Book Review: In ‘The Retreat of Western Liberalism,’ How Democracy Is Defeating Itself


June 20, 2017

In ‘The Retreat of Western Liberalism,’ How Democracy Is Defeating Itself

In his insightful and harrowing new book, Edward Luce, a columnist for The Financial Times, issues a chilling warning: “Western liberal democracy is not yet dead,” he writes, “but it is far closer to collapse than we may wish to believe. It is facing its gravest challenge since the Second World War. This time, however, we have conjured up the enemy from within. At home and abroad, America’s best liberal traditions are under assault from its own president. We have put arsonists in charge of the fire brigade.”

Luce does not see Donald J. Trump or populist nationalists in Europe, like Marine Le Pen, as causes of today’s crisis in democratic liberalism but rather as symptoms. Nor does he see President Trump’s victory last November as “an accident delivered by the dying gasp of America’s white majority — and abetted by Putin,” after which regular political programming will soon resume.

Instead, he argues in “The Retreat of Western Liberalism,” Trump’s election is a part of larger trends on the world stage, including the failure of two dozen democracies since the turn of the millennium (including three in Europe — Russia, Turkey and Hungary) and growing downward pressures on the West’s middle classes (wrought by the snowballing forces of globalization and automation) that are fomenting nationalism and populist revolts. These developments, in turn, represent a repudiation of the naïve hopes, after the fall of the Berlin Wall, that liberal democracy was on an inevitable march across the planet, and they also pose a challenge to the West’s Enlightenment faith in reason and linear progress.

Like Richard Haass’s recent book, “A World in Disarray: American Foreign Policy and the Crisis of the Old Order,” this volume sometimes tries to cover too much in too little space, but it’s equally timely and informed, providing an important overview of the dynamics in an increasingly interconnected and fragmented planet. In his prescient 2012 book, “Time to Start Thinking: America in the Age of Descent,” Luce uncannily anticipated the politics of resentment and the bitter fights over immigration that would fuel “Brexit” and last year’s American election. And in this new book, he lucidly expounds on the erosion of the West’s middle classes, the dysfunction among its political and economic elites and the consequences for America and the world.

The strongest glue holding liberal democracies together, Luce argues, is economic growth, and when that growth stalls or falls, things tend to take a dark turn. With growing competition for jobs and resources, losers (those he calls the “left-behinds”) seek scapegoats for their woes, and consensus becomes harder to reach as politics devolves into more and more of a zero-sum game.
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Edward Luce Credit Niamh King

“Many of the tools of modern life are increasingly priced beyond most people’s reach,” Luce writes. One study shows it now takes the median worker more than twice as many hours a month to pay rent in one of America’s big cities as it did in 1950; and the costs of health care and a college degree have increased even more. There is rising income inequality in the West; America, which “had traditionally shown the highest class mobility of any Western country,” now has the lowest.”

As nostalgia for a dimly recalled past replaces hope, the American dream of self-betterment and a brighter future for one’s children recedes. Among the symptoms of this dynamic: a growing opioid epidemic and decline in life expectancy, increasing intolerance for other people’s points of view, and brewing contempt for an out-of-touch governing elite (represented in 2016 by Hillary Clinton, of whom Luce writes: “her tone-deafness towards the middle class was almost serene”).

Trump’s economic agenda (as opposed to his campaign rhetoric), Luce predicts, will “deepen the economic conditions that gave rise to his candidacy,” while the “scorn he pours on democratic traditions at home” endangers the promotion of liberal democracy abroad. America’s efforts to export its ideals had already suffered two serious setbacks in the 21st century: George W. Bush’s decision to invade Iraq in 2003 and the calamities that followed; and the financial crisis of 2008, which, Luce writes, was not a global recession but an Atlantic one that raised serious concerns about the Western financial model. (“In 2009, China’s economy grew by almost 10 percent, and India’s by almost 8 percent.”)

