Trump and our times: Is the world on the brink of turmoil?
God's Plan made a hopeful beginning;
But man spoilt his chances by sinning
We trust the story will end in God's Glory
But at present, the other side is winning."
A supporter of the current dispensation in the United States with President Donald Trump at its helm, may be forgiven if he or she were to view the contemporary world through the lens of the above doggerel of a 19th century compatriot, William Wendell Holmes. For such a viewer, it would have looked a wonderful world some years ago. Everything was going right for America. There was the perception of it as the sole hyper-power, and one that was largely seen as benign. Thereafter, through the mechanism of America's complex political system, its people put a new man on horseback to run it.
Mr Trump was different from all who had gone before. He claimed to be actuated by rigid conformity to perceived national self-interest. He professed to put America first on all matters. He proffered the idea that should each country do the same, the result would be stability through an equilibrium of multiple interests.
The logical fallacy ingrained in this philosophical proposition soon became apparent. Almost forced by circumstances, other countries, as was to be expected, began to follow suit. The preponderant value now was: not what is good for all is good for me, but what is good for me, and others taken individually, is good for all. It was turning logic on its head. Unsurprisingly, instead of creating the desirable positive and stable balance, it threatened to put all on the brink of disaster. America became locked in intractable disputes with three adversaries at the same time: China, North Korea and Iran. Any mishandling or miscalculation with any one of them could land the protagonists, and the rest of the world, in devastating conflagrations.
First, with China, there is a fierce ongoing trade war. Mr Trump has threatened China that unless trade disputes are resolved soon, it would confront a much tougher America after its elections. This, Mr Trump has declared, he was certain to win, much to the despair of many critics at home and abroad. He has slapped steep tariffs on some Chinese imports into America for now, but has said would soon include all. That is because he accuses China of unfair trading practices and artificial tinkering of monetary and fiscal policies, subsiding its manufactures to America's disadvantage, "stealing" America's intellectual property, and being unwilling to put a robust monitoring system covering agreements in place (with the intent of breaching them). China denies all these. Philosophically, Beijing weaves the accusations into some kind of a dialectical process, a remnant of Communist intellectual apparatus that it still employs, and hopes that a synthesis will ultimately resolve the clash of theses and anti-theses at play.
The conflict, dangerously, could go deeper. Already an element of racism has been introduced into the differences. An American academic-turned-official, Kiron Skinner, sees this as being akin to a civilizational war between two not-only-ideological-but-also-ethnic rivals, while the earlier fight between the Soviet Union and the US was one between two Caucasian parties, within the "western family". Scoffing at this apparent racist connotation, China called this week for a conference on "Dialogue of Asian Civilizations", exacerbating rather than bridging the chasm. This acquires significance, for almost alone among America's adversaries, China has the capability of confronting the US militarily, both with strategic and tactical means. Russia might have the technical capacity with its nuclear armoury, but is woefully lacking in the political and economic wherewithal. China's Belt and Road Initiative gives it a huge international status, and President Xi Jinping's "China Dream" (ZhongGuomeng, in Mandarin), the required inspiration. One only hopes that any miscalculation as contained in the Thucydides Syndrome does not come into play. The Greek historian by that name had famously observed that "When Athens grew strong, there was great fear in Sparta, and war became inevitable."
The second is the strange relationship between the US and North Korea, as also between Mr Trump and Chairman Kim Jong Un. The two leaders have had two summits, one in Singapore last year, and the other in Hanoi recently. The first witnessed an exultant reaction on both sides, judged by most analysts as unfounded. Mr Trump assumed Mr Kim would give up his nuclear weapons. Mr Kim averred that the US would lift the sanctions. But which was to precede the other? There was no agreement on that score. So, the meeting in Hanoi came a cropper. Mr Kim resumed testing missiles, albeit tactical ones, that could hit Japan and not the US. In a near-bizarre reaction, Mr Trump saw nothing wrong with Mr Kim's actions, and displayed a remarkable understanding that these actions implied only signalling. But to the rest of the world, the signals were: safety lay in possession of sufficient nuclear capability to inspire higher level of understanding of even the hyperpower; and also, the fate of allies could be secondary to superior goals, so in this real world, it was each man for himself and God for us all!
The third is rapidly emerging as the most serious danger, the brewing conflict between the US and Iran. Last year, motivated by two factors, one domestic-to undo everything that President Obama had done before him, and the other international, possibly at the behest of Saudi-Israeli urgings, Mr Trump scrapped US connection with the oddly named Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA). It was a plan (not, significantly, a treaty) that the US and major European powers had entered into with Iran. It was designed to allow Iran to carry on peaceful use of nuclear capability without weaponization. Now with elections looming in 2020, and the Republicans in the US confronting a difficult challenge, external bogeymen could provide the necessary boost. The Europeans were aghast, but were not sufficiently empowered to be with Iran for fear of hurtful US sanctions. Since the JCPOA does not actually prohibit missile testing, and thereby can never actually be ratified as a treaty by the US Senate. For this reason the Republicans may be encouraged to assume their posture, not because they may be legally justified, for that is not necessarily a key criterion, but because of a bipartisan support that can have wider electoral ramifications. In Iran, as a consequence, even moderates like President Hassan Rouhani are caught between the rock and a hard place. The result is the increasing beating of war-drums in the volatile Middle East, with severe consequences for the world.
But whether there is actual fighting as a result of this or not, the lesson for states who have that capability, might sadly be this: that their safety eventually lay in nuclear weapons. Which is probably why, they may argue, China and North Korea are safe from invasions, and Iran is not. So, their predilection may be, as Cromwell had urged his troops, to have faith in God certainly, but also to keep their (nuclear) powder dry. Alas, not a reliable insurance for global peace.
Dr Iftekhar Ahmed Chowdhury is Principal Research Fellow at the Institute of South Asian Studies, National University of Singapore, and a former Foreign Advisor in a Caretaker Government in Bangladesh.