Global leadership & baton-passing: A fickle year

| Updated: December 12, 2017 21:08:21

US President Donald Trump chats with Chinese President Xi Jinping during a welcome ceremony in Beijing on November 09, 2017. – Photo: AP US President Donald Trump chats with Chinese President Xi Jinping during a welcome ceremony in Beijing on November 09, 2017. – Photo: AP

On the 30th anniversary of Ronald Reagan's 'tear down this wall' speech to a financially imploding Soviet Union leader during his June 12, 1987 Berlin visit, Donald J. Trump, who campaigned to break down Chinese trade walls (or construct US trade walls), found himself tearing down the US leadership walls instead during his November 2017 Asia visit. Meant to mark APEC's (Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation's) 25th anniversary in Da Nang, Vietnam (November 10), where President Trump sounded as much like Candidate Trump, admonishing his Asian partners for not levelling the trade playing-field, it followed on the heels of his Beijing Summit with China's newly-ratified president, Xi Jinping, where, in fact, he actually sounded like a China cheerleader, much to the astonishment of his base-followers back home.

Those may go down as the iconic moments in the history of world leadership: Reagan's symbolically burying the Soviet Union as a post-World War II US threat, Trump's heralding the start of a commercial US implosion sanctifying China's undisputed leadership.

As in those halcyon years between 1987 and 1992, when the Soviet Union vanished and a clipped Russia emerged, Trump's 2017 Asia visit to pass the leadership buck to China coincides with a Bloomberg calculation that China is set to overtake the United States in 2018 (and not 2050, as earlier predicted by others), if current GDP (gross domestic product) growth-rate persists.

Whereas Reagan's viewed an ascendant United States, which, during the 1990s, was even dubbed the 'single superpower', a declining United States dominates Trump's conversation, surroundings, and vision.

However we may fault Trump as president, he, better than any other 2016 presidential candidate, captured reality better and more clearly. His 'America First' slogan hit it on the head twice over: that the United States was not 'first' among countries; and that an invisible army of particularly the educated unemployed, laid-off blue-collar workers, and nostalgia-nursed citizens did not see any silver-lining in their future firmament.

Where he went off-course was to blame this creeping collapse upon Democrats when even the Republicans were as just as complicit, on at least two fronts. First, the roaring 1990s under Bill Clinton, when the United States enjoyed its longest 20th Century growth phase, was built upon a FTA (free-trade agreement) shift, initiated no less by Reagan in 1984 with Israel, extended to Canada in 1988, thence to Mexico from 1990 (in Davos), before being taken, under a 'competitive liberalism' crusade by President George W. Bush from 2004 that boosted the FTA tally significantly. Dispassionate analysis may show how, even with enormous innovative capacity and claims, especially on the new Internet and artificial intelligence (AI) frontiers, high-wage United States could not continue holding the leadership reins against a revolution of low-waged producing countries, sparked no less by the Washington Consensus neo-liberal thrust. Both Democratic and Republican administrations chipped in, the former associated with more growth years than the latter, the latter with more foreign conflicts than the former.

On a second, and perhaps more debilitating, front, the United States may have lost its economic competitiveness on the military battlefront: dismantling the anti-Soviet military infrastructure in Afghanistan sowed the seeds of Islamic groups which eventually spawned into key terrorist outfits, but were neglected amid the 1990s economic boom.

When, with 9/11, terror hit the United States directly, every economic growth strategy or plan was completely sidelined for military purposes. In other words, the crusade against 9/11 terrorists has led, oftentimes unnecessarily (as with Iraq in 2003), the United States from Afghanistan to Iraq, to Syria, and now back to Afghanistan. In every case, a military victory either assumed a political victory (against terrorism), or one that would be established through spoon-fed democracy. Nothing of the sort has happened, generating the US malaise today from over-expenditures and never-ending threats.

During that entire time, not just the 30-year between the two 'tear down this wall' episodes, China only moved from strength to strength, tapping the United States for all its material hunger and thirst, pouring the accumulating surpluses into opening new markets, and establishing additional partners.

Whether for raw materials to boost its industrial growth or for opening new markets for its outrageously low-priced exports, China spread its economic network far and wide (and not always to satisfied customers), before breathtakingly building its military. That model is not neo-liberal nor multilateral; but it should not be ignored since it is the example par excellence that registered the fastest ever growth-rate, that too propelling an agricultural country into global leadership in one eye-blink.

With two contrasting trajectories, China and the United States were headed for a collision, staved only by contrasting leadership styles: the cool, calm, and collected Jinping shifting from one façade of a democratic electoral machine into full-fledged dictatorship; and a voluble, irascible, and too self-centred Trump without the skills or intent to work with other countries to shift the United States in the same direction, from actual democratic practices, towards some form of an oligarchic future. Too much water has flown for either side to immediately retract, but we are lucky neither have unsheathed their swords.

It is tempting, given the slow 30-year passage to the inevitable loss of US economic competitiveness today, to shift the blame to every White House occupant after Reagan's epoch-making Berlin moment. Perhaps future historians will do just that and far more dispassionately than current analysts can.

If so, they may still single Trump out for passing that leadership baton to China. After all, it was his 'America First' introverted policy mindset that let China to sweep the World Economic Forum, in January 2017, off its feet by reclaiming global free-trade; and then the US TPP (Trans-Pacific Partnership) abandonment, which even if directed against China, still let China off the hook, while letting other emerging countries begin taking their own initiatives rather than depend on a global power.

Although it will not be as multilateral as the US trade usurpation was in the 1947 Geneva conference, Chinese leadership paved the way for the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank (AIIB) to divert global attention from the other post-World War II institutions, those founded in Bretton Woods: the International Monetary Fund and World Bank.

In short, the 'present at creation' label that Secretary of State Dean Acheson ascribed to a hitherto isolationist United States in the mid-1940s, was replaced explicitly by no one but Trump: his 'absent at the recreation' of global order was what made the transition less bloody than we expected when he was campaigning.

Just like 1947 and 1987 stood out as epochal post-World War II leadership years in addition to a few others (like 1953, for dissimilar reasons), 2017 may come to an end too quickly to realise how its legacy may define an altogether different era anytime in the near future. God forbid if one day we have to say we were 'present at the creation of destruction'.

Dr. Imtiaz A. Hussain is Professor & Head of the newly-built Department of Global Studies & Governance at Independent University, Bangladesh.

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