What fund of good will the United States retained, Luce suggests, Trump has been “rapidly squandering,” with his dismissive treatment of NATO and longtime allies, and his overtures toward autocratic leaders like Vladimir V. Putin of Russia, Rodrigo Duterte of the Philippines and Recep Tayyip Erdogan of Turkey. “Within days of his inauguration,” Luce writes, “Trump had killed the remaining spirit of enlightened self-interest that defined much” of post-World War II America. Given this situation, Luce adds, “the stability of the planet — and the presumption of restraint — will have to rest in the hands of Xi Jinping and other powerful leaders,” though he predicts that “chaos, not China, is likelier to take America’s place.”

Luce’s conclusions are pessimistic but not entirely devoid of hope. “The West’s crisis is real, structural and likely to persist,” he writes. “Nothing is inevitable. Some of what ails the West is within our power to fix.” Doing so means rejecting complacency about democracy and our system’s resilience, and “understanding exactly how we got here.”

Luce’s book is one good place to start.

Follow Michiko Kakutani on Twitter: @michikokakutani

The Retreat of Western Liberalism
By Edward Luce
234 pages. Atlantic Monthly Press. $24.

A version of this review appears in print on June 20, 2017, on Page C4 of the New York edition with the headline: Inside Job: The Harm the West Is Inflicting on Itself.

Managing The Trump Phenomenon with Prudence


June 17, 2017

Managing The Trump Phenomenon with Prudence

by Jorge G. Castañeda

https://www.project-syndicate.org/columnist/jorge-g–casta-eda

Professor Jorge G. Castaneda was Mexico’s Secretary of Foreign Affairs from 2000-2003, after joining with his ideological opponent, President Vicente Fox, to create the country’s first democratic government. He is currently Global Distinguished Professor of Politics and Latin American and Caribbean Studies at New York University, and is the author of The Latin American Left After the Cold War and Compañero: The Life and Death of Che Guevara.

Trump’s domestic opponents should be careful what they wish for, and America’s allies should try to find a way to engage with his administration more effectively. Like it or not, the world’s best option is to ensure that the next three and a half years are as successful – or at least as resistant to disaster – as possible.–Jorge G. Castaneda

The world’s view of US President Donald Trump’s administration is changing for the worse. In fact, the chaos and controversy that have marked Trump’s short time in office have deepened doubts, both inside and outside the United States, about whether his presidency will even survive its entire four-year term.

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Europe’s perspective was articulated most clearly by German Chancellor Angela Merkel. After a contentious NATO summit and a discordant G7 meeting, she concluded that the US, under Trump, can no longer be viewed as a reliable partner. “The times in which we could rely fully on others,” she stated pointedly, “are somewhat over.”

Merkel’s statements were driven partly by disagreement between Trump and Europe on climate change, trade, NATO (particularly Article 5, its collective defense clause, which Trump refused to endorse), and relations with Russia. But disagreement on such issues reflects divisions within Trump’s own administration, raising questions about who, if anybody, is actually in charge.

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White House Director of Strategic Communications Hope Hicks, chief of staff Reince Priebus, chief strategist Steve Bannon and policy adviser Stephen Miller | Getty

Consider Trump’s decision to withdraw the US from the Paris climate agreement. The move was advocated by Trump’s chief strategist, Steve Bannon, and his speechwriter, Stephen Miller. But Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, as well as Trump’s daughter, Ivanka, and his son-in-law, Jared Kushner – both of whom are official White House advisers – also may not have supported withdrawal from the accord, despite Tillerson’s public defense of his boss’s decision.

Trade is another internally disputed issue. Bannon opposes the existing order of global openness, as does Peter Navarro, who heads the White House National Trade Council. Secretary of Commerce Wilbur Ross supports open trade, but not without reservation. Similarly, US Trade Representative Robert Lighthizer would prefer bare-knuckle negotiations to disruption, though he is already in a spat with Ross.

On NATO and Russia, Tillerson has echoed Trump in pressuring the Alliance’s European members to increase their defense spending. But he has also taken a harder line on Russia than Trump, calling for a strong and united approach by the US and Europe. While National Security Adviser H.R. McMaster agrees with Tillerson in theory, turf battles between the two posts’ occupants – a time-honored tradition – have already begun.

