Lenin once wrote an article entitled Combustible Material in World Politics. But the amount of combustible material in the present world situation dwarfs anything the Bolshevik leader might have had in mind. Everywhere one looks there is instability, turbulence and convulsion: the conflict between Russia and Ukraine; the bloody Civil War in Syria; the conflict between Iran, Israel and Saudi Arabia; the unresolved question of Palestine; and the long-drawn-out and equally unresolved war in Afghanistan.
Into this explosive world scene steps Donald J. Trump. His rise to power has been greeted with dismay by the establishment politicians both in the USA and on a broader international scale. He is widely blamed for plunging the world into an ever-deeper political and economic crisis. Of course, such claims are exaggerated. The crisis through which we are passing is not the creation of Mr Trump, nor any other individual. It is the manifestation of the organic crisis of a system that has reached its historic limits and finds itself in a complete blind alley.
However, Marxism has never denied the role of the individual in history. Although Trump did not create the crisis, by his actions he has undoubtedly deepened it, imparting to it an even more feverish, unstable and unpredictable character. He has disrupted the global order and torn up agreements that were painfully pieced together by the bourgeois internationally in order to preserve some semblance of normality.
Ian Bremmer, the president of the Eurasia Group, says:
“Domestically, the President has not had a huge impact on policy. Everything has been resisted by the ‘swamp’: the bureaucracy, and Congress. Internationally, the world was already moving away from the US-led order when Trump took office. But he is pushing a rock that was already rolling down the hill much faster.”
Naturally, Mr Trump does not see things that way. In recent speeches he boasted of the success of his international policy:
“We are not going to apologize for America—we are going to stand up for America. No more apologies. They are respecting us again. Yes, America is back.”
When he speaks of America, Donald J Trump is really speaking about himself. Just as he must always be the winner: the biggest, the richest, the most powerful and the best, so must the country he leads. Not long ago he told cadets at the Annapolis stadium, “Winning is such a great feeling, isn’t it? Nothing like winning. You got to win.” Anybody and anything that stands in his way must be ruthlessly crushed in the same way that he crushed his competitors in business.
But for America to win, others will have to lose. He did not actually use these words, but they are the essential subtext of everything he says and does. Trump has no interest in working with allies, whom he sees as constraints on his freedom of action. By his single-minded pursuit of the ‘America first’ policy, Trump has undermined relations with long-standing allies. Internationally, the US now finds itself more isolated than at any time for the last half-century.
The meaning of Donald Trump
Trump’s ‘America First’ ideology has many similarities with that of isolationist presidents of the past. But they at least tried to conceal the real nature of their policy by covering its nakedness with the respectable veil of democracy. Donald J. Trump has no interest in veils, respectability nor democracy. He does not attempt to conceal his admiration for authoritarian 'strongmen' like Abdel Fattah El-Sisi, or even Vladimir Putin. Secretly, he envies their freedom of action and wonders why the restraints of bourgeois democracy continuously tie his hands behind his back.
Donald Trump openly displays the aggressive nature of US imperialism. He shamelessly bullies and intimidates other countries, including the traditional allies of the USA. He boasts about the infinite power of American imperialism and does not hesitate to humiliate even its best friends. He says openly what others previously whispered in the dark corners of the Oval Office, the State Department and the Pentagon. That is his principal sin, and something for which the Washington establishment cannot forgive him.
However, there is more than a little hypocrisy in the criticism of Trump by his bourgeois opponents. Is the policy pursued by Trump so very different from the policy pursued in the past by Truman, Eisenhower, Kennedy, Nixon, Reagan or Bush? For that matter, is it qualitatively different from the policy pursued by Barack Obama? Let us recall the criminal activities of American imperialism in Vietnam, Guatemala, Chile, Nicaragua, Indonesia, Cuba and Iraq, and we will immediately see that violence, deceit and brutality have always been the hallmark of America’s imperialist policy.
