Donald Trump’s brazen unilateralist ‘America First’ foreign policy is straining to the limits the architecture of international relations that has mediated the different interests of the world’s capitalist powers since 1945.
Pouring scorn on the multilateral institutions, treaties and rules – the United Nations to the World Trade Organisation, the IMF, European Union and even the capitalists’ NATO military club – Trump denounces them all as ‘robbing the US’. June’s acrimonious meeting of the G7 powers at Charlevoix, Québec, with Trump accepting a summit communiqué only to withdraw the US signature hours later, followed the unilateral recognition of Jerusalem as Israel’s capital, the peremptory withdrawal from the Iran nuclear deal, and the beginnings of a potential trade war with China.
Even Trump’s Singapore summit was another example of his disruptive diplomacy, making an off-the-cuff concession to North Korea’s Kim Jong-un to end joint military exercises with South Korea – “which will save us you won’t believe how many millions of dollars” – without informing his alleged regional allies. One net result, if not immediately, could actually be an escalation of the arms race in east Asia, with South Korea and especially Japan seeking alternatives to the increasingly leaky US ‘security umbrella’.
Understandably, workers across the globe, and the big majority of the middle class, look on at Trump with trepidation. There is a growing fear of a resurgence of aggressive right-wing nationalism, of racism – nationalism’s most virulent outgrowth – and the ultimate horror, even, of new wars. There will be a powerful impetus to resist.
But in doing so it would be mistaken to uphold the ‘old world order’ now under assault from Trump, or the capitalist politicians who defend it. The immediate target of Trump’s ire at Charlevoix, Canadian premier Justin Trudeau, is as much a representative of big-business politics as the New York billionaire.
In reality, the ‘liberal international order’ is nothing other than a means to institutionalise and manage the competing interests of the world’s different national capitalist classes – and to ruthlessly defend the interests of the capitalists against the working class, nationally and internationally. Should a putative president Bernie Sanders or Jean-Luc Mélenchon attending Charlevoix have signed the commitment to “stronger international rules on market-distorting subsidies and actions by state-owned enterprises”? Or a prime minister Jeremy Corbyn agree to the EU’s single market neoliberal strictures? Misunderstanding what the global institutions of capitalism represent, and the reasons why workers revolt against them, can only lead to mistakes in combating the real danger of Trump-style reaction.
What is needed instead is a real internationalism of those with no stake in the system – and an alternative to capitalism, which is responsible for generating Trumpism and the threat that it poses.
The evolving US hegemony
US imperialism emerged from the rubble of the second world war as the overwhelmingly dominant power among the capitalist nations. But the other victor was Russian Stalinism, which potentially presented a systemic challenge to capitalism – the basis of the ‘cold war’ between the two superpowers.
Stalinism was not an example of genuine socialism, which means the democratic control of the economy and society by the working class, not the totalitarian rule of a privileged bureaucracy. But the planned economy of the Stalinist states – with private ownership of the dominant sectors of industry abolished – struck at the heart of capitalist rule. It was especially dangerous for capitalism as a model in the former colonial countries exploited and underdeveloped by the imperialist powers.
The cold war with Stalinism therefore created a common interest, a glue between the different national capitalist powers to overcome their conflicting interests. Tensions between them persisted throughout the cold-war period, erupting ferociously on occasions, but were subsumed by the check made on world capitalism by the very existence of non-capitalist states.
This international order finished with the collapse of Stalinism in Russia and eastern Europe, rotted by the internal contradictions of bureaucratic rule, leaving the US truly as the world hegemon. The post-1945 international institutions were remoulded in the 1990s under US direction – president George HW Bush’s ‘new world order’ inaugurating an unrestrained globalisation – not to achieve peace, prosperity and the real intermingling and collaboration of peoples, but to give the freest rein to triumphant capitalism.
The resulting “machinery of global co-operation”, the Economist magazine wrote, “together form a system that [both] binds America to its allies and projects its power across the world”. (4 February 2017) This was a plea after Trump’s inauguration speech for the US not to adopt a unilateralist foreign policy. But the economic, political and military-strategic configuration that sustained the post-Stalinist ‘liberal international order’ is no more, replaced by an increasingly multi-polar world.
The USA’s moment as the unchallenged hyperpower was brief, historically speaking, shattered by 9/11. The US is still the greatest military power, accounting for 35% of the $1.739trn global military spending in 2017, but it faces regional challenges, and its prestige was damaged by Iraq and Afghanistan. Russian imperialism’s sustained intervention in Syria from 2015, its first engagement outside its ‘near-abroad’ since the cold war, and China’s growing assertiveness in the South China Sea, among other flashpoints, show an increasingly contested world.
The 2007-08 financial crisis was another defining moment. Two-thirds of households in 25 advanced capitalist countries saw no increase in their earnings between 2005 and 2014, according to McKinsey Global Institute research. In contrast, it claims, just 2% of households did not see their incomes rise from 1993 to 2005. The recent OECD report on social mobility found that the share of disposable income held by the richest 10% across its 34 member countries rose from seven times that of the poorest 10% 25 years ago to nine times as high today. Wealth inequality is even worse, with the top 10% owning half the wealth and the bottom 40% just 3%.
Unsurprisingly, the age of austerity is also the age of rage and growing political fluidity. In 30 national elections since 2008 the incumbent won in fewer than a third, down from two-thirds before 2008.
Playing on the massive discontent with the results of unleashed capitalism, Trump’s victory was part of that process. “History is back with a vengeance”, lamented the Economist, an ideological champion of capitalism. “It is clear that popular support for the western order depended more on rapid growth and the galvanising effect of the Soviet threat than on intellectual conviction”.
The forces of resistance
But Trump is the not the only product of the new world disorder. The stunning victory in Ireland’s abortion referendum is also a reflection of the profound undermining of the authority of the capitalist establishment’s institutions, and the ossified social attitudes that have underpinned them. It is a herald of future struggles to come.
And the threat posed by Trumpian bellicosity will also find its counter-point in mass movements. The New York Times famously wrote that the phenomenal demonstrations in February 2003 of possibly 30 million in 600 cities against Bush junior’s looming war in Iraq showed there “may still be two superpowers on the planet: the United States and world public opinion”.
That movement was largely an elemental tide of protest – the potential superpower of the street lacked organised form and clear political aims, with the ideological effects of the collapse of Stalinism not yet overcome. But imagine the possibilities now for a similar development – 15 years on and with the revival of basic socialist ideas shown by the Corbyn waves, the Sanders insurgency, Mélenchon, etc – to take the next step and begin a movement that could challenge the capitalist system itself and adopt a full programme for the socialist transformation of society.
Trump is both a symptom of and an agent for the disintegration of the old international order. But he will not be the last word.