Respect, fear and laughter.

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.  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.

15 thoughts on “Respect, fear and laughter.

  1. “According to US foreign policy lore, “it is better to be respected than feared, but it is enough to be feared.””

    Shades of Machiavelli?

    Morales’ denunciation of Trump reminded me very much of Chavez’s denunciation of Bush Jr as “the devil”, again in the United Nations, just about twelve years ago to the day.

  2. Yeah, but Morales said it to Trump’s face from a chair’s width away. Chavez pontificated from a podium with Bush 43 not in the room.

    As for Machiavelli’s impact on US foreign policy. Let’s just say that realists, or at least those of my generation, read him assiduously.

  3. Your closing sentence is so depressing.
    For once, I just wish you are wrong.

    Mind you a FDR “New Deal” does not figure on radar screens and something like it appears necessary in a post industrial century. Green Anarchy/ Bernie Sanders policies, along anarchist lines during the Spanish Civil War could be useful.

    There are troubling reminders of the 1920’s and 1930’s floating around

  4. Aaaaayyyy fonzie. Great jump. That shark hey.
    “ 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.” Any of the myriad of think tanks could not be more objective than a kleptocracy of autocrats?

    That analysis is terrible. I would classify it as your worst ever without a doubt. All the left wing prejudices and no sober even handed analysis. There was Key derangement but you have a clear case of Trump Derangement Syndrome. Obama started the rot with leading from behind. But to even start to Fisk this piece is to dignify it.
    If you wish to press your objective bona fides then please explain the imbalance of Democrat vs republican senate votes to the Supreme Court over the last 30 years for their respective nominees. Shame.
    Mueller is a trash hack job and will come to nothing with respect to its mandate.

  5. Geez, Phil. What happened to you? You used to be rational conservative with principles grounded in markets and individual freedoms. Now not only are you buying the whole MAGA stupidity, but you are ranting off topic just for the lunacy of it, with personal jibes to boot. Next thing you will be sitting at a Drunmpf rally yelling “lock her up!”

    I get the feeling that you have gone from being a Tory to a UKIP droid. That would explain why you would move from a respectable conservative position to supporting a nationalist populist xenophobe. It is a pity because as I said in the post, populism in a symbol of the crisis of liberal democracy, not a solution to it. And that applies to the UK, Australia, continental Europe as well as the US.

  6. Another thought-provoking reflection on the ways things are, and where they and seem to be headed. Thanks for the efforts you put into providing these insights.

  7. Pablo

    Pile on to Trump, I have no issue with the UN laughing in his face. Personally I find Trump to be a buffoon. But politically he has tapped into a rich vein of dissent. You denigrate it as populist nationalism. Those who find the intolerance of the left establishment and the rank hypocrisy of the urban progressive elite sticks in their craw and want to raise their middle finger.

    Obama and Hillary could do no wrong but Republicans can do no right. I would vastly have preferred McCain or Romney to Obama, Hillary or Trump. As I preferred Hillary to Obama before the extent of her corruption and hypocrisy became clear when SecState.

    The US eonomomy grew at 4.2% annualised last quarter. Business has confidence. Russia is a busted flush. Germany and China has very serious demographic issues. Germany is solving its workforce shortages by creating a religious timebomb via uncontrolled immigration.
    Yet your piece is respecting the UN, and is in lala land around Mueller outcome. I would vastly prefer the American system of government to the unelected technocrats of China and the EU or any of the vast array of dictators and autocrats that make up the UN.

  8. Thanks Phil, for the more reasoned reply. I agree with you that there is inherent fragility within Russia and the PRC (although the sources of that fragility are different). Germany is not in the same boat as those two but does indeed the to address the balance between labor market needs and absorption of immigrant labor. I also agree that the UN is dysfunctional and full of corrupt tyrants. but that does not detract from the observation that the international community, as represented by the UN, see the decline of the US under Trump for what it is.

    I think that you have to much faith in the US political system, which to my mind is in its death throes as presently constituted. That something better will emerge from the ashes of this wretched experiment known as the Trump administration remains to be seen, but the solution lies in removing the dishonest money being funnelled into politicians, be it by the Koch brothers or by Silicone Valley wunderkind like Musk, Thiel and others. Only with a return to grassroots participation and bottom up representation will the Republic stand tall again. But there will be much pain before that happens.

  9. Pablo
    This is what Mueller has. The big meeting was set up by a contact for the Elvis of Azerbaijan ‘”You pillock! Why didn’t you tell me?’: How a British music publicist set up Trump team with Kremlin informant’
    Can’t paste the link from the telegraph somehow. But Mueller knows that is the quality of the link to Russia. Elvis and carter page. Collusion is a joke.
    The German economy is like the big US automotive companies in Detroit. Cost competitiveness eventually caught up with them.
    To quote Churchill democracy is the worst of all political systems apart from all the others that have been tried. And even more apposite Americans eventually do the right thing after they have tried everything else first. I am far less worried by Koch than by snowflakes and the deep state. Great article in the intercept about the China social credit system. Dystopian but also shows how much their technology has advanced ahead of the west.

  10. I see only two ways out of the current decline of the US. They involve either overhauling the US constitution to give it working form of government, or the break-up of the US into smaller constituent nation-states.

    I think the possibility of the former happening is near zero.

    The USA is too big too succeed.

  11. “I see only two ways out of the current decline of the US. They involve either overhauling the US constitution to give it working form of government, or the break-up of the US into smaller constituent nation-states.

    I think the possibility of the former happening is near zero.

    The USA is too big too succeed.”

    In fact, Johan Galtung, the historian-mathematician who correctly predicted most of the late-20th Century’s political earthquakes – including the collapse of the USSR – has predicted that Trump’s USA will experience a decline just as big.

  12. I forgot to mention: if the US does collapse in a fit of successions I expect almost everyone to be far better off for it. The total grid-lock of government is massively holding back progress.

    Almost everyone that is except for those in the core southern states who would face an epic decline, probably greater than Greece’s current situation.

  13. @kumara
    I read that Motherboard article and was taken in. I just read John Galt, sorry Johan Galtung wiki page.
    “The authors also criticized Galtung’s opposition to Hungarian resistance against the Soviet invasion in 1956 and his description in 1974 of Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn and Andrei Sakharov as “persecuted elite personages”
    “his criticism of western countries during and after the Cold War and what his critics perceived as a positive attitude to the Soviet Union, Cuba and Communist China. ”

    I also got far enough through the 2004 article that suggested the US “empire” is doomed to understand him in his own words.

    His wiki has a reference to 4 unsatisfactory ways of dispute resolution but fails to mention win win. I must admit to never having heard of him but he does not seem to have heard of the transaction that is at the heart of capitalist market democracy. Win win. I want to buy something you want to sell and we agree a price.
    He is a “useful idiot”. Nothing more.
    With the news that Kavanaugh has been confirmed America has held itself on a sensible path.
    @James – The US won’t collapse. With Trump’s election and Kavanaugh confirmation it has shown yet again the amazing ability for the silent democratic majority to self correct. The US system of government IS working. Not too much of the hypocritical progressive left and not too much of the conservative religious right. The Supreme court has just been given another “originalist”. That bodes well for increasing global prosperity, helped along by American intervention. The US Deep state have over reached with Comey->Mueller and will be corrected.

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