With Donald Trump now sworn in as the American President and Commander–in-Chief, here are some thoughts on where the world may be headed.
In 1948, Winston Churchill published The Gathering Storm, the first in his epic six-volume account about the lead-up to and the course of the Second World War. In this conflict, the British statesman would play a decisive role, leading his country and the then Western world to a hard fought and historic victory but one that was also hugely costly.
I evoke Churchill’s Gathering Storm because I believe we now find ourselves in circumstances that may be setting the stage for yet another great global conflict.
There are multiple factors at work here. The main one is that key powers in the international system are likely to play the foreign policy card in an effort to deflect from and compensate for their domestic political and economic failings. These are players, on the defensive – harbouring ambitions, nursing grudges, grasping at straws. One seeks to overcome what it considers to be an unjustified historical reversal. Another has been putting its peers on notice that they must respect its rising power or else. Another still wants to correct a presumed loss of greatness. This is a situation pregnant with hubris, miscalculation and possibly catastrophe.
There follows a succinct assessment of what is likely to drive the actions of the three key actors on this stage.
The Key Players
President Putin is up for re– election in 2018. While the latest numbers out of Russia suggest a modest recovery from the depths of 2014–15, Moscow has not begun to address the issues that will remain even when the sanctions régime is removed, as now seems likely: hyper-centralization of power in the hands of the President, a 19th century tsar in 21st century clothing, over-reliance on the energy industry as the motor of growth, systemic corruption, the collapse of the economic fortunes of the middle and lower classes and an abysmal absence of any mechanism capable of overseeing the work of government and its security forces, let alone bringing about meaningful corrections.
There are four things working for Putin. First, the foreign policy prowess he has displayed in particular in Ukraine and Syria. Second, the relative weakness of his western opponents, which despite their recent counter measures still display a debilitating degree of defence unpreparedness and political disunity in dealing with his country – this, notwithstanding the fact that they are facing a country whose GDP is roughly the size of Australia’s! Third, the largely justified fear on the part of the Russian population that they are in a “après Putin, la deluge” situation. Fourth, the lack of any serious domestic opposition, in no small part owing to Putin’s successful efforts to catch in the bud any political challenges to his rule.
Against this background, Putin will seek every opportunity to make further progress towards establishing a new Russian-dominated policy space across the former Soviet Union. The most important jewel in this crown is Ukraine. If this country of over forty million were again brought into Russia’s orbit, this would deal a decisive blow to the notion that Russia is but a regional power. Rather, it would again have to be considered to be the leading hegemon on the European landmass, capable of dominating European states to its west and south.
Xi-Jinping, the President, Communist Party Chief and Chairman of the Military Commission seems to be all-powerful. He will be re-appointed in his functions for another term of five years this year. But there are indications that the “Paramount Leader” is seeking an additional term, in which event he must ensure that the party bodies that will be renewed in 2017 will support him in this move. This is a risky road. The succession mechanism would normally ensure that a new Chinese leader would assume power in 2022 and that the 2017 election process would have him take his place as the heir apparent in this year’s political deliberations.
A third term for Xi-Jinping would fly in the face of the measures put in place post-Mao to prevent future personality cults. Xi has also made many enemies in the party with his efforts to stamp out corruption, a campaign that many suspect is really about neutralizing any serious resistance to his rise. And in Chinese society at large, there has been a growing number of strikes and demonstrations sparked by economic and political inequalities, and bureaucratic abuse.
At the same time, Xi-Jinping faces opposition to his ambition to forge an all-powerful state that prevails across its official borders. In Taiwan, there is growing resistance to the longstanding two systems/one China doctrine. In Hong Kong, there is an increasingly aggressive democratic movement, whose proponents seek to throw off the non-democratic yoke imposed by Beijing and to assume authentic self-rule.
All this takes place against the background of unresolved historical rivalries between China, Japan and Korea, whose communist northern half seems determined to become a nuclear power with intercontinental capabilities.
The PRC’s growth numbers have been descending, probably much below the 6.5–7% that Beijing has set as its current target. In 2015, the country’s debt reached a dangerously high levels, at roughly 250% of GDP. Xi, who presides over a dictatorship that has been in the saddle for 68 years, will know that the Soviet system expired after 72. Will he go the way of a Gorbachev or will he seek to rally his people around an aggressive foreign policy agenda in an effort to stave off the current system’s collapse?
