When will American Conservatives turn against Trump?
Donald Trump or: The End of the American Age?
On October 13, 1806, a young German philosopher, Georg Friedrich Wilhelm Hegel, had a rendezvous with world history. On the way to the destruction of the Prussian troops, which took place 24 hours later, Napoleon and his army marched through the small university town of Jena. On the one hand, Hegel was shocked at the idea that in the expected chaos his recently completed manuscript of the “Phenomenology of Spirit” could be lost in the mail. On the other hand, he could not ignore the drama of the moment. “I saw the emperor - this world soul -”, he wrote to his friend Friedrich Niethammer, deeply impressed, “riding out through the city to reconnoiter; - It is indeed a wonderful sensation to see such an individual who is concentrated here on one point, sitting on a horse, encroaching on the world and ruling it. "
Two hundred years later, the historian Daniel J. Sargent also conjured up the world spirit before the American Historical Association under less exciting circumstances. However, this time he appeared in the form of Donald Trump, not sitting in the saddle, but in a golf cart. With Napoleon, says Sargent, Trump can still be compared because he too is active as a destroyer of a world order. Following the French Revolution, Napoleon ruined what was left of the legitimate order of Europe. For his part, Trump is obviously putting an end to the American world order - or the Pax Americana, as Sargent prefers to call it - an end.
Even at a time when exuberant historical comparisons are rampant, Sargent's thesis seems extraordinarily daring. Sure, in early 2017, like many others, I thought the American century was coming to an end. But even then, in the early days of the Trump administration, I felt it was vital to distinguish between America's power and America's political authority. Two years later, this distinction seems more important than ever.
The idea that Trump is ruining the American-led world order is based on three assumptions. First, that he is obviously unfit for high office. The fact that such a person can be elected President of the United States reveals a profound degeneration of American political culture and permanently damages the country's credibility. The second finding is that his capricious and crude “America first” practice weakens America's alliances and amounts to a departure from free trade-based globalization. Thirdly, it triggered this crisis at a time when China was challenging western-led globalization in an unprecedented manner. Each of these statements has something in its own right, but do they - taken together - actually mean that America's global position of power is fundamentally changing, indeed that its foundations are shifting on a historical scale?
How the Republican shift to the right paved the way for Trump
There is no question that Trump severely damaged the dignity of the American presidency. Even if one takes into account the private and political mistakes of some of his predecessors, it marks an unprecedented low. No less worry, however, should be that Trump hardly experiences any open criticism from the ranks of the supposedly more respectable leaders of the Republicans. The same applies to leading representatives of American big business, who view Trump with skepticism, but have profited from his government's tax cuts and eagerly assisted in dismantling the apparatus for environmental and financial regulation. He applauds the division of the US media that serves the political right. And a solid minority of the electorate continues to support him wholeheartedly. As a result, it is not just Trump himself that is worrying - it is rather the forces in America that make Trump possible.
Of course, Trump is not the first Republican president to provoke a mixture of outrage, horror and derision, both domestically and abroad. Both Ronald Reagan and George W. Bush were accused in their day of jeopardizing the legitimacy of the American world order. The cultural conservatism and open nationalism of the American right are in stark contradiction to current world opinion. This cultural clash has its history in America's internal struggles for civil rights, for women's, lesbian and gay rights, but also in the global protest movement against America's brutal warfare in Vietnam.
Since the days of Richard Nixon and the "Southern Strategy", the Republicans have dug themselves deeper and deeper and steadily strengthened their support among the white electorate in the South and in the Midwest. Until the 1980s, the Republican Party represented something like the - difficult - coalition of a free-trade and business-friendly elite with a xenophobic base in the working class and lower middle class. The arrangement has always been fragile, held together by ardent nationalism and distrust of big government. It was able to rule largely because of the willingness of the centrists in the Democratic Party to cooperate. The initiative for the NAFTA free trade agreement between the USA, Mexico and Canada, for example, came from George H. W. Bush, but it was not until 1993 under Bill Clinton - against the fierce opposition of the American trade union movement. And it was the Clinton administration that put the state budget back in order after the deficit excesses of the Reagan era - only so that George W. Bush's administration could again drive it deep into deficit through its wars and tax cuts.
