America can survive Trump. Not so the west

Few checks and balances apply to the conduct of diplomacy and foreign policy

by: Philip Stephens

History can veer off course. It happened in 1914 when the first age of globalisation was consumed in the flames of the Great War; and again during the 1930s when economic hardship, protectionism and nationalism nurtured the rise of fascism in Europe. Donald Trump’s election victory heralds another of these dangerous dislocations.

It may well be that America is resilient and self-sufficient enough to survive a Trump presidency. The founding fathers of the republic foresaw the dangers of populist passions. James Madison set the first objective of the constitution as to “break and control the violence of faction”. For Madison “faction” was the power of any group “united and actuated by some common impulse of passion” to seize power at the expense of fellow citizens. The constitution’s intricate checks and balances are there to block the path to such tyranny.

Rereading this week Federalist No 10, perhaps the most celebrated of what became known as the Federalist Papers, it is obvious that Madison had Mr Trump in mind when he wrote about the need to safeguard the union from domestic insurrection. The president-elect has said he wants to muzzle the media, torture prisoners, lock out Muslims, expel millions of migrants, build a wall against Mexico and cosy up to to Russia’s Vladimir Putin. Lauded by white supremacists, Mr Trump won the prize by disinterring the demons of race.

And yet. Madison’s careful distribution of authority between the three branches of the federal government should check the president’s worst excesses. A strong judiciary creates a firewall against arbitrary rule. Military chiefs will refuse to break the laws against torture. There is a safety catch on the nuclear trigger. Republican-
dominated it may be, but the new Congress will surely resist an advance to presidential autocracy. And, yes, given his character, temperament and unfamiliarity with truth, it is always possible that things will end badly for Mr Trump.

But America’s tragedy — and how else can one describe the passage to the White House of someone whose politics are so boastfully rooted in prejudice and hate — is also the west’s tragedy.

The liberal international order has rested not simply on economic vitality and military strength. It has been anchored by a set of values whose appeal is universal. Freedom, the rule of law, human dignity, tolerance, pluralist institutions: these are all now scorned by the president-elect of the world’s most powerful nation. Liberal democracy itself is thus delegitimised.

Whatever the course of US politics, the damage inflicted on the alliance of nations that has shaped the world since 1945 is irreparable. Few of the Madisonian checks and balances apply to the conduct of diplomacy and foreign policy. Barack Obama, as much as any other president, has shown how America’s place in the world is a choice made by the occupant of the Oval Office.

The US-designed global system has been unravelling for some time. It will not survive the withdrawal of American leadership. The financial crash of 2008, income stagnation, austerity and disenchantment with free trade has buried the liberal economic consensus. Now Mr Trump has pledged to dismantle the political pillars of the old order.

“America First” promotes belligerent isolationism — an approach to international order rooted in power rather than the rule of law. The narrowest interpretation of national interest takes precedence over broader considerations of international security.

Mr Trump is content to preside over the dissolution of the US alliance system, leaving Europe vulnerable to Mr Putin’s revanchism and East Asia to the ambitions of an assertive China. Japan and South Korea, he has suggested, may want to build their own nuclear weapons. We can be sure that, if he keeps a promise to abrogate the international nuclear deal with Iran, then Tehran will soon enough build its own bomb.

Other democracies face their own populist insurrections. Demagogues across Europe have been lauding Mr Trump’s success. Marine Le Pen, the leader of France’s xenophobic National Front, hopes to emulate him in next year’s contest for the Elysée Palace. Hungary and Poland have fallen into the arms of far-right nativism. Britain’s vote in June to leave the EU in significant part was an expression of angry English nationalism.

Mr Trump goes further by repudiating the basic, organising idea of the west: the notion that the world’s richest democracies can oversee a fair and inclusive rules-based system to underwrite global peace and security. Co-operative internationalism is to be replaced by competitive nationalism.

So the dangers will now come thick and fast. How much of a free Europe can survive the withdrawal of the US security umbrella? Will Russia be allowed to restore its influence over formerly communist states in eastern and central Europe? Will rising states in the east and south now look to authoritarianism rather than democracy as a model for their societies? Who will keep the peace in the East and South China seas? How safe or stable is a world organised around the interests of, and conflicts between, a handful of great powers?

America will spurn eventually the lethal concoction of nativism and protectionism that won Mr Trump this election. But the west has lost its guardian, and democracy its champion.

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