If he does the latter, this will likely first be manifest in the South China Seas where Beijing has appeared increasingly determined to stake its claim to broad swathes of sea going well beyond its territorial limits, in defiance of international law as well as the rights and concerns of other regional states.
The United States
America is clearly in a different class. For all its failures, it has been the lynchpin of a values-based order of international affairs since World War II. This has been the single most important factor preventing the outbreak of a new global conflict.
But with the imminent assumption of the US Presidency by a guy who thinks that his job is more about playing monopoly than exercising statesmanship, all bets are off. US foreign and domestic policy is now up for sale. Whether this will define the Trump Presidency over its duration remains to be seen. Much depends on the effectiveness of American democracy’s traditional checks and balances, and the preparedness of the electoral majority that did not vote for Trump to stand up and be counted.
There is, however, a better than average chance that demagoguery will prevail, that Congress will fail to assert itself, that much of the media will be cowed into submission, that sections of the bureaucracy that call Trump to account will be silenced and shutdown. Yes, it can happen in the United States.
I also assume that Trump’s economic policies will fail. Doing what is right for the US economy is very different from hosting a reality show or running a hotel empire: you cannot simply fire your adversaries or declare bankruptcy and move on.
And here is where the similarity with Putin and Xi kicks in. As America’s economic prospects flag, as Trump will not be able to meet his promises to his base, as the scandals proliferate, the US President will be tempted to rally US opinion around him with adventures in the foreign policy arena. Even in the lead-up to his inauguration, this kind of reflex was on display as Trump scrambled to deflect attention from speculation about his links with Russia with overtures to Taiwan and challenging messages to Beijing.
All this is not to say that the struggle to combat international terrorism and instability in the greater Middle East will not remain a critical issue. But this region is likely to continue to be more a threat unto itself than to any other region – and this, notwithstanding President Putin’s ongoing efforts to build an international anti-terrorist coalition.
Against this background, what are the policy courses open to the two revanchist/revisionist powers? Putin and Xi-Jinping have essentially three policy options in front of them. They are not necessarily mutually exclusive and could end up being consecutive.
One is to wait and see, playing hard to get, hoping that Trump will cause so much havoc in American politics that any moves they make in their own regions will remain effectively unanswered, and as a result their foreign policy targets, primarily regional but in time perhaps also further afield, will fall into their hands like ripe, low-hanging fruit.
Another scenario is for Russia or even China is to entertain Trump’s fantasies about his being able to do a deal that is in their mutual interests. This could involve the bilateral relationship between America or Russia, or even a trilateral accord involving China, say, a 21st century Yalta dividing up spheres of influence globally. This is a scenario built on sand, one in which Beijing and/or Moscow would play Washington for all they could get, feeding false expectations until they had extracted as much as possible from their relationship with Trump’s America.
A third scenario is for Russia and China to pounce, working in parallel or in collusion to take advantage of the prevailing strategic disorientation and preoccupation with domestic issues that prevails in Western capitals from Washington to Warsaw.
My hunch is that the most likely scenario is one that combines aspects of all three. Trump and Putin do their mini-détente. Trump then feels free to challenge Xi on one or several issues of importance to Beijing, as he has already intimated he is prepared to do. But in the process he fails to understand that Xi has too much at stake in his election year not to stand up to a US challenge. Neither side would be looking for a shooting war. Both would be assuming that the other would back down or that some sort of accommodation could be found short of a violent confrontation.
It is unlikely that such a scenario would not involve other powers in East Asia and probably further afield. In particular, I would expect that Russia would seize on US preoccupation with East Asia to play its hand in former Soviet space and in the lands to its west. Putin is on the record as having said that you would have to be crazy to get involved in an armed conflict with the US. If America were to become so preoccupied with developments in East Asia as outlined above that it would not be able to respond in Europe, then Putin’s could assume he would be able to avoid a military showdown his shooting match with Washington.
Of course, it cannot be excluded that at the end of the day, it will be the American foreign policy professionals that will call the shots in Trump’s America. This would not be a guarantee of no serious international violence as we move forward. But, at the very least, this would mean a safer mooring in the troubled international seas in which America and its friends and allies will now have to navigate.