President of the mighty United States of America Donald Trump continues to treat a bewildered world with shock and awe. Grim and frightening as many of his moves seem to be, these are also often quite funny and would have been amusing if they were not so cruel in their impact. During a little less than two years that he has been the Chief Executive of the USA, he has taken decisions and adopted measures which shook not only the US but the entire world to their very foundations.
Consequently, he has annoyed and angered many including his allies in Europe and North America. His critics are many but he is not without defenders who find in him a positive force for the creation of 'a great new America in a new world order.' Both his critics and defenders see in him something more than a mere person. They think he could be the manifestation of the dominant trends and tendencies of the present-day world. In effect, he along with some other leaders such as Xi Jinping of China and Vladimir Putin of Russia may manifest the zeitgeist of this age, the spirit of our times.
Do they represent a reaction against the wave of liberal democracy which swept the World during the early nineteen nineties; do they reflect the threatening rise in ultra national and narrow ethnic chauvinism of the extremist type in both developed and developing societies of our times?
Donald Trump may very well belong to the category of hardcore nationalist leaders and many of his actions maybe the result of his avowed position which puts "America first." On the other hand, those who view him in a dim light tend to classify him as something of a "Dennis the Menace," a veritable bull in a China shop out to destroy the existing world order in politics and economics. Such denouncers incline to consider him more of a poltergeist - a ghost which makes noises and causes disruptions.
Before assessing whether and if Trump articulates the zeitgeist or not it may be interesting to take a look at the style of his business in leading a superpower. My friend Ameer Khasru, who lives and works in London since the early 1970s, is himself a seasoned Chartered Accountant and courageous entrepreneur in the hospitality industry.
BALANCE SHEET MAN: Despite his busy business schedule, Ameer Khasru finds time to study and analyse the happenings of our times. Consider what he has to say about Trump as recently as June 20:
"We are faced with a Balance Sheet Man in the USA who is paranoid with the state of US balance sheet in red. He is blaming it on the trade surpluses in favour of practically most countries doing business with the USA. Bearing his wrath are the G6 countries and China. Sadly, he is oblivious of such a thing called debit and credit which we were told for every debit, there is a credit and vice versa.
"The real reason for such a state of US balance sheet is its voracious appetite for consumption. Consumption is one of the key drivers for capitalism and like addictions, it is very difficult to contain.
"Debit and credits tells us that you cannot have debits in excess of credits if you want to avoid paranoia. That means Americans should cut down on consumption to correct the US's balance sheet. It is not funny because like the drug peddlers, exporters to the USA are also determined pushers of their products even if it involves providing credit. It is also not funny if America tightens its belt because it may usher in a worldwide recession - not different from damages that can be unleashed by a nuclear strike.
"Talking about nuclear diplomacy, the Balance Sheet Man has unwittingly handed a winning hand to China in the recent summit (June 2018) in Singapore. North Korean capabilities have been fully developed with Chinese help; maybe they were assembled in North Korea. How else could one explain the remarkable growth of long-range missiles and bombs that can threaten mainland America developed by an "impoverished" and isolated country.
"It is one thing China or Russia to threaten America. It is unnecessary as the whole world knows what that could mean. On the other hand, China used North Korea to warn USA that they could strike with its newly acquired capabilities. China has been working hard for decades for this day. The result, America is willing to roll back its military presence in South Korea in exchange for denuclearised Korea. If gradual progress is made, China will benefit most from relaxed sanctions. If it reaches the final goal, China will just have to take back its nukes from North Korea. But biggest losers will be South Korea and Japan exactly what China wanted. They will obviously be happy to see America militarily roll back to its shores. Economically, unknown to the Balance Sheet Man, reducing balance sheet deficit can also confine America to its shores."
Khasru added on June 30: "The Balance Sheet Man is breaking up the post-WWII order. 'America first' is not America at the top of the queue, rather America is for the Americans. That's the 'mantra' he is spreading among his European allies. Defence of human freedom under democracy is getting replaced by 'America first'. But the freedom to work embracing technology and innovation is propelling China to the top economic position. In most countries where people go to the poll, freedom to work is replaced mostly by talk only, under-utilising human resources. The west, including America, is in this category. In some other, including Bangladesh, legacy is more important than embracing technology and innovation for faster and better growth.