Such infighting has raised concerns far beyond Europe. As one Latin American foreign minister told me recently, “Apparently everybody is fighting with everybody over everything.” Add to that the investigation into the Trump campaign’s relationship with Russia, as well as the administration’s plummeting approval ratings, and it is easy to understand why some are doubting whether they should bother to engage with Trump at all. Mexico’s President Enrique Peña Nieto has postponed meeting with Trump indefinitely, and other countries, too, are placing ties with the US on hold.

With a premature end to Trump’s presidency becoming less farfetched by the day, it is worth asking how it could come about. There are three possibilities.

The first and best-known route is impeachment: a majority in the House of Representatives would indict Trump for “high crimes and misdemeanors,” and a two-thirds majority in the Senate would convict him, removing him from power. Such an outcome – which would require the support of 20 Republican representatives and 18 Republican senators, plus all Democrats in both houses – remains highly unlikely. But everything could change if the investigation into Russia’s attempts to influence the 2016 election and the possibility of collusion with Trump’s campaign reveals a smoking gun.

The second option, per Section 4 of the 25th Amendment to the Constitution, would require the vice president and the cabinet or Congress to declare the president “unable to discharge the powers and duties of his office.” This seems even more unlikely than impeachment, unless some of Trump’s behavior – like his middle-of-the-night tweets or private rants against his aides (most recently, Attorney General Jeff Sessions) – clearly indicates neurological dysfunction or psychopathology.

The third option, which some have called the “Nixonian solution,” is the most intriguing. In 1974, President Richard Nixon resigned before Congress could vote to impeach him. Weeks later, Nixon’s successor Gerald Ford granted him a full and unconditional pardon for all possible crimes.

In Trump’s case, such a resignation could be spurred by the desire for a similar pardon. While Trump cannot be indicted on criminal charges while president, he can be prosecuted for illegal behavior after he leaves office.

Moreover, both Kushner, who has been accused of attempting to set up a back channel for secure communication between the White House and the Kremlin, and Ivanka would be subject to prosecution if they were found to have engaged in illegal communications or activities with Russian agents or officials. Trump’s two eldest sons, who run his business empire, may also be liable for misdeeds. If this threat becomes salient, Trump may prefer to resign and secure a pardon for all involved, rather than endure an impeachment process that may well end with him losing the presidency anyway.

But while Trump’s opponents might like to remove him from power, any of these scenarios could be highly damaging to the US and the rest of the world. American participation, if not leadership, is indispensable to international cooperation in areas like global trade, climate action, and responses to all manner of crises, whether natural, humanitarian, or nuclear. Moreover, Trump’s isolationism doesn’t imply US irrelevance or passivity; a distracted or disrupted America could be much worse.

Given this, Trump’s domestic opponents should be careful what they wish for, and America’s allies should try to find a way to engage with his administration more effectively. Like it or not, the world’s best option is to ensure that the next three and a half years are as successful – or at least as resistant to disaster – as possible.

Foreign Policy: ASEAN, North Korea and United States in the Quest for Stability


June 13, 2017

Foreign Policy: ASEAN, North Korea and United States in the Quest for Stability

by David Han@RSIS (Rajaratnam School–NTU)

http://www.eastasiaforum.org

In recent months, North Korea has raised tensions and aroused anxiety throughout the Asia Pacific, including Southeast Asia. Although ASEAN should be concerned about this threat given the grave security implications for the wider Asia Pacific region, it needs to be mindful of why it exists in order to avoid distorting its credentials and relevance to the Korean Peninsula crisis.

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In a letter to the ASEAN Secretary General dated 23 March 2017, North Korean Foreign Minister Ri Yong-Ho indicated his ‘expectations that ASEAN, which attaches great importance to the regional peace and stability, will make an issue of the US–South Korean joint military exercises at ASEAN conferences’. He added that ASEAN should take a ‘fair position and play an active role in safeguarding the peace and safety of Korean Peninsula’.

In April 2017, during the 30th ASEAN Summit in the Philippines, ASEAN instead expressed ‘grave concern’ and urged North Korea to comply with the UN Security Council resolutions on its nuclear program. ASEAN’s firm yet measured response to North Korea reflects the international consensus against North Korea’s actions. It is also a neutral posture that avoids siding with any party involved in the crisis, including China or the United States. ASEAN’s position neither overestimates the organisation’s ability to contribute to the resolution of the crisis nor misconstrues its existing purpose as a platform for shaping regional security.