The difference is that Donald Trump’s policy is more open, blatant (one might even say honest) than that of his hypocritical predecessors who proceeded, in much the same way as Gloucester in Shakespeare’s play Henry VI:
“Why, I can smile, and murder whiles I smile,
“And cry ‘Content’ to that which grieves my heart,
“And wet my cheeks with artificial tears,
“And frame my face to all occasions.” (Henry VI, Part III, scene 3)
This is not the place to enter into profound psychological analysis – a field in which the present author is not an expert. But it is hard to resist the conclusion that in his obsessive drive for power there is an element of an unbalanced psyche. The similarity between Donald Trump the politician and Donald Trump the property speculator has been the subject of widespread speculation. The dog-eat-dog philosophy of Trump the politician is a direct consequence of the laws of capitalist market economics. Donald Trump, in his personality, psychology and instincts perfectly reflects the real nature of the class he represents in his own inimitable way.
The market economy is a jungle in which ravenous beasts prey upon one another. It is a question of survival of the fittest. There is no room for morality or sentimentality. It is merely a question of kill or be killed. To show any mercy to one’s competitors is to show weakness. And weakness in the jungle is a sure way to end up dead.
If this is madness, it is a madness that comes directly from an insane socio-economic system. The smiling mask of democracy has slipped to reveal the real, ugly face of American capitalism and its first-born offspring, imperialism. This is the school in which Donald J Trump was raised from his earliest years and it has profoundly shaped his attitude to life, politics and the world in general. The insatiable thirst for success that drove him forward in the field of the market was carried on to an all-consuming ambition for political power.
The basic principles of the market are buried deep in his subconsciousness, and they shape his every thought and action. Coarse, ignorant, narrow-minded, greedy, selfish and totally indifferent to the consequences of his actions on the lives of others: he is the absolute embodiment of the spirit of capitalism. Donald Trump is the summing up of the system, its intrinsic amorality, brutality and violence. He is its absolute and purest expression.
As a man with no particular principles or ideology, Trump has a limited sense of history and a poor grasp of world affairs. His approach to the world is based on exclusive presidential control. This extreme monomaniac distrusts the foreign-policy establishment at the State Department, the National Security Council and in the intelligence community. That is something he has in common with Richard Nixon, a similar type of individual. He has rejected them because they “treated him as a nobody” before he was elected and have persecuted and witch-hunted him ever since.
This is something his outsized ego could never bear. Therefore, ignoring the ‘experts’, he believes he can control the world from the heights of Trump Tower. At a speech to an adoring audience of his supporters, the President recently gave vent to his feelings of frustration at this unjust and unfair rejection. In a campaign rally in Minnesota he bragged about his money and intelligence, asking why he is not considered among the ‘elite’ despite his property portfolio:
“They always call the other side ‘the elite’. Why are they elite? I have a much better apartment than they do,” the US president said. “I’m smarter than they are. I’m richer than they are. I became president and they didn’t. And I’m representing the greatest, smartest, most loyal, best people [sic] on Earth – the deplorables, remember that?”
This is the voice of an embittered parvenu who has been turned away at the door of an exclusive club he seeks to enter. His hatred of the ‘Washington establishment’ is largely motivated by feelings of envy and resentment. He represents exactly the same class interests, only, in his opinion, he represents them far more effectively than the effete, weak liberals of the Democratic Party or the establishment Republicans. Yet his unique genius does not find the recognition it deserves. Having been elected President of the most powerful country on earth, he cannot understand why he is still turned away at the door of the club.
The Iran deal
No issue better illustrates the nature of Trump’s worldview than his demolition of the 2015 Iran deal. For two years of intense diplomatic activity, Europe and the United States, together with China and Russia, argued and haggled and in the end succeeded in getting significant concessions from Tehran, which subsequently carried out the terms of the agreement scrupulously. If anyone could be said to have violated it, that was not the Iranians but the Americans – and that was the case even under Obama.
This had been hailed as the most significant non-proliferation treaty in more than a quarter-century. For President Obama, the deal that saw sanctions against Iran lifted in exchange for guarantees it would not pursue nuclear weapons was a “historic understanding”. But for Donald Trump, it was “the worst deal I think I’ve ever seen negotiated”. He had said dismantling it would be his “number one priority” but had not specified what he wanted to do.
In the film The Godfather Marlon Brando uttered the celebrated words: “I’m gonna make him an offer he can’t refuse”. President Trump made Iran an offer he knew they could not accept. Not only did he falsely accuse Tehran of non-compliance with the nuclear deal but also demanded that it curb its actions in the Middle East, specifically in the Syrian conflict. These questions had been deliberately excluded from the original deal precisely because they would have made it impossible.