"Now Helsinki, what a name and what a place to hold a summit with an emperor. Place is within the scanner of Moscow.
"There is a rumour in Poland that almost all the key players in the teams fancied for the football World Cup title in Russia, are unable to showcase their brilliance because apparently, their drinks are spiked with 'from Russia with love.'"
Helsinki, remember the name.
Ameer Khasru, like millions all over the world watched the World Cup with keen interest and found its developments echoing the unfurling of a topsy-turvy world order. Thus, while speaking about, Donald Trump President of the USA and President Vladimir Putin of Russia, he wrote to me on July 01: "My dear Shelley, in the wake of the progress of Russia into the quarter-final, please find a way to get my piece in print. China is using North Korea; Russia is using secret tricks. World class players from Germany, Argentina, Brazil, Portugal and now Spain can't find the net. I predict France, England, Russia and Croatia will be in the semi. Best regards, Ameer Khasru."
Hindsight tells us that what Khasru predicted came true in the World Cup of 2018. His analysis of the new unfolding world order or disorder is at once laconic and precise. In his note of June 25 he wrote, "I believe that the Balance Sheet Man is striving hard to change the world order where he wants to be the leader among the three; other two being Putin and Xi. This means the other six in G7 are second division players not worth rubbing shoulder with. Only role for these rich countries to play is to pay their share of protection and play fair with trade. The other influence in his thinking is the fact that both Putin and Xi enjoy unparalleled power not hindered by checks and balances. If he has to lead them, then he needs similar power.
"This thought pattern is taking hold in many more countries in the world - Europe, India, Turkey to name a few. That's my take on what is happening in the world today."
IN DEFENCE OF TRUMP: On the other hand, stout defenders of Trump's tumultuous actions see positive meaning in his steps. Thus John V Walsh of dissident voice org. thinks that Donald Trump is trying to paint today's world with the lasting colour of peace. He writes, "In the short space of five days, June 8-12 President Trump took three steps that upended the old post-World War-II global order and moved us a few steps towards a more peaceful world". He admiringly adds, about the Singapore Summit, the Singapore Summit comes first because it rocked the world. In this bold and unprecedented meeting President Donald Trump and Chairman Kim Jong-un of the Democratic People's Republic of Korea started down a path to detente aiming towards denuclearisation of the Korean peninsula, an intractable problem or so the pundits informed us. But as Melania warned us with a bemused smile sometime back, 'Donald always shakes things up.'"
John V Walsh further enlists Trump's second triumphant, though unconventional, move towards a new reality that might lead to a more peaceful world. He observes, "Let's turn to achievement number two over those five days in June. It came leading up to the G7 meeting in Charlevoix, Quebec. Trump announced beforehand that Russia should be invited back into the G7, a move opposed by all the other members but Italy's new government. The US press went berserk, of course, with many declaring as they do many times that Trump's strings were being pulled by who else but Putin who himself responded to the G7 thus, 'as for Russia's return to the seven, the G8 we have not left it. Our colleagues once refused to come to Russia due to well-known reasons. Please we will be happy to see everyone in Moscow.'"
Like Putin, John V Walsh considers the Shanghai cooperation organisation SCO as more a potent group than the G7. While the G7 has three of the world's largest economies. The SCO 8 has the same number. SCO 8's GDP (gross domestic product) is larger and their population is of course much bigger - half of the world population. Walsh observes, "G7 are nothing more than the ex-colonial and neo-colonial countries whose time may be running out with the rise of the economies of the once colonialised nations of East and South Asia". He opines that Trump's overtures to Russia is a measure to embrace the new reality of the post-cold war world where alliances such as G7 and NATO have become, in Trump's words, 'obsolete'. Nevertheless, in the eyes of Trump's advocates such as John V Walsh these manifest a preference for mercantilism over imperialism.
