Sunday, February 17, 2019 | ePaper

No American agenda beyond winning commercial battles

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Roger Cohen :
Through the mist of change precipitated by President Trump's consuming narcissism, some new order is taking shape, but its form is as yet indiscernible. Sometimes a many-headed beast seems to loom, shrieking in discordant voices, promising strife. Still, perhaps that is to underestimate the promise of a hyperconnected 21st century.
After the bi-polar world and the unipolar world, this is an era without a name. The ideas that gave the United States purpose in the postwar decades, from the spread of liberty to a rules-based international order, have been abandoned. American enlightened self-interest, beneficial both to the United States and its allies, has been replaced by a crude America-first self.
The pace of offensive behavior grows. With the presidency of Donald Trump it has become impossible to recall Friday what seemed outrageous Monday. Even rot can be normalized. It is human nature to adapt. Global "culture" is increasingly defined by rich, valueless elites - as in Russia, Saudi Arabia, China and Trump's United States - while those excluded from this wealth veer toward angry, xenophobic nationalism. It's "Crazy Rich Asians" versus "Hillbilly Elegy."
America's word has lost its value, and it was on America's word that the security of the world hinged in the decades following 1945. In this vacuum - where there is no American agenda beyond winning commercial battles - China rises, impunity spreads, powerful actors multiply and autocrats have free rein. The word "values" seems quaint. China, an increasingly repressive nation in which information is controlled, leads the world in college graduates. The competition of ideas between authoritarianism and liberal democracy seems evenly balanced.
We begin to shrug at the once unthinkable - thousands of children separated from their parents at the Mexican border; false or misleading statements issued daily from the Oval Office; the press attacked by the president as the "enemy of the people" (a phrase of pure totalitarian pedigree); a video doctored by the White House in an attempt to discredit a CNN correspondent; United States intelligence services deemed less credible than President Vladimir Putin by President Trump; the European Union described as "brutal" by Trump while North Korean leader Kim Jong-un morphs from a threat to humanity into a "great personality."
Oh, I almost forgot Trump's recent cancellation, due to rain, of a visit to the Aisne-Marne American Cemetery in France on the 100th anniversary of the end of World War I. We know Trump hates rain because it affects his hair. Never mind the more than 2,250 Americans in that cemetery who gave their lives far from home. We also know that in almost two years in office, Trump has never visited American troops in Afghanistan, or in any combat zone. The coward with the brittle hairdo turns his back on America's dead and deployed.
Such is Trump's nationalism, a helter-skelter make-believe of disorienting slogans and moral abasement. Chinese President Xi Jinping opens the way to rule for life and Trump says, "maybe we'll have to give that a shot some day." It was a joke, sort of. It was also a window into the state of the world.
Trump is not to be discounted, however. His manipulation of American anger has legs. Underestimating him would be the surest way for Democrats to ensure a Trump presidency through 2024.
The midterm elections gave the Democrats a substantial victory in the House of Representatives, with a gain of at least 37 seats. The president is now more circumscribed in what he can do. His attacks on immigrants and evident contempt for women have taken a toll in suburbs and exurbs across the country. Most decent Americans do not like demagoguery. Still, Trump's road to re-election in 2020 remains open. Republicans, now the Trump Party, held on to the Senate, gaining two seats, and showed strength in Florida, a pivotal state in every presidential election.
A decade after the financial meltdown of 2008, animus toward the elites who escaped unscathed from the disaster and anger over growing inequality still feed a wave of ultranationalism across the world. Jair Bolsonaro's election as president of Brazil is only the latest example of this trend that brought Trump to power.
The mounting "yellow vests" protests in France reflect anger at societies distorted or corrupted in favor of the rich. In Hungary, a society that thirsted for the freedom of London and Paris when it emerged from the Soviet imperium, the West has, under Prime Minister Viktor Orbán, become the place where family, church, nation and traditional notions of marriage and gender go to die. Orbán offers a new model of illiberalism for Europe. His fight with French President Emmanuel Macron for ideological sway will determine the direction of the European Union, whether or not Britain consummates its Brexit folly in 2019. The Brexit decision has proved to be a form of madness that keeps on giving. Like Trump's election, the vote to leave the European Union was a symptom of a thirst for disruption at any cost. Liberal democracy looks vulnerable a quarter century after its definitive ascendancy seemed assured. Free trade is attacked, so is migration, and so are human rights (not a concept that Trump can wrap his head around).
