In world politics it is evident that some countries are more powerful than others and that, in various ways, the powerful dominate the weak. However, this is not as simplistically true as it at first seems. In my lifetime I have seen Vietnam, one of the weakest nations, defeat the USA. Dominance is not automatic and much depends upon the strength of motivation of opponents. The British empire was substantially made possible by the ability of the colonial power to recruit sections of the local population in countries that were colonised. Every ruler needs at least some friends.
It can be advanced as a reasonable hypothesis that an empire will persist for a length of time that is inversely proportional to the selfishness of the imperial power. When the dominant country is solely concerned about its own interests and sees the dominated countries simply as resources to be plundered, then the motivation of those who oppose it will become strong. When, on the other hand, the imperial power has some ethos of service toward its vassals, at least some of the population of those vassal countries will see it as a privilege to be associated with the dominant country. Some hegemonies last longer than others.
In the postwar period I think we have seen a gradual change - with some exceptions - in the attitude expressed by the leaders of the currently most dominant country. There was a time when America regarded itself as having a responsibility toward the rest of the world. More recently, the strongest note has been that America must look after itself and only be concerned with its own best interest.
The basic drama of world politics in the current century is bound to revolve around the question of whether America can manage to retain its position as the most powerful country on the planet. It seems to me that there is no single country that has the capacity alone to challenge that position, but that American dominance could come to an end if it found itself faced with a consortium of opposition from other countries acting in concert.
Insofar as America becomes more and more blatantly self-seeking, the likelihood of other countries overtly or tacitly uniting against it must become greater. The new regime now taking office is unprecedentedly strident in its America-first attitude. This has already been enough to bring cries of alarm even from some long standing allies and one can imagine that, behind closed doors, leading politicians in many countries are now making contingency plans.
It is a Buddhist principle and even more so a Taoist one that the person who just thinks of himself is least likely to get what he wants in the long run, and sometimes even in the short one. America will be judged by its actions more than its words, but words are not nothing. It is possible that the days of American dominance are numbered. It is impossible to tell exactly how the downfall will work out. Much depends upon adventitious circumstances that cannot be foreseen. However, on the basis of first principles, it is not unreasonable to imagine that some large scale changes are not that far away.
When we think in a purely utilitarian manner, we are liable to be blind to the factors that really move people's hearts and minds. The single action that probably most tellingly accounted for America losing in Vietnam was the decision of Lindon Johnson to bomb Hanoi. One might think - probably LBJ did think - that increasing pressure on the enemy will advance one's cause. However, what it did do was to harden the resolve of the Vietnamese to get rid of the foreign power. Penalising European industries that want to do business with Mexico might go down well with certain sections of American home opinion, but, as a German industrialist commented, Europe also has ways of putting pressure on America. When your former friends start to talk like your enemies, it is time to worry. We are not yet in a trade war, but it might be on the way and if it happens it is certainly not obvious that America would win it.
One of the most common ways of undermining a leader is to pick off his (or her) henchmen. So far we have seen several people close to President Trump go down, Michael Flynn being the latest. There were several more, including Manafort, before Trump even got into the White House. This does not bode at all well. It is looking increasingly likely that the USA is going to go on for some time being inwardly preoccupied with accusations of scandal and misdoings, just as it was during Watergate.
It may well prove to have been a mistake on Trump's part to let Flynn go. He might have done better to brazen it out the way that only he can do. The idea that Flynn "broke the law" by talking to the Russian ambassador before actually being in office could surely be poo-hooed. It does look as if there are already different factions at odds with each other within the White House and the probable split is pro- and anti- Russian. If Trump could make peace with Russia it would make many things difficult in the USA since the country is so geared to having Russia there as the assumed enemy. Real peace would weaken the whole political structure.
For a great many Americans, having Russia as an enemy is virtually definitional of what it is to be American. Also, the American economy is highly focussed upon the defense "industry". Changing this is not easy and would have enormous repercussions for how the US is organised. There are two main challenges facing the US this century. One is the difficulty of financing its "top dog" position. The other is how to hold the country together. We who have been brought up in the period of American dominance tend to think of it as indestructible, but the union could fragment and the internal tensions are all the time becoming sharper. The two problems then interact.
I certainly hope that Europe can continue to stand for peace and civilised values. I hope other parts of the world can do so too. Yes, there are, de facto, different levels - first world, second world, third world etc - but this must be overcome so that all people are valued - and all life valued.