They think that the Trumpian frame of mind in erecting tariff barriers "is a sign of trading power in its infancy which needs to protect its key enterprises or of one in decline which can no longer prevail by virtue of the quality of what it produces".
In starting the virtual trade war Trump does not differentiate between allies like European Union (EU), Japan and adversaries such as China. In this mindset politico-military dominance or hegemony matter less than commerce. A hardcore businessman as Trump is, he cares more for the material benefits than the intangibles that make such benefits meaningful. Good business within national boundaries or without. This may lead to a temporary and flashy dividend only. In a wider setting, intra-national or international myopic protectionist measures may lead to lasting imbalance and disorder so eloquently underscored by friend Ameer Khasru at the inception of this writing. Trump's policies of behaving like a hard-hitting businessman seem to be working in the immediate context within the USA. The national GDP growth rate has been more than 4.0 per cent in recent quarter. Unemployment has descended to a record low. The stock exchanges are bullish, the economic coast seems to be clear and the US economy, more than 20 trillion strong, seems to have set an easy sail. The trillion dollar question is, however, is it all too good to last long?
WHAT WILL ALL THIS LEAD TO? As in politics so in economics, non-conventional and unprecedented moves may create illusions of promising settlement, peace and harmony. In the real world of slow moving processes sudden thirst "may only shake up things" without creating a new stable order. The signs are exposing the fragility of the US-North Korea detente that looked so promising during mid-July. North Korea, the report said, had already started dismantling its nuclear test sites and Intercontinental Ballistic Missile (ICBM). However in the absence of even token relaxation of the rigorous sanctions against it, North Korea, US Satellite Intelligence reported on July 30, has started reassembling ICBMs.
Future alone can tell whether the hard bargain made by Trump will yield good results or backfire. Trump continues his typical style as poker-player businessman. He shifts his positions whenever the going gets rough: consider the case of nuclear treaty with Iran from which Trump has declared US withdrawal. Since that retreat he has been threatening Iran with dire consequences. When in the style of Kim Jong-un, the Iranian leadership hit back hard, Trump softened his voice. In the end of July he offered "unconditional talks to negotiate a solution!"
What will all this lead to? Will Trump spearhead a new and mighty wave of authoritarianism and dictatorship that would roll back the tide of democracy and liberalism dominating the world from the 1990s to the early years of the 21st century?
China's socialist leadership with its centralised authoritarianism presides over the second largest economy, some US$ 14 trillion strong, and rides the world like a second colossus.
In Russia also democratic deficits permits a virtual personal rule of the competent elected dictator Vladimir Putin.
As friend Ameer Khasru suspects, there may be attempts at engineering a new world order with Trump's USA, Xi Jinping's China and Putin's Russia. In this new arrangement others like G7 and Japan and emerging economies such as India and Brazil will be playing in the second division leagues.
The question is: can authoritarian and dictatorial regimes, however resourceful or mighty, continue to ride roughshod over the deprived oppressed and helpless billions?
The alarming thing is not only personal rule of new monarchs and oligarchs. The danger lies in their utilisation of extreme nationalism verging on racism manifest in the emergence of the ultra-right in many lands. Austria, Germany, Italy, Hungary, Poland are characteristic examples. India under Narendra Modi riding on the crest of militant Hindu revivalism threatens to join such group of states. If this trend continues Trump may reflect the Zeitgeist. If, however, the tide of irrational authoritarianism and national chauvinism is turned back by the sea walls of democracy, human rights, tolerance and liberalism the likes of Trump maybe described at most as the Poltergeist, the ghost that makes ineffectual rumblings and disruption.
Dr. Mizanur Rahman Shelley, founder Chairman of Centre for Development Research, Bangladesh (CDRB) and Editor of quarterly "Asian Affairs," was a former teacher of Political Science in Dhaka University (1964-1967) and former member of the erstwhile Civil Service of Pakistan (CSP) (1967-1980) and former non-partisan technocrat Cabinet Minister of Bangladesh (1990).
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