This week Donald Trump chose the wrong place and the wrong time to brag about MAGA. For its myriad faults, the UN General Assembly is probably the most objective place with which to evaluate the US’s position in the international community and the impact of the Trump presidency on it.
When Trump thumped his chest about the greatness that is his administration during his speech to it, the UNGA laughed in his face. He later said that they were laughing with him, not at him. He would be wrong on that.
According to US foreign policy lore, “it is better to be respected than feared, but it is enough to be feared.” It is now clear from the UNGA response to Trump’s chauvinistic utterances that the US, or at least the US under Trump, is neither feared or respected. Instead, it is seen as the large oaf best avoided, toyed with from afar or irritated at a distance. It is dangerous, to be sure, but it is in many ways a paper tiger much in the way that Trump is. This was best illustrated at the UN Security Council meeting that Trump chaired two days after his UNGA speech. While most attention focused on his claims that China was interfering in the upcoming US midterm election on behalf of the Democrats and his threats against Iran, lost in the coverage was the fact that Bolivian President Evo Morales, sitting in his country’s temporary Security Council seat less then 2 meters from Trump, ridiculed him to is face after Trump started going about restoring democracy to Venezuela after airing his complaints about China. Â Morales reminded Trump of the US’s sorry history of interventionism in Latin America and denounced his hypocrisy in a way that few would ever had done in years gone by. But that was then and Drumpf is now.
The UN’s laughter is also rooted in the knowledge that the shift to populist governance in the US could well be the last gasp of a dying empire. The move to economic nationalism under personalist leadership and the reassertion of mono-cultural ethno-religious dominance in the face of multicultural demographic shifts and the globalisation of economic relations represents a call to a past that even if it existed (it never fully did), is no longer possible in an age of emerging great power multipolarity in which US decline as a superpower is matched by the rise of new and resurgent powers. The turn to myopic vanity (MAGA) under Trump’s brand of populism spells the end of imperial hubris, if not of imperial ambition itself. That is because in mature liberal democracies the rise of nationalist populism is a response to crisis of the political status quo but is not the answer to it. Instead it represents the last gasp of a dying empire, one last grasp at “greatness” before the cold reality of potentially terminal decline begins to set in.
World leaders also know that even if it is a temporary paralysis under Trump rather than a terminal illness, the current “America First” US foreign policy needs to be waited out or side-stepped rather than confronted. It is increasingly clear that Trump may not survive his term in office because of the Mueller investigation and the distinct possibility that the Democrats regain at least one chamber of Congress in the November 2018 midterm elections. Even if he does complete his current term it is unlikely that he will get re-elected in 2020 given the support levels he receives. If the Democrats win the House of Representatives it is probable that they will commence impeachment proceedings against him, something that will make much harder his ability to press forward with his policy agenda. If his popularity continues to slump due to the negative impact of retaliatory tariffs on exports from so-called Red States that backed him in 2016 (which is what the Chinese have done in a targeted way and which is why Trump is claiming that they are trying to interfere in the 2018 midterms), then his chances for re-election in 2020 are virtually nil as are those of any GOP candidates still trying to ride his coattails.
Unlike the Chinese Communist Party that can demand and enforce public austerity in the face of US tariffs on its exports, US politicians face electoral scrutiny on a regular basis. And when a trade war begins to bite on the US side, be it in loss of jobs or rises in mass consumer non-durable retail prices, then something will give, and what gives is electoral support for those who support the trade war. Call it the “Walmart Effect:” when cheap goods can no longer be bought cheaply at retail outlets like Walmart, then not only are consumers denied their consumption preferences but the profit margins of the retail corporations take a hit as well. And when the corporate elite see their bottom lines negatively impacted by trade wars, then they will work hard to ensure that those responsible for the loss of profit are punished accordingly. Trump and his economic nationalist supporters are therefore on a political hiding to nothing if they continue down the current path when it comes to trade relations.
Then there is what Mueller’s investigation may have in store.
So the best thing for most foreign governments to do is to laugh at or play along with but not diplomatically confront the MAGA madness. The exception to this is Iran, which has responded relatively calmly but firmly to Trump’s provocations, and North Korea, which has decided that the best way to manipulate Trump is to stroke his ego via slavish praise and flattery (while doing very little in the way of making substantive concessions to the US regarding its nuclear weapons development program). In between lies a continuum of response from making nice with him while keeping channels open with the US foreign policy bureaucracy (India) to ignoring him while concentrating on other diplomatic initiatives not involving the US (the EU). For rival powers like China and Russia, the response is to proceed with their strategic plans without concern for the US response–what can be called pulling the tail of that paper tiger. They key point is that the global community increasingly sees Trump as a temporary aberration rather than an indicator of a hegemonic long-term project.
Whatever the response, it is pretty clear that the US is coming to the end of a long political cycle. Trump is the product and symbol of it as well as its last response and manifestation. What emerges from the ashes of his administration has yet to be determined and it is possible that, having not seen what is obvious from the outside, the US political elite will continue with their partisan squabbles and corporate bankrolling while the country continues its socio-economic descent into division and strife. But it is also possible, like the drunk who wakes up in a gutter and decides to go sober (insert reference to Brett Kavanaugh here), the US political establishment will realise that they have hit rock bottom and need to change their approach to political life.
Then again, it does not appear that the GOP and some of the Democratic establishment have even woken up yet.