Meanwhile, the spectrum of opinion in the Republican Party began to narrow and radicalize. In the 1990s, when former House Speaker Newt Gingrich and former White House Deputy Chief of Staff Karl Rove set the tone, the fronts hardened. After the Iraq war went terribly wrong and the Democrats took control of Congress in 2006, the dominance of the right among Republicans continued to grow. In 2008, in the midst of the financial crisis, the Republicans of Congress abandoned their fellow party members in the Bush administration. Bush Treasury Secretary Henry Paulson and Federal Reserve Chairman Ben Bernanke had to rely on the Democrats in Congress. The leadership of the Republican party elite collapsed. In 2008, John McCain selected the terrifyingly unqualified Sarah Palin as his runner-up candidate because she was immensely popular with the Republican grassroots. There they enjoyed the outrage that Palin aroused among liberals. The fact that Barack Obama then won the presidential election only intensified the Republican right-wing twist. Republicans in Congress stiffened and willingly allowed the populist right to openly question Obama's legitimacy as president. When centrist Mitt Romney lost the elections in 2012, there was another decisive shift to the right that finally paved the way for Trump. In 2016, none of the larger companies were ready to sponsor the election congress that made Trump the Republican presidential candidate: Their brand advisors feared Confederate flags would be waved in the convention hall. Trump's voice is that of the right-wing party base, stimulated by the donations of a small group of highly ideological oligarchs and no longer held in check by the globalist business elite.
The American stress test strategy
A cynic might say that Trump is just speaking openly what many right-wing extremists have been secretly thinking for a long time. He is undoubtedly a racist, but the massive incarceration of black men since the 1970s has been pursued by both major parties. His inflammatory speeches about immigration are outrageous, but it's not like liberal centrists pursue a policy of open borders. The crucial question, however, is whether Trump's unrestrained rhetoric suggests that the hypocrisies and compromises of the current status quo are turning into something even more sinister. It is to be feared that this president could trigger an illiberal chain reaction, both at home and abroad.
The atmosphere was tense at the most recent summits of the G20, G7 and NATO. The rumor that the United States intends to charge the "host countries" of its established military bases around the world for the "deployment costs plus 50 percent surcharge" is only the latest example of a practice of reducing America's exercise of power to a form of protection racket at times seems. But despite all the resentment that such a thing provokes, the decisive factors are the effects on the global balance of power that Trump's disruptive political style has, and the answer to the question of whether it indicates a historic break with the American world order. What difference does it really make when the US is rude to European NATO members? if they refuse to cooperate with the World Trade Organization or crack down on car imports?
It is not an academic question. The Trump administration itself provokes them by the way it deals with America's allies and partners. Are America's alliances - yes, are international institutions - really important? Even the indispensability of the transnational technology and business networks does not go without saying for this administration. Perhaps it would be better for the United States to simply “decouple” ?! Where the critics find Trump, at a time when China's power is growing, the United States should definitely strengthen its international alliances, the Trumpists see things the other way around: In their opinion, the United States must be able to put China in its place to shake up the Western alliance and redefine its purpose so that it more clearly serves American interests. What is happening in front of our eyes is not just a process of dissolution and destruction, but a calculated stress test strategy. Trump embodies this strategy, of course, but it extends far beyond himself.
This is particularly evident in the military sector. In October 2018, the "Harry S. Truman", one of the gigantic Nimitz-class aircraft carriers, unexpectedly left the eastern Mediterranean, from where its planes had started to bomb IS positions in Syria. She set course for the Atlantic, then suddenly and unannounced swiveled northward. Aircraft carriers usually don't do any of this: their routes are determined in advance for years to come. Something else happened here. The "Truman" and their escort ships headed for the northern Arctic Ocean at full steam and were deployed there - as the first aircraft carrier group in 27 years - to support the NATO war games in Norway. The pentagon was pleased with the consternation it caused. The unpredictable "dynamic use of force" is at the core of his new strategy, with which America's challengers intend to catch it cold.
The "Harry S. Truman" is controversial. The Pentagon would like to replace this type of aircraft carrier with more modern ships. Congress opposes this. The White House wants even more and larger groups of sponsors. The Navy wants twelve of them. The giants of the Nimitz class put into service between 1975 and 2009 are to be replaced by even more gigantic and complex units of the Ford class. All actors have their respective priorities, but all of Washington agrees on one point: it must be massively upgraded.
