The new American presidency at international level
The international shift from cooperation to conflict that the Trump “business” administration of America has made already, in just the first week, is based on the continuation of the former administration path but with opposite means. America keeps retreating in its isolationism because of the global disorder, but now with a conflicting attitude instead of a cooperative one, being led by a businessman after an educator. This at first sight seems dangerous and possibly causing an escalation of conflict against the US and even among states. Nevertheless in the longer view could also open space for the world actors to build individual paths and new alliances independently by the US hegemony. It is hard to be optimistic in difficult times but is when we most need.
From Mexico to China, from the EU to the Middle Eastern countries non-aligned with America, the US is saying today: I will reduce the collaborative relationship with you following only my interest, now you have to make the move if you want to compete with me or you are by yourselves. Mistrust and “prisoner dilemma” is what is expecting us: defection will get more result than collaboration in the protectionist and nationalist world that Trump wants to recreate. This is what we will see from Mexico reactions to the wall, to China retaliations to the possible trade war, from EU reactions to the American attacks (Trump defines the EU as the “consortium”), to Middle Eastern retaliations after the rejection of immigrants from the seven states that US consider “sponsors of terrorism”. Actually in reality these states instead of supporting Salafi and Jihadist terrorism (that is supported mostly by the Gulf monarchies) have been challenging the American model both politically and economically…that is why they are in the list even if intermittently since decades. So besides discriminating on religion and fomenting Islamophobia, it is evident that the ban is not at all for defending American territory as ISIS has a big presence in many other states, like Nigeria for example, and is not present at all in some of the seven states, like for example Iran.
This new process of conflict competition and aggressivity could escalate conflict with the US and even among countries themselves, not having the hegemonic presence of America that provide “public goods” like possible protections or “public threats” like possible attacks. But it could also open space for new actors to rise and fill the power vacuum in a competitive way and in new geopolitical trajectories: “If US is not there anymore, also because of its decline, we can do it by ourselves” will say the countries with world aspirations. China and India as leaders in Asia, Mexico and Brazil as leaders in Latin America, Iran and Turkey as leaders in the Middle East, are natural developments when the hegemon is not there anymore and so regional leaders for regional cooperation and integration could represent the next steps after the failure of globalization. Canada for example already step in as possible substitute of the US as leader of the democratic world, accepting the refugees that the US is rejecting and fighting against Islamophobia, and for that has been suddenly attacked by a white nationalist killing in a mosque.
So let’s see the bigger picture. After WWII the liberal order was guaranteed by the US and NATO, also thanks to the stability of the Cold War with the Soviet Union. After the end of the Cold War the new instability and the multipolar (or zeropolar) world made the liberal global order impossible to retain, given the risk of imperial overstretching. Today we are witnessing the end of the Pax Americana as we are on a new path in this transition towards a new order: the US, together with the UK (being the two that created that order) are ending the liberal order, weakening international institutions and norms that they themselves created, pushing the international system back to its traditional “anarchy” and the nation states back to its traditional “power”, as major agents of international politics for its own interests. In political science, from the constructivist theories born in the second half of 20th century to understand modernity and postmodernity we are having today a revival of the traditional realist-rationalist approaches. But if we look closer this is not only the realist approach in international relations, it represents the extreme capitalist free market ideology applied to international politics: competition over cooperation. The ideas is that if you allow different actors to compete among themselves in an anarchic and conflicting system their talents, merits and capacities will come out and the system will grow consequentially. This is true but problem is that, in the international system as in the market, with a completely free competition without rules and norms protecting from the extremes, the strongest can crash the weakest, or to say it with Thucydides still valid after two millennia: “The strong do what they can, the weak suffer what they must.”
So what we are witnessing with the new populism, nationalism and “conflictism” of Trump and also Teresa May, it is not only a political, economic and cultural shift, it is also an ideological and paradigmatic one: from cooperation we are passing to conflict as a legitimate tool of international relations, similar to the economic-materialist concept of Marx and Schumpeter of “creative destruction”. The creators are destroying what they created in order to reborn as new leaders in the future chaos. If this will have more positive or negative results in the long run it has to be seen. Much will depend if someone will take the lead in the meantime, in the creation of a new modern global order while the US and UK are busy destroying what remains of the old one. Hopefully if this will happen will be someone with cooperative and inclusive attitudes, because if history can teach something is that the belief in only the realist-rationalist-materialist approach, with conflict as “the great equalizer” and war as “continuation of politics with other means”, produced the most violent and inhumane century of humankind.
The new American presidency at domestic level
As we know the Roman Empire failed, as all the other great powers in human history, from implosion before than from invasion, from internal dysfunctions more than from external ones. So domestic situation is more important than the international one. Also Fukuyama (Political Order and Political Decay, 2014) famously argued that liberal democracy’s future is cloudy because of its own internal problems, not competition from any external opponent. Therefore today the US, coming out from a century of world supremacy, should recuperate its internal strength in order to keep this supremacy, not only at economic level but also at cultural and social level. And this is the discours of Trump, making America great again “for all Americans”. But in reality this discourse hide a manipulation of the disenfranchised people that will keep things as they are for them, or even worst at economic, political and social level. Much has been said about economic so let’s concentrate on social and political levels.