RSIS researchers Shawn Ho and Sarah Teo wrote that ‘ASEAN could strengthen its regional security credentials by paying more attention to the challenge on the Korean Peninsula’. The rationale is that given the ‘current salience of the Korean Peninsula’s security to Beijing and Washington, if ASEAN is to do more to deal with the challenge on the Korean Peninsula, ASEAN’s relevance and importance to both major powers could be enhanced’.

This argument raises the importance for ASEAN to urge the United States to continue engaging with Southeast Asia. The United States could do this through existing regional arrangements that have been shaped by ASEAN multilateralism, rather than circumventing such established structures when dealing with security and geopolitical issues.

Yet the Korean Peninsula may not be the appropriate conduit for ASEAN–US ties so this argument could be problematic for two reasons.

First, it is unclear how ASEAN would demonstrate its relevance to the United States by dealing with the North Korean threat, when ASEAN is already challenged by existing geopolitical issues within the region. As ASEAN has been unable to reach consensus over major geopolitical contentions, such as the South China Sea dispute, it is not clear how ASEAN would be relevant to the United States tackling the Korean Peninsula crisis without first demonstrating its capacity to resolve Southeast Asia’s maritime spats.

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The second problem is that it risks ASEAN becoming divided between China and the United States. During the recent meeting on 4 May 2017 in Washington DC, US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson conveyed to ASEAN foreign ministers that Washington intends to stay engaged in Southeast Asia when he commended ASEAN as an ‘essential partner’ to the United States. Tillerson also urged ASEAN to pressure North Korea by reviewing Pyongyang’s relations with ASEAN and curbing the country’s revenue flows from Southeast Asia.

But were ASEAN to comply with the United States’ request to condemn North Korea’s actions, China could perceive this as an attempt by Washington to complicate the dynamics of the Korean Peninsula crisis in which ASEAN is not directly involved.

ASEAN’s internal unity could also be affected negatively if it were to get involved in the Peninsula crisis. There are already indications that some member states are more inclined towards China while others gravitate towards the United States. If ASEAN chooses sides regarding the North Korean threat, this could widen the intra-ASEAN divide.

So if ASEAN intends to show its relevance regarding the North Korean threat, it should be realistic about its own ability to offer viable solutions to the crisis and avoid pandering to either China or the United States.

During the ASEAN Regional Forum (ARF) meetings, ASEAN could signal to North Korea that it should back down from its provocative behaviour, but beyond this there is not much that ASEAN can do to pressure North Korea to change its course. In the past, ASEAN has issued similar statements on North Korea’s brinksmanship and North Korea has disregarded them, continuing with its nuclearisation drive unabated.

This is not to downplay ASEAN’s importance as a regional organisation. Indeed, over the past few decades, ASEAN has played a key role in reducing the risk of conflict in the region through dialogue, consultation and consensus. It was even envisioned that ASEAN norms could have a wider influence on the security trajectory of the Asia Pacific. The ARF was formed in 1994 for ASEAN and external stakeholders to discuss security issues and promote cooperative measures to enhance peace and stability in the region.

But the ARF is not meant to provide and enforce solutions to conflicts, so ASEAN is limited in offering viable recommendations to both the United States and China on the Korean Peninsula crisis. In the long term, ASEAN should focus its efforts on developing the ASEAN community to advance norm formulation, measures to promote peaceful consultation on security issues and collective solutions for conflict prevention and resolution.

In the meantime, ASEAN should continue in its unequivocal insistence that North Korea step down from its aggressive actions and that all parties involved are to avoid any further provocation.

David Han is a Research Analyst with the Malaysia Programme at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies (RSIS), Nanyang Technological University, Singapore.

This article was first published here on RSIS.

Foreign Policy: Trump’s Middle East Policy lacks the Finesse of a Nixon-Kissinger


June 11, 2017

Foreign Policy: Trump’s Middle East Policy lacks the Finesse of a Nixon-Kissinger

by Dr. Fareed Zakaria

https://www.washingtonpost.com/opinions/trump-didnt-know-the-middle-east-could-be-so-complicated/2017/06/08/d29bf7d8-4c8b-11e7-a186-60c031eab644_story.html?utm_term=.54b9e49c3b6e

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President Trump returned from his first overseas trip convinced that he had unified the United States’ historic Arab allies, dealt a strong blow against terrorism and calmed the waters of an unruly Middle East. Since then we have seen a series of terrorist attacks in Europe and the Middle East, and an open split within the Arab world. What is going on?