Donald Trump has firmly come down on the side of Saudi Arabia and Israel – the two most reactionary regimes in the Middle East – in their conflict with Iran. By doing so, he is pouring petrol on the flames of the entire region. The European leaders who painfully negotiated the deal with Iran look on in horror.
Shortly before rejecting the deal, the president issued a blunt warning. Iran “will pay a price like few countries have ever paid”. Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei responded bluntly: “If they tear it up, we will burn it.” The two countries are now in a state of open conflict, the consequences of which are hard to foresee. But whatever the outcome, it certainly will not be a peaceful one.
The Middle East
Trump also has some very definite ideas about how to establish peace in the Middle East. He has moved the U.S. embassy to Jerusalem – which is the equivalent of waving a red rag before a bull as far as the Palestinians are concerned. International diplomats saw such a step as the final, rather than the first, step of a Middle East peace.
From the standpoint of normal diplomacy such a move could have been a useful bargaining counter to extract concessions from the Israelis. At the very least, they should have been told to halt their provocative policy of expanding Jewish settlements on Palestinian land. But Donald J Trump, the expert dealmaker, did not ask for any concessions from Benjamin Netanyahu, and he who does not ask does not get. Consequently, the Israelis feel more confident than ever to continue with their provocations, thus further inflaming Palestinian resentment and creating the ideal conditions for a conflagration in the region.
President Obama was elected to end America’s wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and was extremely reluctant to get involved in another conflict in the Middle East. For that reason, he rejected military action in Syria, at least openly and directly. In order to cover its backside, the Obama administration confined itself to funding and arming the “moderate Syrian rebels” and diplomatic manoeuvres aimed at securing President Assad’s departure.
Donald Trump was also previously opposed to US military action in Syria, calling for greater focus on domestic policies. In 2013 he tweeted: “Forget Syria and make America great again!” Despite this, in April of this year he ordered US missile strikes on a Syrian government airbase, using as an excuse an alleged chemical attack blamed on the Syrian government. “That attack on children had a big impact on me”, he said.
This missile strike was the first time the US had directly targeted the Syrian regime since the conflict began. It was a breathtaking policy shift for a previously isolationist leader. A few days later the Trump administration flexed its military muscles once again, this time hitting Islamic State militants in Afghanistan with a weapon known as the ‘mother of all bombs’, or MOAB, that had never been used by the US in combat before.
With greater US defence spending on the cards, the US appears – at least for now – to be taking a more aggressive role in foreign conflicts. Trump has so far committed an additional 6,162 troops to Afghanistan, Iraq and Syria. How does this fit in with Donald Trump’s well-known isolationist agenda? The answer is very simple. It does not. And Trump is clearly seeking a way to solve this unfortunate contradiction. The key to this is in his strangely contradictory attitude to Russia, which is our next port of call.
Trump, NATO and Russia
The aggressive imperialist alliance that misleadingly describes itself as the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) has been a cornerstone of American foreign policy for more than 60 years. Its principal raison d’être was to counter the alleged threat from the Soviet Union. Shortly before the collapse of the USSR, US President Ronald Reagan arrived at an agreement with Mikhail Gorbachev that Moscow should wind up the Warsaw Pact, following which the West would abolish NATO.
The Warsaw Pact was abolished. NATO was not. However, the West gave repeated assurances to the Russians that NATO would not attempt to spread to the east, taking in former members of the Warsaw Pact such as Poland and the Baltic states. NATO did just that. It then went on to attempt to circle Russia with a band of former Soviet republics that were moving closer to the USA and NATO. This is what led to a military clash between Russia and Georgia, and subsequently to the conflict over Ukraine.
In all these cases the conduct of Russia was essentially defensive, and the aggressor was NATO and American imperialism. Nevertheless, the Western media stood the truth upon its head, launching a noisy campaign against ‘Russian aggression’.
As a convinced isolationist, motivated by a deep psychological distrust of all supranational organisations, Trump is highly suspicious of NATO, which in the election campaign he attacked as “obsolete”, accusing its members of being ungrateful allies who benefit from the US’s lavish generosity. Defence Secretary James Mattis warned that Washington would “moderate its commitment” if members did not meet his boss’s demand that they raise their defence spending to 2 percent of their GDP.
