GEOFF MILLER. “Decline and Fall of America”? No, but a very difficult patch.

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.

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6 Responses to GEOFF MILLER. “Decline and Fall of America”? No, but a very difficult patch.

  1. Peter Graves says:

    While respecting the views of the former D-G of ONA, I also note these passing comments:
    “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”.

    I am not so sanguine. That “economic inequality” seems to me to be rapidly leading to a society of “the very, very rich” – and the rest, with the federal government seemingly in thrall to the former and not caring about the balance. I instance American “health care” – the best that money can buy. And you’d better be either very rich or employed, when you do get sick in America.

    The New York Girl Scouts have recently created a troop for homeless girls – there are so many young girls who miss out, not having transport or spare money otherwise. In the city which is otherwise the mecca of vibrant, economic activity.

    And it also seems to me that the hollowing out of America and the loss of its blue collar jobs has lead to the increased militarisation of America. The former high school graduates (not going to college) used to be able to get a life-long job in a factory and plan their life accordingly. Examples from the towns with closed coal mines are featuring in The New York Times.

    Now the main hope is to join the military and get the benefits of the GI Bill after completing the enlistment. And those military forces probably create their own dynamic for overseas deployment.

    It’s the great distance between the US governing class and its citizens that reminds me of the downfall of the Roman Empire.

  2. Greg Bailey says:

    Geoff Miller sets out very well the political/cultural malaise into which the USA has seemingly settled, as have Australia and the UK, but without having such a dysfunctional leader. His conclusions, though, ask the question of where some renewal might come from. Neoliberalism is a cultural system as well as a (flawed) economic theory, and its supposed practical application: the free market. Its organizational manifestation is corporatization, a style of leadership involving institutionalized bullying, a high degree of individualism and limited, if any attempts, at building coherent social structures, as opposed to social networks which are the social equivalent of digital networks.

    Under this scenario democratic values, shared leadership and attempts to represent the whole instead of the self (or a very specific class) are not cultivated at all. Renewal will not come from the large institutions represented by politicians, the executive arm of government, big business, nor the trade unions, though some individuals within these institutions will want renewal. Nor will it come from the individuals who Trump represents as they have probably never had much commitment to democratic values in any case. The universities have been largely corporatized, so a united front from them is probably unlikely.

    Where there may be some prospect of renewal is in a coalition of forces from the non-political classes and some individuals from the above-mentioned institutions: a coalition based on a commitment to mitigating the effects of anthropogenic climate change. This commitment would be made all the more stronger by Trump’s repudiation of America’s official involvement in the Paris Agreement. And likely it would be strengthened by other major blunder’s Trump makes as his presidency goes on. Even so, neoliberalism expresses itself through some powerful institutions which will resist any change involving power-sharing with those groups who are presently completely excluded from power.

    • Peter Graves says:

      Thanks for this part:”Neoliberalism is a cultural system as well as a (flawed) economic theory, and its supposed practical application: the free market. ”

      Can I suggest that it is the current paradigm of economics that needs changing ? It used to be Keynes that was taught in universities’ economics department, until the mid-1970s. That now much-ridiculed Chicago School of Economics espoused by Milton Friedman then took over, with its emphasis on the free market and reduced Government interventions.

      It seems to me that this then permeated the subsequent PhDs in economics that got the possessor positions in politics and government. As an example: it took Professor Barry Marshall’s paradigm shift in the source of stomach ulcers for the medical profession to change its treatments.

      A new paradigm in economics would be a good start, that de-emphasised belief in the sanctity of markets and obeisance to that entity “the economy”, handled the internationalisation of trade and the impact of private sector CEOs appropriating the wealth therefrom, and focussed on the people affected by Government decisions as the citizens of a nation.

  3. Kathy Heyne says:

    ‘ … 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.’ Yeah, but it starts and prolongs them all over the world and has been increasingly for the past two decades. Not to mention the extrajudicial murders by drone. I think much of the world had had enough long before Trump came along. Its own people have had enough of the US.

    Time for Australia to stop dancing to the US’s tune, regardless of whether Trump, some other Republican or a Democrat is calling it.

  4. michael lacey says:

    McCain is a Neoliberal Neoconservative warmonger! Until the Americans rid themselves of this swill they will continue to have serious problems both domestically and internationally. Four decades of this cancerous dogma is coming back to haunt the West through imposed austerity programs, Large scale corruption, poverty governance and perpetual wars!

  5. Steve Turbit says:

    Great piece, Geoff.

    As was hinted at by Peter above, it is useful to make comparisons between the US and the Roman Empire. I have thought about this a long time before Trump came along.

    After reaching the heights of its glory days, the Roman Empire started to crumble, but it wasn’t a quick downward spiral. There were periods where under poor leadership, the Empire went into decline, only to be revived and resurrected under the transformation to a more dynamic leadership. The US is no different, and has been through this before.

    Under Trump I predict they will go into an economic slump which will in turn trigger a political and strategic slump. The public will realise what they have been saddled with and get rid of him. The next leader may be no better, but if Sanders lives long enough, more than likely things will improve.

    It’s going to be a long, slow process that probably won’t be seen in our time, but I think the US is in the early stages of decline, with many bumps in the road to come.

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