LONDON ― John Micklethwait is the editor-in-chief of Bloomberg News. Previously, he served as the editor-in-chief of The Economist. Micklethwait, who I spoke to recently in London, has an extraordinary platform of observation on what’s happening in the world. In the following interview, he gives his personal impression of Russian President Vladimir Putin and answers questions on topics ranging from the freedom of the press under the new Trump presidency to the implications of the new era on economic and international relations.
What do you think at Bloomberg about the new President Trump’s aggressive attitude towards journalists and the press? Do you think the freedom of the press is in danger?
I think the freedom of the press is enshrined in American life and we should measure the new president in the same way as we did the last one: by what he says and does. If he produces “alternative facts” that are not actually facts, then we should point that out. If his actions threaten the liberty of the press, then we should point that out too and fight back. But he has not done so yet; being rude to journalists does not count.
'We should not treat him as different, or set special standards for dealing with him. ... We should just get on with reporting what he does, and point out when he says things that are untrue and when he does things well.'
Donald Trump has caused problems for what might be called the upmarket press right from the beginning: in the primaries he kept on saying outrageous things that we had to report and thus hoovered up the airtime from his opponents. The interesting thing is that these gaffes and insults and the accompanying negative coverage, did not destroy him in the same way that they might have done other candidates. Indeed, as a candidate, Trump was like a fish that can survive at greater depths than other creatures. (If, say, [2016 Republican candidate for president] Jeb Bush had been rude about the pope, we would now be saying, “If only Jeb had not called the pope ‘disgraceful,’ he might be president.” For Trump, it was a two day storm before he was rude about someone else ― and the caravan moved on). Voters judged him by different standards to the mainstream media ― to borrow that much used phrase ― newspapers took him literally but not seriously, whilst many voters took him seriously but not literally. Despite his locker-room talk, a majority of white women voted for him.
So Trump the candidate has rewritten some of the rules, but now he is president ― and I think voters will increasingly hold him accountable for what he says and does. From the press’ point of view, we should not treat him as different, or set special standards for dealing with him. He is the duly elected leader of the world’s most important democracy. We should just get on with reporting what he does, and point out when he says things that are untrue and when he does things well.
You recently had the opportunity to interview Vladimir Putin. What is your impression of the man?
Putin is a poor economic manager but a cunning politician. His stewardship of Russia’s economy has been weak, cronyism has been rampant and he has failed to move away from oil. The resulting economic weakness will always put a limit on his other ambitions. Abroad, though, he has combined nationalist prejudice with opportunism. It is hard to detect a strategy, just a consistent desire to make Russia great again and a willingness to seize opportunities to achieve that, whether it be [former President] Barack Obama’s retreats in Syria or Donald Trump’s hero worship. He has the advantage of having few scruples ― whether it be in Syria, Ukraine or just telling the truth. On television, Putin is courteously combative; in private, he is more aggressive and a relentless observer of people’s strengths and weaknesses. The level of fear he generates around him ― the anxious members of his retinue ― is both impressive and troubling: who tells him the truth? In the long terms he faces the problem of a peaceful exit: too many people around him have stolen too much, so he has to hang onto power.
'The level of fear [Putin] generates around him ... is both impressive and troubling: who tells him the truth?'
Do you think that there will be a strong alliance between Donald Trump and Vladimir Putin, and do you think that this is going to destabilize the world and ultimately destroy the European Union?
I worry about the future of NATO in the light of some of the things Trump has said. But I also suspect that the Putin-Trump bromance has reached its peak. For Putin, to have reached a position where he is a force in U.S. politics and where the Russian bear holds the fate of parts of the Middle East in its paw is a remarkable achievement, but probably an unsustainable one. Now he has a problem: to keep his nationalist supporters at home sweet, he has to keep on jabbing at America ― but in so doing, he risks alienating his new friend, Donald Trump. As a candidate, Trump liked pointing to Putin’s successes against America as a way of illustrating Obama’s weaknesses. But now he is president ― and he will not like to be seen to be weak. If an airliner is shot down, it will be Trump whom the world looks to. If Putin foments rebellion in Estonia, it will be harming a NATO member on Donald Trump’s watch, which would enrage Republicans. [Former British Prime Minister] Margaret Thatcher never cared much about the Falklands until Argentina invaded them.
Do you think that all the news about Russian hacking and interference in the presidential elections could ultimately result in an impeachment if proven to be true?
I am not sure how it could result in impeachment unless there was some direct link to the Trump White House.
Under Barack Obama’s presidency we perceived a recrudescence of the Cold War. Is this going to change with President Trump?
My instinct is that there will be an immediate thaw, followed by a gradual refreezing. Trump-Putin obviously starts from a warmer position than Putin-Obama, and there may be one or two deals to be done. But, as outlined above, I sense that the expansionary, anti-Western Russia that Putin believes in is always going to be in some conflict with the West.
'I am not sure how [Russian meddling in the election] could result in impeachment unless there was some direct link to the Trump White House.'
[British Prime Minister] Theresa May has chosen the so-called hard Brexit. Is England going to be a new middle man between Russia and the U.S. in its new adventure outside Europe?