The premise of Trump’s strategy was to support Saudi Arabia, in the belief that it would be able to fight terrorism and stabilize the region. In fact, Trump gave a green light to the Saudis to pursue their increasingly aggressive, sectarian foreign policy.

The first element of that policy has been to excommunicate its longtime rival, Qatar, breaking relations with that country and pressing its closest allies to do the same. The Saudis have always viewed Qatar as a troublesome neighbor and are infuriated by its efforts to play a regional and global role by hosting a large U.S. military base, founding the Al Jazeera television network, planning to host the 2022 World Cup and punching above its weight diplomatically.

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It’s true that Qatar has supported some extremist Islamist movements. So has Saudi Arabia. Both are Wahhabi countries, both have within them extremist preachers, and both are widely believed to have armed Islamist groups in Syria and elsewhere. In both cases, the royal families play a game of allying themselves with fundamentalist religious forces and funding some militants, even while fighting other violent groups.

In other words, their differences are really geopolitical, though often dressed up as ideological.

The open split between the two countries will create much greater regional instability. Qatar will now move closer to Iran and Turkey, forging deeper alliances with anti-Saudi groups throughout the Muslim world. The battles among various factions of militants — in Syria, Iraq, Yemen and North Africa — will heat up. The terrorist attacks in Tehran on Wednesday, for which the Islamic State has claimed responsibility, are viewed in Iran as being part of a Saudi-inspired campaign against it. We should expect that Iranian-backed militias will respond in some way. So much for regional stability.

And the United States is in the middle of it all, keeping close relations with Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates while directing U.S. regional military operations out of its base in Qatar. Trump has issued anti-Qatar tweets, but U.S. troops will have to live with the reality that Qatar is their host and close military ally in the war against the Islamic State.

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For a superpower such as the United States, the best policy in the Middle East has always been to maintain ties with all regional players. One of the great successes of Richard Nixon and Henry Kissinger’s foreign policy was that they were able to woo Egypt into the American sphere, while simultaneously preserving an alliance with the shah of Iran. For decades, Washington was able to play a Bismarckian game of cultivating good relations with all countries, indeed better than these nations had with each other.

Two seismic events altered the geopolitical landscape of the Middle East. The first was the Iranian Revolution of 1979, which ushered a radical revisionist power into the region, and then triggered a reaction from countries including Saudi Arabia. Iran’s promise to spread its version of Islam led the Saudis to ramp up their own efforts to spread their ideas and influence. The results were poisonous for the Muslim world, radicalizing communities everywhere.

The next earthquake was the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq in 2003, which destabilized the balance of power. Iran’s ambitions had been kept in check by Saddam Hussein’s Iraq, which had fought a bloody eight-year war against it. With Saddam gone, Iran’s influence began to spread in Iraq, where it is now the most important external influence on the Baghdad government. Iran’s alliance with Syria became central to President Bashar al-Assad’s survival. Its relations with Shiite communities everywhere, from Yemen to Bahrain, have been strengthened.

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If the Trump administration wants stability in the Middle East, it should help broker a new balance of power. This cannot happen purely on Saudi terms. Iran is a major player in the region, with real influence, and its role will have to be recognized. The longer Washington waits to do this, the more the instability will grow. This would not cede anything to Tehran. Iran’s influence would be countered by Turkey, Saudi Arabia, Egypt and others. The goal would be a Middle East in which all of the regional powers felt invested enough that they would work to end the proxy wars, insurgencies and terrorism that continue to create so much death, destruction and human misery.

Trump recently learned that health care is complicated. Welcome to the Middle East.

Phasing out the US (dis)order in the Asia Pacific


June 9, 2017

Phasing out the US (dis)order in the Asia Pacific

by Jean-Pierre Lehmann, IMD

http://www.eastasiaforum.org
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It is widely held that there is qualitative distinction between the benign, liberal US global order prevailing in the Asia Pacific, and a potentially threatening and malign Chinese imperialist order. This perspective is quite hallucinatory.