Mr. Trump claimed his tough talk was causing the “money to pour in”, although analysts point out that countries were already increasing their contributions under a 2014 agreement. But to demand further economic sacrifices from his European allies at a time when they are struggling to deal with the huge deficits created by the banking crisis of 2008 was to rub salt in an open wound.
In April during a joint press conference, NATO chief Jens Stoltenberg grovelled before the US president, thanking him for his attention to the issue. “We are all seeing the effects of your strong focus on burden sharing in the alliance,” he told him. He resembled a man who, having just had his face spat on, meekly wipes it off and says: “thank you very much.”
Mr Stoltenberg is well-known for his outspoken rhetoric directed against Vladimir Putin and the Kremlin, although his tough words have to date never been backed up by tough military action. And his embarrassingly servile address to his Big Boss from across the Atlantic leads one to suspect that his conduct on the battlefield will not be quite as valiant as his speeches would have us believe.
Meanwhile, Mr Trump has had a change of heart. He now says that NATO is “no longer obsolete”. Why? Trump is well-known to be unpredictable, but this about-turn seems difficult to fathom. He said the threat of terrorism had underlined the alliance’s importance. But that same threat has existed for a long time, and therefore cannot be the reason for this amazing U-turn.
Far more to the point was when the President called on NATO members to do more to help Iraqi and Afghan “partners”. At this point, the fog begins to clear somewhat. It is no secret that Trump wishes to withdraw American troops from Iraq, Afghanistan and also Syria. But the expensive and bloody conflicts in those countries are proving to be annoyingly persistent.
How to solve the problem? Very easily. In the same way that NATO members must be forced to pay more cash, so they must be somehow persuaded to send their young men and women to die in the deserts of the Middle East and Central Asia, thus relieving the young men and women of the United States from a similar painful obligation. For this reason alone, it has become clear, even to the somewhat confused brain of Donald J Trump, that NATO may not be so bad after all.
But at the same time as he gives a sly wink in the direction of NATO, Trump once again surprised the world by announcing its intention to hold a summit with Russian President Vladimir Putin. During the US election campaign, Mr Trump praised Putin as a strong leader, with whom he would love to have a good relationship. That was before US intelligence agencies began their witch-hunt against Trump, accusing Russia of interfering in the US election campaign.
The allegation of Russian involvement in the election campaign may or may not be true. But many countries, and not least the USA, are constantly hacking, phone tapping and meddling in the internal affairs of other nations – including their ‘allies’, as Angela Merkel found out, to her extreme annoyance. But to argue that the Kremlin determined the votes of millions of US citizens is childish in the extreme.
What is unprecedented is that an American President should find himself in an open public confrontation with the CIA and the whole of the American intelligence agencies. The secret services are precisely supposed to be secret, and they are at the heart of the bourgeois state. For those agencies to be clashing publicly with the President, openly trying to undermine him and drive him from office – such a thing is absolutely unheard of.
To counter the repeated accusations about his administration’s alleged ties with Russia, Trump was compelled to change course. He now said he wanted to start by trusting President Putin but warned “it might not last long at all”. And it seems it didn’t. Trump went on to say the US “may be at an all-time low in terms with our relationship with Russia”. He said it would be a “fantastic thing” if the nations improved ties but warned “it might be just the opposite”.
It is quite typical of this man to do “just the opposite” of what everyone expected. At the height of the hullabaloo about the alleged poisoning of an ex-Russian agent in Salisbury, Trump was compelled (although with evident reluctance) to play along with the noisy anti-Russian chorus orchestrated by the CIA in conjunction with its cronies in Britain’s MI5. To all appearances it seemed that his plan for a deal with Putin was finally doomed. But appearances are often deceptive, and in the case of Donald J. Trump, usually so.
Precisely at that time I wrote an article in which I expressed serious doubts about the veracity of the accusations of Russian involvement in the Salisbury affair. I expressed my firm conviction that in the near future Donald Trump would do a U-turn and meet with Putin. It seems I was proven right by subsequent events. I wrote that Boris Johnson and the other anti-Russian crowd would have to eat their words, and I wished them bon appetit. I say the same thing today.
The idea of a deal with Russia actually makes perfect sense from the standpoint of the interests of American imperialism. In this case, Donald Trump’s instincts correspond to those interests far more than the hysterical chorus of anti-Russian propaganda that emanates from the CIA and MI5. Trump’s basic instincts are isolationist. That is why he wants to pull American troops out of Syria. But in order to do this he needs agreement with the Russians. This is a powerful factor in his decision to meet with Putin.