"China, China, China": The American turning point
The resignation of General James Mattis as US Secretary of Defense at the end of 2018 sparked another wave of speculation about the struggles for position within the Trump administration. Mattis ‘interim successor Patrick Shanahan and his agenda should deserve more attention. Insiders describe Shanahan, who has been with Boeing for thirty years, as "an incarnate product of the military-industrial complex". Under Mattis, he acted as the dynamic organizer of a realigned Pentagon that focused its activities not so much on counterinsurgency - counterinsurgency and terrorism - as on future major power conflicts. Shanahan's specialty are advanced technologies: hypersonic, radiation weapons, space, cyber, quantum science, and autonomous warfare through artificial intelligence. And he has the money. The Trump administration has budgeted a staggering $ 750 billion for the 2020 defense budget, more than the seven nations that are globally spending total on armaments.
Prophets of decline will object that the United States no longer has a monopoly on high-tech weapons, but that is precisely the grist to the mill of Trump-era strategists. They recognize the danger posed by the great powers competition and they intend to face it - and to win. Most of the other states that have significant military spending are ultimately allies or protectorates of America such as Saudi Arabia or the European members of NATO. The only real challengers at the moment are Russia and China. Russia is a nuisance, and the collapse of nuclear arms control raises important, costly questions about the future. But Russia is the old enemy. Shanahan's mantra is "China, China, China".
The “turnaround” in the American strategy for China was not initiated by Trump, but by Hillary Clinton, then US Secretary of State, in 2011 under Obama. Even then, there was a huge crash in the gears, although the approach was much more tactful. Containing China is not what Washington's alliance system was designed to do. Since the early 1970s, since the days of Richard Nixon and Henry Kissinger, the US had been recruiting China as a kind of partner, as a counterweight to Russia. If only let him do it, Trump would like to try to reverse Kissinger's procedure and recruit Russia as an ally against China. But the Congress and the Defense Community are not thinking of allowing something like that. Instead, the United States is even increasingly relying on its alliances from the Cold War era and is encouraging South Korea and Japan, along with the Europeans, to step up their defense efforts. This has the added benefit that these countries will have to buy more American military equipment. Should the Vietnamese regime also turn to the American course, Washington would certainly receive it with open arms.
This is by no means to say that Trump's version of the strategic turnaround is consistent in itself. When it comes to curbing China, America’s Asian partners must actually be wondering why the president left the Trans-Pacific Trade and Investment Partnership (TTP) just days after his inauguration. This ingenious deal was supposed to form the foundation of Obama's containment strategy against China. But Trump and his cohorts consider this notion to be confused. America’s power cannot be built on the ground of a gigantic trade deficit. Washington is no longer willing to buy military cooperation with economic concessions: it wants larger military contributions and more balanced trade relations.
The enormous waste of resources by Europeans
In Europe, the Trump administration is following the same motto. Trump's antipathy towards the EU and its political culture may be disturbing. But the problem of burden-sharing troubled NATO from the start, and at least until the 1980s the Europeans made significant contributions.
Until 1989, the German Bundeswehr was a heavily armed and highly mechanized force of 500,000 - 1.5 million if mobilized. Although there was no doubt about her loyalty to the Federal Republic, she was unquestionably a descendant of Germany's military past.
The end of the Cold War marked a dramatic break, not just in Germany, but across Europe. Military spending plummeted; conscription was abolished; the European contribution to the effective strength of NATO dwindled. There were also serious differences of opinion between Germany, France and the United States over strategic priorities, particularly with regard to Iraq and the war on terrorism.
But different threat perceptions cannot justify neglecting Europe's security landscape. If Europeans really feel as safe as they claim they should have the courage to advocate even more massive cuts.Instead, they continue to maintain military facilities, the total cost of which is equivalent to the second or third largest military budget in the world (depending on the estimated Chinese budget). But because Europe distributes the US $ 270 billion it spends on the military among 28 poorly coordinated, numerically insufficient armies, they are not enough to ensure adequate, actually deployable military power. Aside from being a job creation measure, the only justification for this huge waste of resources is that it is meant to keep Americans engaged.