 

To cite the most egregious example, the Vietnam War, apart from its bloody savagery, was fought with cultural arrogance. It was during the Vietnam War that the Kafkaesque term ‘body count’ was coined, whereby the number of corpses from battles were tallied up and transmitted to the Pentagon. Much forgotten was the US war in neighbouring Laos where an estimated 10 per cent of the population were killed and 25 per cent, mostly civilians, were made refugees.

Also widely ignored are the origins of the US presence in the Asia Pacific. John Hay, US Secretary of State from 1898 to 1905, expressed his vision that while ‘the Mediterranean was the ocean of the past and the Atlantic the ocean of the present, the Pacific is the ocean of the future’. When the Spanish-American War (1898-1899) broke out, Hay ensured that the US also obtained Spain’s colony in the Philippines. As even The Economist, a notoriously pro-US newspaper, points out, ‘The generals in the Philippine campaign had nearly all earned their spurs fighting Native Americans; in the tropics they applied the same genocidal techniques of terror, atrocities and native reservations’.

By no means has US foreign policy in the Asia Pacific been invariably malign. On balance, the US presence in the Asia Pacific has ultimately been positive. The US occupation contributed significantly to the economic reconstruction of Japan. There can also be no doubt that US aid, the opening of its market and technology transfers contributed mightily to the economic rise of Japan, Taiwan and South Korea. This was further enhanced by former president Richard Nixon’s historic 1972 visit to Mao Zedong in Beijing and eventually the restoration of diplomatic relations between the United States and China. As Kishore Mahbubani argues, ASEAN owes its successful existence in good part to the collaborative, rather than conflictual, relationship between the United States and China.

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But that was then and now is now. In the second half of the 20th century, the US’ main rival in the Asia Pacific, as elsewhere, was the Soviet Union. The Sino–Soviet split in 1960 allowed the United States to consider China a potential ally in the Cold War, paving the way for Nixon’s visit.

But the 21st century has witnessed the spectacular re-emergence of China as a global power. China’s economic growth has had a most positive effect in China itself — especially the massive reduction in poverty for an estimated 700 million — and for the world. Following the great financial crisis of 2007, China has been an engine of global growth. Its aid, trade and investments in Asia, Africa and Latin America have been significant.

As awesome as China’s rise has been, it has also generated considerable anxiety, including — or perhaps especially — among Asian nations. In contrast to the US that has a whole network of both formal and informal alliances in the Asia Pacific, China only has one: North Korea. Asian nations are increasingly faced with the thorny dilemma: while China is their major economic partner, the United States is their major strategic partner.  

The greatest geopolitical threat to the world is China and the US falling into the so-called Thucydides trap of war, which for Asia Pacific countries would require making a choice between allying with either China or the United States. Following the early 20th century pattern in Europe, the Asia Pacific risks becoming the terrain of great power military conflict.

There are many frailties and tensions in the Asia Pacific landscape. The drama unfolding on the Korean peninsula vividly illustrates how the United States may be aggravating these tensions, rather than mitigating or resolving them. By seeking to bring its allies Japan and South Korea into a confrontation with China and North Korea, Washington is playing with potentially explosive fire in Northeast Asia. The current situation of continued US military domination and presumed political leadership in the Asia Pacific is unsustainable.

Instead, Washington should take a leaf out of the post-World War II history book. While the US ‘saved’ Europe in both World War I and World War II, after World War II it provided strategic, economic and moral support to allow and encourage European governments themselves to build the post-war European edifice, especially through Franco–German reconciliation and collaboration.

Ideally, the US should phase out its military presence, while providing leadership in trade and global economic governance — in other words, the opposite of the present situation. Recognising that while at times the US presence in Asia was malign, at others benign, and that on balance it was positive, the time has come to turn the page and open a new volume in the Asia Pacific’s narrative. The construction of the 21st century Asia Pacific must be left to Asia-Pacific nations.