It goes without saying that the foreign policy of both Donald Trump and Vladimir Putin reflects the interests of the ruling class in Russia and America. Nothing progressive can be expected of either of them. However, the noisy anti-Russian campaign that has been organised by the most reactionary Cold War warriors in the USA and Britain also has not a shred of progressive content in it.
The working class must oppose Donald Trump but must do so from its own independent class standpoint. Under no circumstances should the American left be fooled into joining forces with the Democrats behind whose opposition to Trump lies cynical self-interest and ultimately a defence of capitalism and imperialism.
In the last analysis, they defend exactly the same class interests. Their main objection to Donald Trump is that he, and not they, are carrying out that reactionary policy. Their real objective is to serve the capitalists and imperialists more efficiently than the present occupant of the White House. That is not an objective that the working class can have any sympathy with.
Conflict with Europe
Bruno Maçães wrote about the Trump doctrine in his book The American Interest:
“The secret of Trump’s approach to Europe is this: he will not allow the United States to be dragged down with Europe, even if that means bringing about a new schism in the transatlantic alliance.”
Since the 1950s, the integration of Europe has been a central plank of U.S. foreign-policy. But Donald Trump does not believe in a united Europe, just as he does not believe in NAFTA and the WTO. He has done everything in his power to exacerbate the differences between European powers, attempting to play one off against the other. He has helpfully suggested that other nations may want to follow suit after Britain’s decision to leave the European Union. His pet hate is Germany and Angela Merkel, partly motivated by Germany’s trade surplus with the USA, but probably mainly because he resents the German Chancellor’s leading role in Europe.
In his decision to cancel the deal with Iran, he pointedly ignored the urgent pleas of his closest allies in Europe. In vain, leading politicians from across the Atlantic queued up to plead with him not to take this step. President Macron did his best to create the impression of a valued friend and adviser to the White House. Britain’s Boris Johnson behaved like a pet poodle fawning on its master, even holding out the prospect of a Nobel Prize if only Mr. Trump would make this concession. It was all to no avail. In diplomatic terms the President of the United States urinated upon them from a great height.
Trump is not a strategist, nor even a good tactician. He relies upon a combination of bluster, threats and bullying to get his way. He begins by making exorbitant demands and hopes that he can push them through simply by pointing to America’s colossal economic and military power. Sometimes he succeeds. However, this is a policy of diminishing returns. The more he uses it, the less effect it has. Instead of being intimidated, other countries become increasingly resentful and will begin to retaliate.
A fatal weakness in his tactic is that he systematically exaggerates the ability of the USA to impose its will, regardless of circumstances, while equally systematically underestimating the ability of others to resist. The Trump administration’s ‘all-or-nothing’ foreign policy is ultimately doomed to fail because it does not take into consideration the real balance of forces on a world scale.
Sooner or later it will lead to a series of defeats and setbacks for the USA. Far from increasing its international power, prestige and influence, it will serve to expose the limitations of the power of US imperialism. Other powers, especially Russia and China, will gain at its expense.
Trump and Asia
Already, during his electoral campaign, Donald Trump shocked China with comments on Taiwan before his inauguration. His first Secretary of State Rex Tillerson spoke of blocking China's access to artificial islands it has been building in the South China Sea, prompting warnings of a “military clash” from a state-run newspaper.
President Obama’s policy on North Korea was to put the squeeze on with sanctions, persuade others to do the same, particularly China, and wait for results. This was called “strategic patience”. But Donald Trump has no strategy and very little patience.
The administration said “all options are on the table” and Mr. Trump's announcement that he was sending an “armada” of US warships towards the Korean peninsula raised the spectre of military action. The move was met with defiance from North Korea's regime, which warned of “all-out war”.
Instead of all-out war there was all-out confusion when 10 days later it emerged that the US Navy strike group, which Mr. Trump said had been deployed towards the Korean peninsula, instead travelled in the opposition direction. While the White House clarified the whereabouts of the ships and insisted they were on their way, Mr. Trump was already mentally on his way to meet up with Kim Jong-un.
“A really fantastic meeting”
“We had a really fantastic meeting. A lot of progress. Really, very positive, I think better than anybody could have expected, top of the line, really good.”
