasons you suggest, GWB’s pal Pooty-Poot was delighted by the idiotic decision, but it happened because Trump is a predictably idiotic American idiot, not because the KGB/FSB is giving him his marching orders, which would be too far complicated.

      Reply
      • Simon Renouf

        January 8th, 2018

        Not really. Russian spokespersons later “clarified” that story as being a potential consequence of a 2-state solution. Russia was part of the majority at the UN that rejected US recognition of Jerusalem last month.

        Reply
  4. David Climenhaga

    January 7th, 2018

    Note on Zhou Enlai’s remark to Henry Kissinger: Whether Zhou made the comment in China or Paris (the usual sources give both versions) is in some dispute. I’ll leave it as it is. Whether Zhou actually meant the French students in 1968 is, I would respectfully say to all who have suggested this might be the case, extremely unlikely. Those two talking about geopolitics and not sure of what era they were speaking about? Seriously? Just not possible! If he said it, Zhou meant the French Revolution, and I imagine he said it with the faintest smile. DJC

    Reply
  5. David

    January 7th, 2018

    It is difficult to put Humpy back together and it gets more difficult the more Trump disrupts, breaks or destroys the various strands of the complicated international diplomatic web.

    I think the Trump era however or when it ends will result in a new international order. US influence will be greatly diminished and others will fill the vacuum. If close friends and allies no longer see the US as a dependable ally, they will be less likely to go along with what the US wants. On the fringes of its imperial reach the US may totally lose influence in some parts of the world – Pakistan may be an example of this.

    The US will have to endure Trump until they can find a way to get rid of him or he goes, after all they elected him.. However other countries have no obligation to endure or put up with US stupidity or foolishness very long. I think in many ways various western allies will just go on without the US and ignore it.

    Ultimately after Trump goes, there will be a huge mess for its diplomats to try clean up and fix. I don’t think the US’s international reach and influence will ever be as great as before.

    Reply
  6. Murphy

    January 11th, 2018

    That guy who sat and read “The Pet Goat” while somebody or other did something with those airplanes and those buildings back in 2001 didn’t really seem all that competent. And I think that the international banking consortium that has ruled from City of London since the War of the Spanish Succession cannot be discounted when describing the apparatus that makes the world order.

    Reply

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