Will Trump seal the fate of the late, great United States?

05 February 2017 - 02:00 By Sampie Terreblanche and Jan-Jan Joubert
President Donald Trump’s self-seeking approach to policy exacerbates all that is wrong with the way the global system operates, the authors argue.
President Donald Trump’s self-seeking approach to policy exacerbates all that is wrong with the way the global system operates, the authors argue.
Image: GETTY IMAGES

Through his misdirected efforts to make America great again, President Donald Trump may accelerate the demise of US imperialism, argue Sampie Terreblanche and Jan-Jan Joubert

Empires do not last for ever. We know of 17 major empires through the ages. Several of them collapsed in the 20th century.

Sometimes figures emerge who, by their nature and, if in power, their policies, lead to what is called the quickening of history.

Many economists, historians and sociologists have held for a while that the American epoch is nearing its end. It is our contention that, far from making America great again, President Donald Trump and his populist policies will hasten its demise by 10 to 15 years.

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Trump may prove to be one of those rare individuals who can unleash a quickening of history. The question is whether he can manage it, or will reap a whirlwind.

Trump himself realises that the American empire is in peril, hence his call on his supporters to "make America great again".

Indeed, the last time empires were in as perilous a position as US imperialism is now, was roughly between 1914 and 1960, the period between World War 1 and decolonisation, during which the British, French, German, Austro-Hungarian, Ottoman, Quing Dynasty and the Russian empires fell, each in its own way.

Michael Cox of the London School of Economics says the US still has a great deal of power but, as Max Weber and Lord Acton have taught us, power is not the same as authority, and absolute power is always likely to corrupt those who exercise it.

Its position as the world's remaining superpower left the US with something very close to absolute power.

Weirdly, though, through what Chalmers Johnson terms "the crucial American decision to maintain a Cold War posture in a post-Cold War world", the US increasingly finds itself in a position where, as Cox points out, it still has much power but an ever-decreasing reservoir of authority.

Cox's observation is borne out by the massive amounts the US spends on what its former president Dwight Eisenhower warned was a self-perpetuating military industrial complex. That complex has seen the number of US military bases worldwide mushroom to almost 800 in 70 nations.

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Cox describes the economic and financial success of the US as follows: "The international economy as a whole flourished such that between 1947 and 2000 there was a twentyfold increase in the volume of world trade, and a 70% growth in gross world product.

"America has lasted not just because it was feared, but because it performed a series of broader political and economic functions which no other state or combination of states was willing or able to undertake."

In his book Incoherent Empire, Michael Mann holds that the US-led capitalist empire is already in decline because it cannot coherently configure the four sources of societal (or imperial) power — political, military, economic and ideological.

Mann writes: "The American military has a soft underbelly — reluctance to take casualties. Its economic tribute-taking is increasingly fragile; its own democracy is weakening while global democracy is strengthening global resistance against the US; and the US is recoiling from American values which have had universal appeal."

He illustrates his argument thus, echoing Yeats and Shakespeare: "The American empire will turn out to be a military giant, a back-seat economic driver, a political schizophrenic and an ideological phantom. The result is a disturbed, misshapen monster stumbling clumsily around the world.

"In reality, the new American imperialism is becoming a new American militarism. But that is not sufficient for empire. Those who live by the sword ..."

The economist Peter Evans holds that the US-led empire recolonised many erstwhile colonies over the past 30 years, degraded them into becoming debt colonies and made the prescripts of the Washington consensus applicable to them.

However, he warns that the US risks becoming the world's fire engine, perpetually putting out flames, at the risk of actually instigating more fires that may threaten the US itself.

As Evans argues, the current behaviour of the US as an irresponsible and crassly self-seeking hegemonic state drastically exacerbates the negative structural features of the global system.

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Jan Nederveen Pieterse of the University of California, Santa Barbara, notes attacks on the labour and civil rights movements, weakened workplace and environmental regulations, and cutbacks in public services.

Clearly Trump subscribes to this ethos, of which Nobel economics laureate Joseph Stiglitz believes the Enron bankruptcy to be the epitome.

"Enron became emblematic of all that went wrong — corporate greed, accounting scandals, public influence mongering, banking scandals, deregulation and the free market mantra, all wrapped up together. Its overseas activities are an example of the darker side of US globalisation, crony capitalism and the misuse of US corporate power," says Stiglitz.

The economics Trump espouses enables capitalist transnational corporations to gallop like unbridled wild horses all over the world, unconcerned about who they trample under their heavy hooves.

Also, the role of the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank in turning countries into US satellites can hardly be overstated.

As Ugandan academic Mahmood Mamdani points out, once the Cold War left the US as the world's sole superpower, it felt free to renounce treaties it considered no longer in its interests, while openly coercing the assignment of leading personnel to UN agencies.

"Post-9/11 America has scuttled any possibility of an international rule of law and has claimed impunity for American power in the name of spreading democracy internationally," Mamdani notes.

In his book Blowback, Johnson predicts that four major sorrows will be visited upon the US:

A state of perpetual war, characterised by anti-US terrorism and by smaller nations trying to also attain weapons of mass destruction to insulate themselves against imperial overreach;

A loss of democracy and constitutional rights in the US as the presidency eclipses Congress;

Truthfulness, threatened as it has been, is replaced by propaganda, disinformation and glorification of power; and

Bankruptcy, as the military swallows more and more resources, leaving less for education and healthcare.

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To some extent, Antonio Gramsci's observation that "the old is dying and the new cannot be born" is applicable; while the Cold War world order has irrevocably passed, neoliberalism has left 80% of Americans worse off.

Whereas the implosion of US imperialism was expected in about 30 years, the intransigence of Trump's pugilist imperialism — the way in which it builds on the exact aspects of itself that so many of the world's leading scholars have pointed out are its weaknesses — fuels our prediction that Trump will hasten that decline.

And if US imperialism indeed implodes in the next two decades into anything approaching the current global power void with so many pretenders to the throne (Russia and China come to mind), it will cause even greater disruption than the fall of the British empire.

It will need a steady hand to prevent or manage such a potentially calamitous turn of events globally.

There is no indication that Trump and his triumphalist group of populist followers realise the dangers they are unleashing, much less know how to handle them.

Globally very, very tough times lie ahead.

Terreblanche is professor emiritus of economics at Stellenbosch University. Joubert is the Sunday Times's deputy editor of politics, parliament and opinion

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