With these triumphant words Donald Trump celebrated his first meeting with Kim Jong-un in Singapore on 12 June. Alas, as is the norm with Mr. Trump, words seldom have a very close relationship with reality.
The word fantastic here is appropriate only if it is taken in its most literal sense. It requires an effort of the imagination to remind oneself that this time last year the American president was denouncing his North Korean counterpart as “Little rocket man” and threatening to wipe his country off the face of the map. Simultaneously Kim Jong-un described Donald Trump as a “deranged US dotard” whom he promised to “tame … with fire”.
Speaking from the Roosevelt Room at the White House, the president warned of dire consequences:
“I’ve spoken to General Mattis and the Joint Chiefs of Staff, and our military—which is by far the most powerful anywhere in the world, and has been greatly enhanced recently, as you all know—is ready if necessary.”
He issued the warning two hours after cancelling his meeting with Kim Jong-un.
Then, as if by magic, all sweetness and light. At the end of their meeting, which took place in an atmosphere of friendship and conviviality, the deranged dotard and little rocket man signed a declaration resolving “to build a lasting and stable peace regime on the Korean Peninsula”. Mr. Trump declared that he would provide security guarantees to North Korea; in return Mr. Kim gave his firm and unwavering commitment to complete denuclearisation of the Korean peninsula – no less.
This meeting may not have been quite the historic breakthrough that the American president claimed. On further inspection, it becomes embarrassingly clear that little or nothing of substance was decided by it. Possibly because of this, the two leaders said they would hold further meetings at various levels “at the earliest possible date” to put some flesh on the bare bones of the declaration.
If the summit was not exactly a diplomatic success, it can safely be declared an outstanding PR victory. The only question is: a victory for whom? Mr. Kim will have returned to Pyongyang with a justified sense of satisfaction. He has achieved something his father and grandfather wanted but never achieved: a face-to-face meeting with an American president.
We should remind ourselves that North Korea is not China or Russia. It is a tiny, impoverished Asian country. Yet it is now implicitly being recognised as an equal by the most powerful country on earth. In the space of a few months Kim has managed to transform himself from the world’s most feared and detested pariah into a great statesman and a man of peace.
And this miraculous transformation was achieved thanks to one man: Donald J. Trump. Having shaken hands with Kim Jong-un – the man he had earlier threatened to blow up together with his entire nation – Mr. Trump said it was an “honour” to be sitting down with the North Korean leader. That was a propaganda coup of the first order of importance.
At a press conference after the signing ceremony, Mr. Trump went even further. The USA, he announced, would halt all joint military exercises with South Korea while talks were continuing. He said it might save America some money, since flying bombers to South Korea from the American airbase on Guam was “very expensive”. He even mused that one day he would like to bring American troops home from the peninsula.
Japan and South Korea have both been accused by Mr. Trump of relying too much on the US. He has even said they would benefit from having their own nuclear arsenals, which would open up the prospect of a ruinous and potentially dangerous arms race in Asia.
In the cynical game of great power diplomacy, it is a golden rule that one never gives away something for nothing. Here, however, it seems quite clear that all the concessions were made by one side, namely Donald Trump. These were huge, almost unbelievable concessions to North Korea. What did Mr. Trump get in exchange? The other side gave nothing whatsoever except fine words, which as we know, butter no parsnips.
Trump and world trade
Trump has been waging a long campaign to reduce the US trade deficit, making China an obvious target. In 2017 the US had a trade deficit of more than $811bn – an increase of $59bn on 2016. China accounts for $376bn of that. Trade tension between the US and China has escalated rapidly. A mere eleven hours after the US listed 1,333 Chinese products to be hit with punitive tariffs, Beijing said it would impose similar 25 percent penalties on 106 American-made products. Beyond the tariffs on steel and aluminium Mr. Trump is due to start collecting import taxes on $34bn in trade from China.
China responded by slapping 25 percent tariffs on 106 American products, including soya beans and other agricultural products, chemicals and selected aircraft. The latter were worth about $50bn in 2017, strategically the same value of Chinese imports affected by the US tariffs. Tariffs on soya beans will be a big concern for US producers.