I think Britain is never going to be a middleman between Russia and the U.S.. London may be most oligarchs’ second (or first) home, but diplomatic relations have been cold ― and indeed bloodstained. France, perhaps under President Fillon, will look on the Kremlin more kindly.
On Brexit, having been a “remainer,” I would prefer a soft Brexit that keeps as many links with Europe as possible. I am deeply skeptical about Theresa May’s new strategy to make Britain into a Singapore on the Thames; too many of her instincts are to intervene, and Britain’s forte is services which are much easier to export to your neighbors than to, say, Australia. But I have to admit that Trump’s willingness to do a trade deal with Britain gives a little more life to the idea of Britain being a free-trading entrepôt.
'I have to admit that Trump’s willingness to do a trade deal with Britain gives a little more life to the idea of Britain being a free-trading entrepôt.'
But it is not just to do with tariffs and import quotas. In the long term I worry about Britain’s soft power. People may mock the Eurotrash, but London is a far more cosmopolitan city than it once was ― and it has been a talent magnet for the whole of Europe. For the past 15 years, if you went for dinner in Milan, Madrid or Malmö, the one thing most people have had in common is that their children have wanted to come to London. Now that is in doubt. Vienna used to be Europe’s entrepôt once; now it is a much narrower place.
Do you think that President Trump is going to create dangerous tensions in the U.S.-China relationship?
Yes, this, to me at least, is the most dangerous part of Donald Trump’s presidency. There are plenty of people (including in China) who insist he is a pragmatist who believes in nothing ― and that we should discount his talk on China. Normally these optimists point out that he is just a real estate guy who begins every negotiation by asking for an outrageous price and then settles for something reasonable. And the optimists argue that the Chinese are pragmatists, too ― they will make a few compromises and trade will continue.
I hope that is the case ― and I think the probabilities point in that direction. The Chinese showed restraint when Trump spoke to Taiwan. But I have two nagging worries. First, to the extent that the new president does believe in anything, it has been “America First”: he has been skeptical of free trade for a long time (he opposed NAFTA) and the people he has appointed to trade posts are of a similar mind. Second, I am not sure that Xi Jinping has as much room to compromise as the optimists or Trump assumes. This is a crucial year for Xi ― we may well discover whether he wants to stay in power beyond the traditional 10 years. From a domestic political viewpoint, he will not want to be seen kowtowing to foreign powers. My worry is that things unintentionally get out of hand: Trump makes an unreasonable demand (for instance over the currency), and Xi feels obliged to fire back.
Again, I think the probability is that a deal will be struck ― the two superpowers need each other. But history is littered with examples of nationalism trumping economic logic, especially when a new superpower is on the rise.
'I am not sure that Xi Jinping has as much room to compromise as the optimists or Trump assumes.'
How do you think that the new U.S. administration will handle the Middle East regional crisis? Is President Trump going to change attitudes vis-à-vis Syria, Turkey, Iran, Israel [and] Libya?
Trump has somewhat contradictory approaches to the Middle East: he wants to stay out of it whilst also obliterating ISIS. My guess is that, like Obama, he will end up being a form of grumpy policeman, albeit one with greater anger management issues. He may be a little tougher on Iran and less tough on Israel, and he will look for some kind of deal with Russia over Syria. But I would expect his presidency to be reactive in the Middle East.
Donald Trump’s election has created a deep fracture in America. Do you think that America will become a very different country?
Trump did not create the biggest fracture. America has been a 50/50 nation for some time, albeit one that has looked pretty conservative by the standards of other Western countries. So for the most part, he is a symptom of the problem, not its cause. What Trump has done is to recast the fracture ― his coalition of voters included lots of working-class whites who voted for Obama as well as people who had not voted before.
'[Trump] is a symptom of the problem, not its cause.'
Do you think that other powers, like Congress, the Senate [and] the Federal Reserve, will be able to limit the actual effects of Trump’s Twitter mania and impulsive statements?
The genius of the American constitution is its balance of powers which restrains the ability of any one person or party to control everything. But it is hard to see how that would limit his ability to tweet ― which is just another form of communication. There were previous debates about whether presidents should use TV and the radio. If it is useful, they use it.
My guess is that Trump will keep tweeting. He had a chance to stop tweeting at the end of the campaign ― and did not take it. But I also think his tweets will become gradually rarer and more boring ― a little like other politicians. One reason is that his audience is now inured to their shock value. People already see them as examples of him mouthing off. Another reason is that he is now part of the legislative process ― he may discover the virtue of silence.
Do you think as a consequence of all this there will be major changes in the world’s economies?
There are some economies that look especially exposed to Donald Trump: Mexico would suffer enormously if goods can no longer cross the Rio Grande so freely. On the plus side, America’s economy could be buoyed by deregulation, tax reform and infrastructure spending. That explains why the stock markets have soared. The biggest worry is trade: see the China discussion above. The other worry is the budget deficit: America’s biggest entitlement programs will begin to kick in, while the abolition of Obamacare could yet lead to an even more expensive situation.
Are we going to see new wars?
I hope not.