As a result, the military balance of power has been extraordinarily unbalanced over the past thirty years. Never before in history has there been such a power imbalance. It is America's supremacy that today shapes what we may call the world order, for better or for worse. And given the generosity with which it has made use of this strength, it seems inappropriate to speak of a Pax-Americana. A whole generation of American soldiers has got used to fighting wars under totally asymmetrical conditions. For them, this is the American world order. And the Trump administration is not even thinking of giving it up or weakening it. Rather, it does everything in its power to consolidate and expand the existing asymmetry.
Is there a risk of an American overstretching of power?
In Europe, one wonders how Americans can afford their military. Is this just another example of the imbalance the US is in? Isn't there a risk of overstretch, the overstretching of power?
That concern undoubtedly arose in the late 1980s and later again in the form of fears raised by critics of the Iraq war and budget hardliners of the Democratic Party in the time of George W. Bush. But it does not play a major role in the current debate about America's power, and for good reason. It just so happens that the share of military spending is not disproportionately high given the abundance that is currently prevalent in Western societies. The NATO target that is so upset in Europe is two percent of gross domestic product, and US military spending is between three and four percentage points of GDP. It also means thinking cameralistically if you only see a cost factor in it. Most of the Pentagon budget benefits the American economy or those of its close allies. Hundreds of billions of dollars in profits, salaries, and tax revenues flow into businesses and communities. In addition, the Pentagon stands for America's most forward-looking industrial policy. Military research and development served as one of the midwives of Silicon Valley, the grandest legitimation narrative of contemporary American capitalism.
The global hegemony of the dollar
If Congress so wanted, defense spending could easily be met with taxpayers' money. That is what both the Clinton and Obama administrations sought. The Republicans do it differently. Three of the last four Republican administrations - those of Reagan, George W. Bush, and now Trump - have combined huge tax cuts for the better-off with massive increases in defense spending. Why? Well, because they can. As Dick Cheney once announced, to the horror of the Washington centrists, "Reagan has shown that deficits don't matter." Future US taxpayers will have to pay for US Treasuries, but it is for this very reason that global investors consider them to be by far the safest investment options. Foreign investors hold $ 6.2 trillion in US government debt, 39 percent of which is due to investors other than US government agencies. America's taxpayers will have to make massive repayments well into the future, but they will do so with money that the United States prints itself. Foreigners like to lend on a dollar basis because the US dollar is by far the most important reserve currency.
The global hegemony of the dollar remains unchallenged. The role of the US currency in international finance not only weathered the 2008 crisis - it was even strengthened by the financial crisis. When banks around the world craved dollar liquidity, the US Federal Reserve, the “Fed”, became the world lender of last resort. As part of his 2016 election campaign, Trump led an unusual campaign against Janet Yellen, the Fed chief. But after he took office he was more reluctant, and his successor to Jerome Powell was arguably his most important concession to political opinion.
That doesn't mean that Trump respects the “independence” of the central bank. When it began to raise interest rates in 2018, he vigorously opposed it. (After all, he knows a little about debt and prefers low borrowing costs.) His bullying outraged good form aficionados, but instead of undermining the dollar's position as world currency, Trump's interventions were music to the ears of highly indebted emerging economies. The same is true of the huge financial stimulus that the Republicans triggered with their tax cuts: regardless of the noise of a trade war, it has kept American import demand - a core element of global leadership - at record levels.
The American-controlled world economic order is not based on Washington itself being disciplined. Discipline is something for peripheral crises, and institutions such as the IMF and World Bank are responsible for enforcing them. Both institutions have gone through phases of weakness. In a world where commercial credit is cheap and plentiful even to the world's poorest countries, the World Bank is struggling to determine its role. The IMF, on the other hand, is doing comparatively well, mainly because the G20 countries expanded its funding by $ 1 trillion in 2009 under pressure from the Obama administration. And so far the Trump administration has shown no interest in making life difficult for Christine Lagarde. The Americans were remarkably cooperative in the recent debt relief campaign for Argentina. A key question is likely to be the prolongation of emergency loans from the crisis era. In terms of global economic governance, this could prove to be the toughest test of the Trump presidency's position to date.