China is by far the largest export market for American soya bean farmers, eight-times larger than Mexico, the second biggest buyer. Of a total of $22bn in US soya bean exports last year, about 56 percent went to China. US soya bean exports to China are worth the same as the next 10 export products on the tariff list combined.
Donald Trump has threatened to scrap a number of existing free trade agreements, including the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) between the US, Canada and Mexico, which he blames for job losses. He has even suggested withdrawing the US from the World Trade Organization, WTO). The thrust behind his trade policy is to create jobs in the US, close the trade deficit, and get “good deals” for Americans. These moves could provoke a trade war.
Trump has demanded the renegotiation of the North American Free Trade Agreement brokered with Canada and Mexico three decades ago. The future of NAFTA is now in doubt. He has abandoned the young Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP), which had represented some 40 percent of global trade. Even more serious from the standpoint of world capitalism, he has imposed new global tariffs that threaten to unravel the delicate fabric of globalisation.
The Group of Seven (G7) summit in Quebec, in an atmosphere of tense suspicion and recrimination, agreed with great difficulty on a final communiqué. Mr. Trump said he was pleased, even calling the summit wonderful and rating his relationships with other leaders as 10 out of 10. Yet barely ten minutes after the official communiqué was published, he changed his mind.
In a tweet from somewhere over the Atlantic, en route to his “mission of peace” with Kim Jong Un, he said that he had instructed his officials not to endorse the communiqué, accusing Canada’s prime minister Justin Trudeau of making “false statements” (i.e. lying) in his closing news conference, and renewed his threat to impose tariffs on automobiles that were “flooding the U.S. Market!” Trump has an unshakable belief that the rest of the world is unfair to America. “The jig is up,” he said.
In the name of America’s national security Trump has announced tariffs on steel and aluminium from Canada, Mexico and the EU. Canada has hit back, announcing retaliatory duties on American goods worth up to $16.6bn Can ($12.8bn USD). Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said the US tariffs were “totally unacceptable”.
“These tariffs are an affront to the long-standing security partnership between Canada and the United States, and in particular, an affront to the thousands of Canadians who have fought and died alongside their American brothers in arms”, he said, noting the US national security justification for its measures.
Talks on a new NAFTA deal are hanging in the air. If Canada and Mexico retaliate to the tariffs by taking protective measures, Mr. Trump may pull out of the trading bloc. Mexico said it would hit back with levies on US imports such as pork bellies, apples, grapes, cheeses and flat steel. Canada's foreign minister Chrystia Freeland said before the US announcement:
“The government is absolutely prepared to and will defend Canadian industries and Canadian jobs. We will respond appropriately.”
Trump rages in public and private against trade imbalances, particularly with Germany, with its big car sales in the USA: “You look at the European Union – they put up barriers so that we can't sell our Ford products in, and yet they sell Mercedes and BMW, and the cars come in by the millions, and we hardly tax them at all. They don’t take our cars. And, if they do, the tax is massive,” he said during a campaign rally in Duluth.
“So, they’re basically saying, ‘We are going to sell you millions of cars. By the way, you’re not going to sell us any.’ Not going to work that way anymore, folks. Not going to work that way.”
In order to provide some legal underpinning for new tariffs on cars, Trump instructed his Commerce Department to begin a “national security investigation”. The argument that BMW cars represent a threat to the national security of the USA somehow does not sound convincing in Berlin or Brussels. However, the President’s protectionist tariffs undoubtedly present a threat to the national economy of Germany. And just as military threats are met by military measures, so protectionist measures by one country are inevitably counted by protectionist measures by others.
Gareth Stace of UK Steel said Donald Trump's move has “started a damaging trade war”. He added:
“It is difficult to see what good can come of these tariffs. US steel consumers are already reporting price increases and supply chain disruption and with some half-billion-dollars of steel exported from the UK to US last year, UK steel producers are going to be hit hard.
“As stated time and time again, the only sustainable solution to the root cause of the issue, global overcapacity in steel production, is multilateral discussions and action through established international channels.”
The steel and aluminium tariffs have exacerbated tensions with the European Union that already existed over the unilateral withdrawal of the US from the Paris Accord on climate change and the tearing up of the Iran deal. The EU has already imposed retaliatory tariffs on American exports (which it calls “re-balancing”) worth more than $3bn, targeting iconic American products such as motorcycles, orange juice, bourbon, peanut butter and jeans.
