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Some Initial Thoughts on the Likely Trajectory of a Trump Presidency: 4

February 3, 2017 15 comments

In the previous part of this series, I focused on problems which will almost certainly arise from one of Trump’s recent executive orders- namely the one about “temporarily” banning entry into USA of people from certain predominantly Muslim countries. In that post and a subsequent standalone post, I made the point that his Muslim ban was problematic for reasons that have little to do with it targeting Muslims. Firstly, it simply reinforces the widespread perception (in USA and rest of the world) that Trump makes decisions without regard to considerations of legality, feasibility, prior official positions or the risks inherent in such abrupt changes in direction.

Secondly, and perhaps far more importantly, the rest of the world (including friendly countries) see this ban as yet another confirmation of their view that trusting Trump or the USA to follow through on any agreement made in the past or even in the future is a bad idea. The second type of problems are more important that the first, since it is relatively easy to gloss over localized problems arising from personality quirks of a head of state than it is to overlook an increase in systemic risk due to a pattern of unpredictable behavior. In other words, the rest of the world would not care much if Trump’s break from the past was localized to one or two areas.

As I briefly mentioned in the previous post of this series, Trump is trying to implement large shifts from past positions on issues in a large number of areas- from immigration and international trade to reproductive right issues and dramatically ramping up the police state in USA. Moreover, his attempts to shift positions have been characterized by an unwillingness to understand the factors which made them the default in the first place. For example- increases in immigration (legal and otherwise) are largely due to the insatiable thirst of corporations for ever-increasing margins of profit. The same is true for constant increases in international trade including “free” trade.

And that brings us to the inevitable and massive international repercussions inherent in Trump’s desire to effect large shifts in major policies on a number of issues..

The relationships between nation states, unlike those between entities within a nation-state, are almost totally dependent on their mutual perceptions. These perceptions in turn are largely based on experiences of prior interactions. Furthermore, a lot of these perceptions are contingent to the parties not making any sudden deviations from their prior positions. For example- it is widely understood that China is unlikely to invade Taiwan in the near future (say.. the next 5 years) in spite of its long-term official position on that issue. Similarly, it is understood that India is going to keep on building more nuclear weapons, ICBMs and nuclear submarines in spite of what its leaders say or any residual international pressure.

Relationships between any two nation states can survive a lot of friction as long as both parties do not make any unexpected and sudden moves. The USA was, for many decades, widely seen as a nation-state with predictable behavior and policies- even if they were unsavory. Foreign and trade policies of USA, as bad as they might have been, remained reasonably consistent and stable irrespective of who was the president or which party was in power. Furthermore, changes in these policies were gradual and constant (predictable) rather than large and abrupt (unpredictable). It is this relative stability and consistency which allowed the USA to successfully create and sustain international organisations and treaties.

Trump’s desire to effect large shifts in multiple areas of national and international policy upsets the relative stability and consistency which have characterized the previous few decades. They also negate many established perceptions about the USA which are essential to relatively smooth and predictable interactions between that country and the rest of the world. For example- the continued functionality of many international organisations such as NATO, IMF etc are intimately tied to USA not deviating too much from past positions. The same is true about all those existing international trade agreements which the USA is a party to.

Think about it this way- would you enter into a business partnership where you could lose money or more with somebody whose behavior was highly unpredictable? Also, would you maintain or expand a business relationship with somebody who exhibited sudden and large changes in their behavior? Well.. the same holds true for relationships between nation states. The point is that Trump’s desire for large shifts to many policies makes it very hard for the USA to sustain, let alone improve, its existing relationships with various other nations. Now, this would not have been that big a deal if we were still living in the 1850s, 1910s or even 1950s- when you could get by without much of a two-way interaction with the rest of the world.

But we no longer live in those eras. Today, manufacturing and supply chains of everything from your toothbrush and clothes to CPUs and airliners span the entire globe. While it is certainly possible to argue about the desirability of this particular setup, we cannot deny that it exists. Nor can we pretend that waving a magic wand will somehow change the system the next month, year or decade. Also, it is not realistically possible to reproduce a previous era since each era is largely the product of conditions and circumstances unique to that era.

In other words, Trump’s desire to effect major policy shifts in multiple areas will almost certainly damage a whole slew of international relationships without most people in USA benefiting from them. It is sorta like wrecking the house you live in without having a feasible plan to quickly move into a new house. In my opinion, it is unlikely to end well- to put it mildly.

What do you think? Comments?