The harsh logic of American foreign policy
In the past few months, the dollar-based accounting system for world trade has emphatically demonstrated how asymmetrically the American world order is structured: It was specifically used to threaten all who tried to do business with Iran with sanctions. World opinion foamed. The Europeans even got up to speak of “economic sovereignty”. However, it is not a lack of order that they complain about, but rather the use America makes of it. Many see Trump's withdrawal from the Iran nuclear deal as yet another example of America's unreliability and unilateralism. But why do you get upset? It took exceptional political finesse on the part of the Obama administration to get the Iran deal off the ground in Washington. And it was more than likely at any time that a Republican administration would reject it. That may be unfortunate, but it is difficult to see a break with the norms of the American world order. The system is hierarchical. While binding others, Washington reserves the freedom to make sovereign decisions. And that includes the right to restart the Cold War that it has been waging against the Iranian Revolution since 1979.
The same harsh logic applies to the Paris Agreement. That the United States pulled out of it is undoubtedly a disaster. But Congress and the George W. Bush administration did the same with the Kyoto Protocol earlier this century. Such steps should not be interpreted as a general departure from the claim to world order or even from the American claim to leadership. The Trump administration is clearly guided by the vision of an energy-based system of American leadership and influence. It builds on the transformative technological and commercial breakthrough in fracking, which broke Russian and Saudi control over the oil markets and made the United States a net exporter of hydrocarbons for the first time since the 1950s. Liquefied natural gas is the fuel of the future. On the Texan coast, liquid gas terminals are springing up like mushrooms. Fracking was a windy undertaking at first, but corporate capital is now flowing freely. ExxonMobil is back after a period of commercial downturn and Rex Tillerson's humiliating interlude as US Secretary of State. Today the oil giant is investing heavily in Latin America, where huge new gas fields have been discovered. Everyone, in whose eyes the future of humanity depends on decarbonisation, must be appalled by the whole development. But I can only repeat: if you want to understand how the existing world order really works, it does not help you confuse it with a specifically left-liberal interpretation of the world order idea.
The global trade policy crisis
So if Republicans are just doing Republican politics, America's military power grows instead of waning, and the dollar remains at the center of the global economy - what exactly went wrong?
The clearest break can be seen in the area of trade and the associated geopolitical escalation in dealings with China. The United States has an ongoing and effective boycott of WTO arbitration. The World Trade Organization has been languishing for a long time, however. Since the Doha Round got stuck in the early 2000s, it hasn't done much to liberalize trade. The idea that legal agreements, such as those concluded in the WTO, are driving globalization ahead is already putting the cart in front of the horse. What really matters is technology and labor costs. Containers and microchips are far more important drivers of globalization than all the GATT rounds and WTO talks put together. If globalization seems to have stalled over the past decade, it has more to do with development problems in global supply chains than with a relapse into protectionism.
In this regard, the Trump administration's aggressive crackdown on America's regional trade arrangements is more important than its WTO boycott. It is the regional integration agreements that determine the rules for the crucial supply chains. The United States' abrupt withdrawal from TTP in the Asia-Pacific region and TTIP in the Euro-Atlantic region, which occurred in the early days of the Trump administration, caused a real shock. But whether a Hillary-Clinton administration would have been particularly eager to pursue these two agreements is far from clear. She would undoubtedly have made a withdrawal more agreeable, but the political cost of trying to get these agreements through in Congress, one like the other, might well have been too high for her.
In the spring of 2017 there was reason to fear that Trump could abruptly and unilaterally terminate the North American free trade agreement NAFTA - apparently they wanted to use the hundredth day of his presidency as an occasion. But a concerted mobilization of business interests to limit the damage succeeded in averting the danger for the time being. At the beginning of the renegotiations with Mexico and Canada, however, the tone was rough. In Robert Lighthizer as a negotiator, Trump had found a rascal to his liking.
But here too - if you look back on the history of the NAFTA and WTO negotiations - it is usually rough there. Finally, a NAFTA replacement was found in the form of the United States Mexico Canada Agreement (USMCA). Apart from minor concessions in the export of dairy products to Canada and the protection of intellectual property in American pharmaceuticals, the provisions of the treaty mainly affect the automotive industry, which dominates trade in the North American states. To avoid tariffs, 40 percent of the parts of every vehicle produced in Mexico must be made by workers on $ 16 an hour - well above the US minimum wage and seven times the average wage in Mexican industry. Three quarters of the added value per vehicle must take place within the free trade zone, which limits the use of cheaply imported components from Asia. This will probably lead to a modification, but not to the complete destruction of the production networks created under NAFTA. The American unions did not approve of the solution found, but neither did they reject it. The American Federation of Labor and Congress of Industrial Organizations (AFL-CIO) said how this regulation will depend on how you apply it.