In response Trump escalated his threat to apply new tariffs on European cars. “Based on the Tariffs and Trade Barriers long placed on the U.S. and its great companies and workers by the European Union, if these Tariffs and Barriers are not soon broken down and removed, we will be placing a 20% tariff on all of their cars coming into the U.S.” he wrote on Twitter. The tweet provoked falls in the share price of European carmakers, including BMW and Volkswagen.
It must be remembered that it was protectionism that turned the crash of 1929 into the great Depression of the 1930s. If protectionism takes hold, it can cause the whole fragile structure of world trade to come crashing down, with the most serious consequences.
“A different and more dangerous world”
For all these reasons, Trump’s foreign policy is adding a new and destabilising element into the general crisis of world capitalism. The serious strategists of capital observe this unedifying spectacle with growing alarm. In its 7 June edition, The Economist published an article with an astonishing title: “Present at the destruction: Donald Trump is undermining the rules-based international order”. It commences with the portentous words: “There may be short-term wins for America but there will be long-term damage to the world.”
Robert Kagan, a conservative Washington commentator writes:
“The 1930s will not happen again in the same way — we are not at that point yet. But people forget that the post-Second World War order has been an aberration. It relied on America to keep it together. Under Trump, we are returning to a world of multipolar competition. That is a very different and more dangerous world to the one we grew up in.”
On May 25 The New Yorker carried an article with the title: “Trump’s imploding world order.” It spoke of Trump’s “all-or-nothing diplomacy that intrinsically increases the dangers of conflict”. And it concludes gloomily:
“In the fifteen months of Trump’s Presidency, the United State has witnessed a stunning undoing of long-standing norms—of the US-led world order, core alliances, trade pacts, principles of non-proliferation, patterns of globalization, world institutions, and, most of all, U.S. influence.”
The New Yorker article points out:
“When it comes to allies on any continent, Trump wants to be more than first among equals, which is the traditional U.S. role. He employs one-upmanship and humiliation to claim position. In his meeting with President Emmanuel Macron, Trump made an embarrassing point of brushing dandruff off the French leader’s suit while television cameras were rolling. ‘And that’s the one world leader who was trying the hardest to understand him’, Brinkley said. Leaders now fear his personal and policy narcissism, he added.”
A year after Trump took office, a Gallup poll conducted in a 134 countries found that approval of American leadership had nose-dived, from 48 percent to 30 percent. “This historic low puts the US’s leadership approval rating on par with China’s and sets a new bar for disapproval,” Gallup concluded.
In reality this already began with the announcement of the notorious ‘New World Order’ following the collapse of the Soviet Union. A decisive turning point came in 2003, with the US invasion of Iraq. But this aggressive foreign policy has accelerated with the most astonishing speed since Trump took office. And it has very far-reaching implications for the whole world.
In the period after the Second World War, world capitalism experienced a strong period of growth. This was the objective basis for the relative stability of relations between the classes, and also between the national states in the post-war period. It was this long period of economic upswing – together with the division of the world between US imperialism and the USSR – which gave rise to this relative stability in world relations.
This so-called peace and stability, for a period of 50 years after the Second World War, was based on the balance of terror between mighty Stalinist Russia on the one hand and American imperialism on the other. The struggle between two mutually contradictory social systems in the so-called ‘Cold War’ divided the whole world up into what seemed to be immutable blocs and spheres of influence.
But now everything has changed. After the collapse of the Soviet Union there was only one superpower in the world – the United States of America. With colossal power came colossal arrogance. The Bush doctrine was expressed in the invasion of Iraq. Even before that, American imperialism showed its aggressive character by its intervention in the former Yugoslavia. These actions destroyed the previous international order and ushered in a new period characterised by extreme instability, turbulence and disorder.
The problem is that, on a capitalist basis, there is no alternative to replace the institutions, ideas, accords, and relationships that Trump is engaged in wrecking. “The world you are entering is one filled by a large number of uncertainties and threats,” Richard Haass, the president of the Council on Foreign Relations, said at Colgate University recently. “The quality and quantity of the challenges facing the United States and the world are unprecedented, in my experience,” he added.
The old certainties are vanishing fast and are being replaced by a general instability at every level: economic, financial, monetary, political, social, military and diplomatic. As one American commentator put it, the United States has “only seen Trump’s Act I. We don’t know what else is to follow.”