This process must be undertaken incrementally over the long term. A sudden impulsive US departure from the Asia Pacific region would create a perilous vacuum. Major geopolitical great power transitions have almost invariably involved war. In the process of dismantling the US-led Asia Pacific order, a new 21st century edifice with solid foundations should be constructed by the Asia Pacific itself, though with the US’ benevolent support. This seems the only viable course for peace.

Jean-Pierre Lehmann is Emeritus Professor of International Political Economy at IMD, Switzerland, founder of the Evian Group, and Visiting Professor at Hong Kong University. You can follow him on Twitter at @JP_Lehmann.

 

Trump’s Diplomacy of Narcissism


June 5, 2017

Trump’s Diplomacy of Narcissism

https://www.washingtonpost.com/opinions/trumps-diplomacy-of-narcissism

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The problem with “America First” is that it describes an attitude, not a purpose. It substitutes selfishness for realism.

It implies that nations can go it alone, that we stand for nothing beyond our immediate self-interest, and that we should give little thought to how the rest of humanity thinks or lives. It suggests that if we are strong enough, we can prosper no matter how much chaos, disorder or injustice surrounds us.

America First leads to the diplomacy of narcissism, to use what has become a loaded word in the Trump era. And narcissism is as unhealthy for nations as it is for people.

Perhaps the best approach to the problem as it affects us both individually and collectively was offered by Rabbi Hillel, who lived in the century before the birth of Christ. Hillel’s lesson to us began with two questions: “If I am not for myself, who will be for me? If I am only for myself, what am I?”

Precisely. All of us should be prepared to stand up for ourselves. We are patriots because we love our own land in a way we can love no other. But we live in a world of more than 7 billion people and nearly 200 countries. Does our nation not stand for something more than its own existence? Can we possibly survive and prosper if we are only for ourselves?

A constricted view of identity encourages destructive ways of thinking and, paradoxically, actions that reduce the United States’ long-term influence. Almost as disturbing as the irresponsibility of President Trump’s decision to abdicate U.S. global leadership on the environment by pulling out of the Paris climate accord was the language he used to justify it. He cast the United States — our beloved republic — as stupid and easily duped, not the shaper of its own fate but the victim of invidious foreign leaders whom he cast as far shrewder than we are.

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“The rest of the world applauded when we signed the Paris agreement — they went wild; they were so happy — for the simple reason that it put our country, the United States of America, which we all love, at a very, very big economic disadvantage,” Trump declared. “A cynic would say the obvious reason for economic competitors and their wish to see us remain in the agreement is so that we continue to suffer this self-inflicted major economic wound.”

Really? Our very best friends in the world, starting with Canada, were just trying to scam us? The climate pact was not even a little bit about staving off a catastrophe for the planet we all share? Should we take no pride in helping nudge the environment in a better direction?

And does Trump truly believe that President Barack Obama and the leaders of General Electric, Facebook, Apple, Microsoft, Google, IBM, BP, Disney and Shell are naive idiots? One more question: How could what even Trump had to concede is a “nonbinding” agreement bring about all the horrors he described?

A diplomacy of narcissism is of a piece, to borrow from the historian Richard Hofstadter, with the paranoid style of this president. In his statement, Trump spoke of “foreign lobbyists” who “wish to keep our magnificent country tied up and bound down by this agreement.” He painted our nation as a pitiful heap of insecurity. “At what point does America get demeaned?” he asked. “At what point do they start laughing at us as a country?”

If anyone is laughing after Trump’s decision, it is our actual enemies and adversaries. They welcome a U.S. leader who wants to rip up or weaken alliances and other forms of collective security that our own practical visionaries, since the days of Harry Truman, Dean Acheson and George Marshall, put in place to advance our purposes.

Tragically, this choice was partly driven by selfish political motives. This only reinforces how narrow a definition of self-interest is in play here. Trump seems to realize how much trouble he is in from the metastasizing Russia story. So he sought to appeal to his political base, shrunken though it is, by re-embracing his “nationalist” side. He said he’d pull out of the Paris agreement and, by God, he did it! Doesn’t that make him look strong?

Quite the opposite. The genuinely strong regularly ponder Hillel’s second inquiry, “If I am only for myself, what am I?” I don’t expect Trump to be troubled by this question, but as a nation, we cannot give up asking it.