Trump against German cars
As with the NAFTA renegotiations, the automotive industry is at the center of the simmering trade conflict between the United States and the EU. However, equating them would be inappropriate. Because the incomprehension and disrespect that the White House shows towards the EU is unprecedented.
It is unclear whether Trump and his entourage have even understood that there are no longer any bilateral trade deals between America and individual EU members. Trump's open support for Brexit and the encouragement to further endanger EU cohesion are more than disconcerting. That Section 232 of the Trade Expansion Act is used to treat car imports from Germany as a possible threat to American national security is absurd. Such processes break with all previous experience. However, Trump's obsession with the massive presence of German limousines in trendy New York neighborhoods points to another imbalance in transatlantic relations: Europe's ongoing trade surplus.
Of course, America is contributing to this imbalance with its uninhibited financial policy: the rosier Americans see their financial situation, the more likely they will buy German cars. But Europe's stubborn refusal to ensure stronger economic growth is damaging - as the Obama administration has repeatedly pointed out - not only to Europe itself, but to the global economy as a whole. The extent of the net trade surpluses in the euro area is extremely unusual in historical comparison. On the one hand, it increases Europe's susceptibility to crises because it makes its producers hostage to foreign demand. On the other hand, it can also trigger global economic shocks.
How the US wants to put China in its place
Europe's free-riding may undermine the world order, but the EU does not pose a direct threat to American authority. The situation is different with China, and this indicates that we are actually experiencing a rupture in international relations compared to the decades since the end of the Cold War. Nobody - including the Chinese - was prepared for how quickly the Trump administration would escalate trade disputes in 2018. Least of all on the fact that this policy grows into a comprehensive questioning of the Chinese presence in the global tech sector. The United States is pressing its allies to completely exclude the Chinese telecommunications giant Huawei from their 5G plans - i.e. the transition to the next generation of Internet technology. However, here it is the United States - and its allies - who are reacting: the triggering shock came from China's unprecedented growth.
This one country alone ensured a doubling of global steel and aluminum capacities during the first decade of the 21st century. Its massive investments in research and development transformed China from a “third world” importer of Western technology into a world leader in the 5G sector. As Trump negotiators Peter Navarro, Robert Lighthizer, and their ilk see it, it was the naivety of enthusiasts of an American-led world order in the 1990s that made China's communist-led state capitalism possible to join the WTO. What the globalists did not understand, then, was the lesson from Tiananmen Square. China would integrate, but on its own terms.
In 1989, when Chinese economic output was just four percent of global GDP, that could still be ignored. But now that size is approaching the 20 percent mark.If the American trade hardliners have their way, competition within the framework of a fixed world order is only welcome as long as the competitors willingly abide by America's rules - both economically and geopolitically. That was the lesson Europe had to learn after World War II. It was the lesson Japan was taught the hard way in the 1980s and early 1990s. Now, if China refuses to learn this lesson, it must be put in its place.
America still has tremendous advantages. However, it would be dangerous - they say - to simply rely on them. Sometimes America's hegemony must be defended through a "war of movement". The emerging American strategy is to use threats of trade sanctions and aggressive counter-espionage in the tech arena, combined with an intensification of military efforts, to force Beijing to accept not only America's global supremacy but even its rules for shipping in the South China Sea . There is a historical model for this course of the Trump presidency: the actions of the Reagan administration against the Soviet Union in the early 1980s. At the time, Washington was exerting economic and political pressure on Moscow to halt what it saw as a threatening Soviet expansion that began in the 1970s. Regardless of the risks involved, this episode is considered by American Conservatives to be a prime example of a successful grand strategy.
Trying to apply this lesson to China today is shocking because the US economy is incomparably more intertwined with China than it has ever been with the Soviet Union. Anyone looking for a component of the American world order that is actually being scrutinized these days just needs to look at Apple's supply chain in East Asia. Unlike the South Korean Samsung group, the Californian tech giant has risked its integration with China becoming a one-way street. Almost all Apple iPhones are assembled in China. Apple is an extreme case, but it is by no means alone. General Motors currently sells more cars in China than in the United States. America's farmers have converted their fields en masse to growing soybeans for export to China, only to find themselves now being ousted from this, their largest sales market, by Brazilian competitors. It is not only American firms that are suffering from the escalation of tensions. Important European, South Korean, Taiwanese and Japanese companies have made great efforts in China.
