President Trump’s actions, and the international reactions to them, are so bad that the question naturally arises, “are we witnessing the beginning of the long-term decline of the West, and of the US in particular?”
I think the answer is “no”, although some of the actions of the current governments in both the US and the UK make them seem determined to do everything they can to sideline themselves from regional and world opinion. BREXIT is the case in point for the UK, leaving the TPP and the Paris Climate Change Agreement the cases in point for the US.
Of those three it can be argued that the UK leaving the EU is the most significant, since the EU is an existing institution which both gains weight from Britain’s membership and gives Britain weight in return. The TPP had not come into effect at the time of the US’s withdrawal, and there are other options available to interested parties, for example the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership, promoted by ASEAN and China, and even, as a possibility, a TPP without the US.
Trump’s taking the US out of the Paris Agreement is a tremendous affront to world opinion, but it is not a binding agreement, and fortunately it seems that many US States, cities and firms will simply ignore Trump’s action (which was probably taken both as a sop to his electoral base, and as a distraction from Congress’s inquiries into his campaign).
Nevertheless Trump’s actions have had the effect of putting the US in the bizarre position of an outsider state, preferencing coal over renewables for energy, despite the evidence, and turning its back on both far-advanced plans for regional trade liberalisation and on a hardly-achieved agreement on steps to combat global warming. Japan, Germany and France can count themselves among the aggrieved. At a time when there is such emphasis on the US-China relationship Trump has given the Chinese “free kicks”, which China’s President and Prime Minister have been quick to make the most of.
Why then is this not the beginning of the end for the United States? When Senator McCain spoke in Sydney last week he urged his audience “not to give up” on the US. He cited its economy, its military strength, its youthful population (in contrast with countries like japan and China), its educational institutions, its technology and its resourcefulness and inventiveness—in effect saying, in regard to Trump, “this too will pass”.
And of course it, and he, will, and there is a lot in what McCain said about the US’s underlying strengths. Let’s hope they shine through! But it’s also true that the US now faces very big internal problems, of economic inequality, job creation, alienation, race relations and a political system more exposed than ever to money in politics following relatively recent Supreme Court decisions. There is a seriously bad patch for the US to get through domestically, as well as internationally, and at such a time President Trump’s inclinations do not inspire confidence.
This week the US Secretaries of State and Defence, Rex Tillerson and James Mattis, are in Australia for talks with their Australian counterparts. Various American speakers in Australia recently, including Senator McCain and the former Deputy Director of the CIA, have essentially told their audiences that in dealing with Trump’s America Australia should keep away from Trump and deal with sensible and experienced people below him like Tillerson and Mattis. That’s probably as good advice as any, but there are two problems with it: first, they are only some of Trump’s advisers, some of whom come from very different backgrounds, and have very different views; and secondly, in the last resort they serve at their boss’s pleasure—which, as FBI Director Comey’s fate showed, can turn to displeasure.
And a final thought for Australia. In the last resort, and for the reasons given by Senator McCain, the United States is big and ugly enough to survive almost anything—it can lose wars, in Vietnam for example, and still be courted by the victor. We aren’t in that category, and that means that we need to be very careful about making common cause with the United States as President Trump leads it through—and perhaps causes—a very difficult patch.
Geoff Miller was Director General of the Office of National Assessments, Australian Ambassador to Japan and ROK, and High Commissioner to New Zealand.