US Budget Problems
On the theme of judging by action rather than words, We should soon see something concrete from the Trump government in the form of a budget strategy. At the moment, Trump is promising some large expenditure items - military, infrastructure, the wall, expansion of the immigration inspectorate - plus substantial tax cuts, plus a reduction in national debt. Now you don't have to be an economist to know that this does not add up unless welfare is going to be eliminated completely or unless they are going to devalue the currency substantially, so something has to give. Then, whatever it is that is sacrificed, there will be the problem of getting the plan approved which may not be easy with a lot of fiscal conservatives in the house. We might get a first look at the general framework as soon as next week, though detail will have to wait until some of his staff have got their feet under the desk.
It is always pretty telling to see the budget strategy since talk is cheap but expenditure does actually have to be paid for somehow. Trump is right that the finances of the USA are a mess, but putting them right is no easy matter in a country that already lags far behind most advanced economies on many of the things that people in Europe, Australia, and Japan consider normal, yet is already massively in debt. In the USA, life expectancy is lower, child mortality higher, and violent death more common than in almost every other economically developed country and life expectancy (generally a good indicator of many other social factors) is, apparently, on current trends, just about to start falling behind some Latin American countries. To improve this situation would take money that is, apparently, going to be spent on armaments instead. One might have various opinions about Mr Trump, but nobody in his position in present circumstances could be said to have an easy job.
Thanks David. Very coherently stated!
UN without US?
""It is clear the United States is opting out of global governance," says Jean-Pierre Lehmann, emeritus professor at the International Institute for Management Development in Lausanne. "It's 'America First'… and populism really doesn't translate to humanitarianism." - BBC report
It seems that many US embassies around the world currently have no ambassador and at the UN the USA seems not currently to be represented.
"So does the new team in Washington spell the end of multilateralism, with seismic consequences for the UN and its humanitarian operations?"It could be a blip," suggests Mr Lehmann. "Or it could be a landmark. I tend to think this is a dramatic change."
In other words, this could be the end of US funding for major UN services to refugees and initiatives on climate. Since the US heretofore has provides about 30% of the funding in these areas this could be a disaster, or, at least, a major challenge to the rest of the world.
Not only are US firms not going to be allowed to go overseas in order to get the advantages of lower costs elsewhere, the sale by General Motors of Vauxhall/Opel to the European based Peugeot group suggests that they are losing the ground that they have already got. There does seem to be a very gradual tipping of the balance economically from the US toward Europe whatever the headlines say.
After the fiasco of the health care act, one starts to wonder if anything is possible in America. Obama had years of being unable to get anything done and now the new president looks to be indanger of getting into a similar mess. It is easy to be wise after the event, but it is quite possible that the health act failed due to the new president's lack of political experience. Making concessions to the Republican right at the last minute was surely a fatal mistake. His best chance of getting it through would surely have been to have said, this is it, nothing is going to be changed, I know it does not go as far as you want it to but right now this is as much as is politically possible and you can vote for it and get something or vate against it and get nothing. That might have worked. As it was, giving concessions to the right simply alienated more people on the left and achieved nothing except to make the right aware that they do now have the power to squeeze this president and make his life difficult. This does not bode at all well. It leaves the president is a seriously weakened position, the Republican party looking stupid and America looking like an example of a form of government that nobody in their right mind should consider emulating.
With the savings that would have come from health reform gone, there will be a shortfall of cash for other things. There would have been anyway on Trump's plans, but now it will be worse. What will they do? Borrow? Print money? The options are not healthy. They hope to cover the gap by stimulating rapid economic growth. It has been tried before, most notably under President Reagan. It did not work then and it almost certainly won't work now. Furthermore, it carries the serious risk of creating a bubble that will burst precipitating another financial crisis. If, by that time, the debt mountain has reached a new record high, which is very likely, such a crisis could be a good deal worse than the last one. Of course, it is also possible that the loss of confidence created by this week's failure may mean that growth actually slows in which case there will be no money for anything and the whole Trump programme will stall.
People on the left may gloat over all this, but that too is dangerous. There is no guarantee that a return of the Democrats at the mid-term elections will do anything other than make this situation worse, as the country will become even more ungovernable. Nor would the likely Democratic programme, were it ever enacted, do anything to reduce the problems of government debt. I feel rather pessimistic about the future for the USA and that has implications for all of us. It may well be that Europe will be in better shape to withstand the next financial crisis than it was in the face of the last one, but it is still not going to be at all easy.