As a new captain takes the helm of the richest and most powerful country in the world, it is time to take stock and analyse the position of the United States relative to its two largest adversaries: China and Russia.
There’s been lots of loose talk of a so-called “underclass” which made Trump’s election possible. Columnists stuffed their columns with the same trite commentary about a “discontented” section of society in at least some respect. These sort of columns write themselves. After all, when has there never been a marginalised section of society? And when can a vote for a change in leadership not be painted as a social revolt?
The simple truth is that eight years is a long time for any party to hold the presidency, and three terms of the same party holding the position is historically an exception rather than the rule. When Hillary campaigned in 2008 against Barack Obama, she was defeated by a campaign which shouted “change” from the rooftops. Polling evidence back then, as it does now, suggests that she was not a likeable candidate. And yet in 2016 she was served up as the Democrats’ best offer to voters, with Bill Clinton at her side throughout.
Hillary was the establishment – the incumbent – and her energies, when she was not plotting her own career, were mainly focused on foreign policy which, other than the closure represented by the shooting of Osama bin Laden, was not an area of great triumph for the Obama administration. Her private email system was also a self-inflicted scandal that grumbled on, never subsiding.
It is quite wrong to paint Trump’s victory as representative of some sort of social ailment, but rather as the predictable choice of a society confronted with the possibility of something new, risky, but fresh on the menu. Trump is a bombastic celebrity, plain-speaking, and whilst grotesquely misspeaking on occasions, knew how to market himself. He now represents a proud and vibrant country whose constitution has the good sense to limit the powers of the presidency and treats individual liberty as sacrosanct. Domestically, most Americans are more likely to be affected by individual state governors, to whom power, such as the administration of state pensions, is devolved, as well as state businesses, than they are by the president, who usually concentrates on flagship federal policy matters and, importantly, foreign policy. Whilst Hillary was attacking Trump, Trump was busy outlining a more hopeful future for America on the world stage in terms that most Americans could understand.
And so Trump won the presidency under the electoral college system. Indeed even if we count up
the total popular vote, we find that most people seemed to vote for conservatives and libertarians rather than democrats and greens. As the great gigantopithecus steps up to the podium on 20 January 2017 as a champion of change on the world stage, he will have a lot of promises to live up to, and he will face a number of key foreign policy challenges, mainly from America’s two largest competitors: China and Russia.
Trump made China appear to be America’s greatest economic competitor. This is not without merit. During the 2016 election campaign, there was a great deal of anxiety about jobs being outsourced to China, where labour is cheap and the currency is weak. Trump capitalised on this anxiety by flirting with ideas of economic protectionism, tariffs and trade wars. Whilst the West gravely felt the hangover of the 2008 recession, China’s growth rate, whilst declining, had declined from a quite high position of around 11 per cent GDP growth per annum to 8.5 per cent, due to less foreign demand for its goods. China’s GDP growth rate by the tail end of 2016 was between 6.5 per cent and 7 per cent, compared to America’s relatively feeble 2.5 per cent. It is tempting to see, and fear, strength in China’s economy in light of this.
However, high growth rates are expected for modernising economies. It is not unusual, for example, to see many developing African nations achieve high GDP growth rates. A better indicator is to look at the quality of life of the country’s average population, or GDP per capita, where, on both measures, the USA wins.
The growth in China is fuelled by low wages and an artificially fixed currency, making exports highly cheap and attractive, whereas much of America is propped up by people earning middle-class salaries and a free-floating currency. China has yet to make the leap towards a stable middle-class economy, with press freedom, free elections, a free currency market, and has not had to face the disruptions that will come with that inevitable transition from a developing industrial economy. It is hard to see how an increasingly freer China, exposed to new telecom technology, will tolerate weak third-world employment laws in the future, and how the lure of service industry professions, rather than cheaply-paid manufacturing jobs, will not affect an increasingly confident Chinese middle-class. Indeed, China has the fastest growing service sector, followed by India, whilst China’s growth rate, in general, has been declining annually for some time now. Perhaps most damagingly, Chinese, unlike English, has yet to catch on as the official language of business.
Whilst China haunts the US as its greatest economic threat, the threat posed by Russia is more political in nature. When he was running for President of the United States in 2012, Mitt Romney was roundly mocked by Democrats for stating that Russia presented the greatest geopolitical threat to the United States. Obama quipped during a live debate at the time that “the 1980s called and asked for their foreign policy back”. Yet we have increasingly seen a more confident Russia, led by a leader who unashamedly pursues policies which protect Russian national interests. Under Obama’s leadership, the US has appeased Russian aggression in Ukraine, has been bullied into accepting Russia’s strategy for peace in Syria, and has had to expel 35 Russian diplomats in retaliation for alleged Russian hacking. As the curtains close on 2016, the chill breeze of a new Cold War has never been so strongly felt.
However, Russia’s GDP is contracting, its economy is hugely sensitive to declining oil prices, and Russia is increasingly isolated internationally. It is often said that the poisonous political culture of tyranny, intolerance and religious fanaticism in the Arab world has incubated anti-American extremism, but it is wrong to see America as the terrorists’ principal enemy. Russia has a long history of fighting extremism in Chechnya, Afghanistan after the Soviet invasion, and now in Syria. America is only one state on a list of entities hated by these terrorists – India, East Timor, the European Union and its democratic member states are high on their list. Russia will need the West’s support if it becomes more grossly entangled in the War on Terror, if their economy does not grow more substantially, if oil markets do not settle, and if the world moves away from reliance on their oil.
America’s perceived decline is more imagined than real, and relative to the considerable problems facing other nations in the world, Trump’s America has more cause to be hopeful than to despair. There is good reason to think that Trump will behave more like a centrist Democrat than a hardcore right-wing Republican, promising to arguably grow the State through trillion dollar infrastructure programmes and, unfortunately, implementing damaging anti-free trade tariffs. There is a tendency to think in binary terms about public figures – labelling them personally as either “good” or “bad” depending on the party that supports them, when really it should be their public policies by which they should be judged. As Trump makes his transition from private businessman to public servant, America has a strong hand, and we should allow more time before we judge whether he strengthens or weakens America’s position.
Simon Bartram is a freelance writer and qualified accountant, having graduated with a first-class degree in Modern History and Philosophy