Given such significant investments, one could have expected stronger opposition to Trump's China strategy from the US business community. But so far little of it has been seen. The prospect of a radical decoupling of the economies of China and America may seem so dire that business leaders simply do not want to discuss it publicly. They may take cover and hope the storm will pass. But perhaps it is also the case that the American economy is relieving the secret services and the security community of the country from their increasingly pessimistic diagnosis. Because of its stubborn protectionism and economic nationalism, they see China as a threat rather than an opportunity.
Concern about sinocentric globalization
The hardening of attitudes towards China is not limited to the US. It was the Anglo-American intelligence consortium known as "Five Eyes" that raised the alarm about Huawei's ability to add backdoors to the West's most sensitive telecommunications networks. Canada and Australia are very concerned about the Chinese advance. The new pessimism, the fear of sinocentric globalization, is not only common among security policy hawks, but is shared by many mainstream economists and political scientists in the academic world, the think tank scene and China observers in the media.
The liberal version of the American world order is strongly influenced by approaches based on modernization theory, which is currently reflected in the doctrine of the middle income trap. This indicates that very few large countries have managed to outgrow China's current income levels. Those who succeeded equipped themselves on the way there with the complete system of liberal institutions and the rule of law. According to this reading, China is in a precarious situation today. Xi Jinping's authoritarian turn is a decisive step in the wrong direction. The country's frequently cited signs of weakness also include ethnic tensions and the progressive aging of the population as a long-term consequence of the one-child policy. Far beyond the Trump administration, there is a widespread belief that time is beginning to work against China and that the West should now take tougher positions. That would indeed be a break with the narrative of globalization that has prevailed since the 1990s, but hardly with the American-led world order. The idea that it encompasses the entire globe is, after all, more recent. The post-war order that emerged after 1945 and is widely regarded as the non plus ultra of American hegemony was based on the entrenched divisions of the Cold War.
With regard to China, the question is not so much whether America wants to lead, but whether others are willing to follow. Establishing the Cold War order in Europe and East Asia was comparatively easy. Stalin's Soviet Union made extensive use of the stick but offered little carrot. This does not apply to today's China. Its economy serves as the beating heart of a gigantic East Asian industrial complex. If it comes to an escalation with China, it could turn out that we - especially in East Asia - experience less an end to the American-controlled world order than a reversal of its conditions. In the past, the United States worked with soft power incentives to counter the threatening military power of the Communists - with hard power remaining in the backhand as a last resort. In the next phase, the US could become the supplier of military protection against the temptations offered by China's growth machine.
But it's not that far. Anyone who speaks of an end to the American world order at the current stage, after a good two years of the Trump presidency, is vastly exaggerating. The two pillars on which the United States' global supremacy rests - military and financial - still hold up and do not waver.
Something else is actually over: any claim by American democracy to be considered a political model. And that is undoubtedly a historical break. Trump definitely closes the chapter that Woodrow Wilson opened in World War I with his claim that American democracy articulates the deepest sentiments of liberal humanity. A hundred years later, Trump embodies once and for all the shallowness, cynicism and sheer stupidity that largely dominate American political life. What we are experiencing is a radical decoupling of basic power structures - which continue to exist - from their political legitimation.
The American President sitting in a golf cart - it may be that this image, in its ridiculousness, appropriately symbolizes the state in which we find ourselves today. However, it could suggest a scenario that is far too harmless: America's power rumbling across the manicured lawn towards retirement. This is not America's reality. Imagine the president and his buggy on the football field-sized deck of a $ 13 billion nuclear-powered Ford-class aircraft carrier on the way to America's “dynamic deployment” in the South China Sea. That would be better for the surreal revival of old great power rivalries, in whose shadow we live today. Whether it will turn out to be a violent and futile rearguard operation in the history of America's position as a world power or whether it will open a whole new chapter remains to be seen.
The article is the first German publication of the article from the "London Review of Books", 7/2019 (www.lrb.co.uk). The translation is by Karl D. Bredthauer.
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