The long-stagnant wages of blue-collar workers and much of the middle class, as well as a sense in the periphery of cultural alienation from the metropolis, contribute to fissured societies. In the United States, even the word honesty no longer has an agreed-upon meaning. Democrats believe it means conformity to facts. In Trump country, it means telling it like it is. By that standard, for his supporters, Trump is the most honest president ever.
When there is no shared lexicon, and social media turbocharges confrontation, the capacity of Western democracies to reach the compromises on which progress is built is undermined. In life, if you get 70 percent of what you want, you probably feel you are doing all right. But these days no American politician would say, "I only got 70 percent of what I wanted, but I'm voting for the measure anyway in the interests of moving forward."
China, veering in an ever more autocratic direction under Xi, has no such concerns. The nation sets plans; it executes; it fast-forwards. It has pulled 800 million people out of poverty in recent decades. Why should it doubt itself? Beijing now offers itself as an explicit alternative to the liberal democratic model.
Trump has been good for Beijing. Domestic American political paralysis, the dilution of American moral authority, Trump's rejection of the Trans-Pacific Partnership and the withdrawal from the Paris climate accord - all this has favored China, now the world leader in renewable energy. Its advance is steady and relentless. In Europe, from Greece to Serbia, China is pursuing its Africa model: buy up whatever it can to control resources and infrastructure.
Trump has picked a fight over trade, and he has some legitimate grievances, but his failure to develop a coherent geostrategic policy to confront China makes the tariff fight look like his usual petulance. The president's strange embrace of Kim Jong-un in North Korea also reinforces China's position. The president shows weakness and makes concessions, while getting nothing tangible in return. Even a withdrawal of American troops from the Korean Peninsula is not unimaginable. That would be very much to China's liking, as well as an act of dangerous folly.
Chinese expansionism under Xi and North Korea's unpredictability imbue East Asia with some of the tensions of Europe during the Cold War. The clash between the United States and China over "unfair trade practices" at the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation summit was so severe that no communiqué was issued, a first since the meetings began a quarter-century ago. Still, I believe that China's quest for regional and global stability to complete its rise by 2050 will contain its confrontation with the United States short of any military clash.
Such limits on war are likely reinforced by technology, despite the uses that authoritarian societies like China and Russian have made of it. We are not in the world of the first half of the 20th century.
Trump and other nationalists use many of the methods of fascism - scapegoating, xenophobia, nationalist mythologizing, mob mobilization - but the forces favoring open societies are far stronger than they were a century ago. Walls are going up everywhere, and China has demonstrated that the internet can be controlled, but the spread of ideas and idealism is not easily held in check. Even a really terrible American president such as the incumbent cannot easily send the world over a cliff. This is where the hope of the 21st-century lies - not in nations, Trump's obsession, but in people and networks.
The vitality of the American press demonstrates some of the limits on Trump's power. His attacks on American institutions, including the Justice Department, and on the nation's best media outlets has spurred a growing awareness of the need for tough investigative journalism - and that's not free. Online subscriptions to newspapers, including The New York Times, have soared. That is the good news.
The bad news is that Trump's phrase "fake news" has taken hold. You hear it all over the world. Journalists are attacked with greater impunity - that word again - because Trump has declared open season on them and their profession. The vile murder of the Washington Post columnist Jamal Khashoggi in the Saudi Consulate in Istanbul is just the most egregious example of this.
Fair-minded, rigorous pursuit of the truth is denounced as "fake;" the White House spreads rumors or outright lies as facts. Disorientation sets in. This is what Trump seeks: agitated derangement.
In response, the Democratic Party must not lose focus. The way to oust Trump is by winning. The Republicans are no longer the free-trade, internationalist, anti-Russia party they once were. They are the America First party of Trump. The Democrats are also in transition. Should the party move left, where there is significant energy and progressives have won several victories? Or should it find some new expression of the center?

(Roger Cohen is a columnist for The New York Times. He joined The Times in 1990, and has served as a foreign correspondent and foreign editor).

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