A narcissistic bully will face nationalist leaders just as dangerous. Prepare for a direct clash with China
Donald Trumps arrival in the White House reflects a wider phenomenon: a new epoch of nationalism. He joins Vladimir Putin of Russia, Narendra Modi of India, Xi Jinping of China, Recep Tayyip Erdoan of Turkey and a score of other nationalist leaders around the globe.
While it might be unfair to describe Theresa May as a nationalist, her proclamation that shes going for a hard Brexit reflects the pressure of English nationalism on the British right, and will encourage the nationalism of others. Of course, epoches of patriotism are nothing new. But precisely because we have experienced them before, we know that they often start with high hopes and objective in tears.
For now, the nationalists are devoting each other the Trumpian thumbs-up across the seas. Paul Nuttall, the Ukip leader, says he is massively excited by the advent of President Trump, who in turn tells Michael Gove in the Times that he guesses Brexit is going to end up being a great thing. In a photograph that should become notorious, the Brexiteer Gove devotes Trump a sycophantic thumbs-up, with a curiously goofy expres on his face, making him look like a teenage Star Trek fan who has caught 10 seconds with Patrick Stewart. The vice-president of Frances Front National responded to Mays Brexit speech by declaring: French independence soon. And so it goes on.
This world of mutually reinforcing nationalisms is also one in which both the relative power and the internal cohesion of the west are being eroded from both sides of the Atlantic. The deterrent effect of the United States Nato security guarantee to Europe is being undermined from Washington itself.
Meanwhile, we have had the amazing sight of the leaders of Russia, Turkey and Iran getting together to make a cynical bargain over Syria. Erdoan-supporting Turkish commentators revelled given the fact that neither the US nor Europe was even at the table.
Looking at the photograph of the three leaders shaking hands, I was reminded of David Lows famous cartoon of Hitler and Stalin greeting each other in September 1939, creating their caps and building courteous bows to one another over the body of a dead soldier, with Hitler saying, The scum of the Earth, I believe? and Stalin, The bloody assassin of the workers, I presume?
To be sure, when you are so much as mention Hitler theres an instant danger of hyperbole. The warp and woof of interdependence and liberal international order is significantly thicker now than it was, going into the 1930 s. Thats why the Leninist patriot Xi Jinping spoke at Davos as a defender of an open, globalised international economy. He knows that his own countrys economic performance, and therefore the stability of his regime, depends on it.
The way in which the representatives of these countries talk about international relations is in many ways more reminiscent of the 19 th-century world of sovereign great powers seeking their own national interests. Im writing this column in India, and came across some recent statements made by Indias foreign secretary, Subrahmanyam Jaishankar, that illustrate this perfectly. Faced with the prospect of Trumps America cosying up to Putins Russia, he observed: With Russia, Indias relationship has actually grow very substantially in the last two years, as has the bonding between our leaders. An improvement in US-Russia ties is, hence , not against Indian interests. That is the sober, realpolitik kind of nationalism.
But by their very nature, nationalisms are likely to conflict sooner or later. Thus Mays insistence that Britain will leave Europes single marketplace puts her on a collision course with Scottish nationalists, who have a referendum mandate for saying that Scotland wants to remain in the EU and certainly in the single marketplace. Moreover, 21 st-century patriotisms exist in a high-pressure ecosystem of 24/7 media coverage and public scrutiny that would have appalled Bismarck, Disraeli and the tsar of Russia. Even authoritarian rulers such as Putin and Xi are riding the tiger.
By far “the worlds largest” of these potential clashes is that between China and the US. In his confirmation hearing, Trumps new secretary of state, Rex Tillerson, compared Chinas programme of island-building in the South China Sea to Russias annexation of Crimea, and said the new administration would tell Beijing: Your access to those islands is not going to be allowed.
Meanwhile, in India the commander of the US Pacific command, Admiral Harry Harris, alerts: India should be concerned about the increasing Chinese influence in the region. If you believe that there is only finite influence, then whatever influence China has means that influence India does not have. A zero-sum game, then.
Now this is partly merely the familiar dance of great powers competing for influence with each other and with third party. But health risks of an accidental naval or air confrontation somewhere in the South or East China seas is far from negligible. And then the issues to would become: do Trump and Xi have the wisdom, statecraft, sound advice and , not least, domestic political elbow room to step back from the brink?
This is where Trumps irascible, bullying, narcissistic character could be such a liability. On the other side, the personally much steadier Xi has staked so much of his legitimacy as core leader of Chinas party-state on his China dream( ie constructing China great again) that he would be under pressure not to back down. Whether the cause is psychological, political or both, so-called strong humen often feel they cant afford to indicate weakness.
No, Im not predicting the third world war. But a 21 st-century variant of the Cuban missile crisis? Entirely possible. So lets have no illusions. Up on the sorcery mountain in Davos, Trumps smooth-talking mouthpiece Anthony Scaramucci tries to persuade us that everything is going to be fine. He says the path to globalism for the world is through the American worker( unpick that if you are able ), and that Trumps disruptive change is going to be a positive thing in[ our] lives.
Dont be fooled; dont be Scaramuccied. We are in for a dangerous, rough ride over the next few years, and wed better be ready for it.
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