The social strength of a country is called “social capital”. In political science the social capital is one of the bases of democracy: it represent the level of networking, participation, reciprocity, cooperation and trust that make a society act together for the common good. Tocqueville noticed two centuries ago that in America the social capital was at a high level, because Americans were meeting at as many gatherings as possible to talk about politics, more than the people in the old continent. This increased the levels of transparency, participation and trust and so the social capital, which in turn allowed for democracy to work better. At the end of the day those were the times when the creation of the country was still fresh, two or three generations before, and so people were still eager to participate and fight for to the Res-publica, the “public thing”. But almost two century after the social capital is in a different situation in America. Already Putnam explained how isolation and lack of civic engagement reduced social capital in America, and a recent article on the last issue of the Journal of Democracy present that showing that not many people believe in real democracy in this country and act as a consequence anymore.
If we look deeper in this concept we see how the scholarship define three types of social capital, all needed for the good work of democracy: Bonding, that means inside a social group like family, friends, neighbors, race etc.; Bridging, among different groups, like cross-ethnic association, interreligious groups etc.; and Linking, among people and their government representatives, local authorities etc. While Obama was strong in creating Bridging and Linking social capital, Trump seems to wish to reinforce the Bonding social capital, inside a particular group of people. These people are not only the “descendent of the original pioneers”, the so called WASP, “White Anglo-Saxon Protestant”, that are more traditionalist (with God, family and nation values of the Jacksonian tradition) conservative, uneducated and isolated, and that once were the “elite” and now feel threatened as an endangered species in the US because of the new immigrants, the new educated-intellectuals and in general the wave of progressivism during the last decades. They are also represented by the people (mostly WASP but not only) that have been “downgraded” and “declassified” either from a high income middle class to a lower income middle class or from a high income labor class to a lower income (or even unemployed) labor class, becoming in these way the antiestablishment disenfranchised people, the nourishment for populist and demagogues of all times and places. These are the same type of people that are causing the populist surge in the Western world. The Trump administration, respect to the Obama’s one, is here exactly to channelize this anger of people that from quite rich became less rich and that are living in what Pankaj Mishra defined “the age of anger”, to show in a post-deliberative post-intellectual democracy, and against professional politicians, what really means to deliberate and act fast and simple, even is synonym of superficial and divisive. The problem is that trying to unite only one part of population with the bonding narrative and without the other types of social capital, the bridging and linking ones, democracy doesn’t work, as democracy needs inclusiveness and trust in representation, while the bonding social capital create a tribal-clanistic democracy, in reality an oligarchy closed to the world and to the future, that is what America increasingly seems to have.
And here we come to the second point of this administration at domestic level, besides destroying the diversity of social fabric favoring only the bonding social capital of a “relative small” group. While the listening to the people could represent the “healthy populism”, to bring people back to politics, overcoming the risk of popular rebellion against the democratic institution, the fact that in reality Trump doesn’t listen to “all” people and doesn’t seem to have effective programs to reduce inequality and so address that anger, and instead is putting the administration in the hands of family, corporations and crony capitalism, is quite worrying. The reality is that the Trump administration is manipulating that anger in order to divide the 99% of people that have less than the 1%, breaking its possible social movement, eroding the political power of their representative and making the economic sphere stronger and with less control, without “problems” like climate change, critic press or international norms to disturb its business. Trump attacks politicians and state institutions, which are people’s representative, saying “people will retake their power” but what he really means is that “economy will retake its power” over politics and even the state. This is confirmed by his nominations of many business people in its administration, who come from Exxon, Goldman Sacks and other corporations or financial powers, and by the antidemocratic alt-right ideology of his senior counselor Steve Bannon. All this could lead to the final destruction of political and state power versus the economic one, with a stronger neoliberal uncontrolled economy and so more inequality.
But this process could lead also, as a reaction, to a grassroot bridging social capital with an alliance between classes, the poor and disenfranchised labor class, the excluded and not listened minorities (including women, latinos and blacks) and the middle class of professionals, scientists and intellectuals, that is only possibility for any successful “revolution”. Also, the erosion of democratic insitutions, again as a reaction, could lead to a grassroot linking social capital between citizens and their representatives, that could join forces to recuperate the democratic norms and the institutional political power over the economic one. Already the recent Women’s march and the protest against the immigrations ban as well as the institutions refusing to follow Presidents decisions (like the federal judge in Seattle who temporarily blocked Trump’s immigration order), represent signs in that direction.
So we don’t know yet but in a relative short time, that means in this year 2017, we will see where US politics and society is headed. We will see soon if democratic institutions, besides social capital and political sphere, will be eroded to a critical point of autocracy and social division like it happened in Venezuela or Turkey. We will see soon if the final assault of unregulated market and neoliberal forces will increase the inequality or there will be as a reaction a more “European” America, with a welfare state balancing that inequality. And we will see soon if there will be an American decline on the international arena and the final end of Pax Americana or an American Renaissance, may be together with China or even Russia. Remembering two famous sentences of the worst times of our human history we will see soon if the Americans will still be able to say, as the 1935 political novel by Sinclair Lewis, “It can’t happen here”, or will instead say, as Martin Niemoller recited during Nazism, “First they came for the socialist, but I was not a socialist…”