Trump Could Turn Western Values Into a Facade

In an interview, Harvard professor Joseph Nye warns that Donald Trump’s “America First” posture could undermine the liberal world order.
12/08/2016 11:10 am ET Updated Dec 08, 2016
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Joseph Nye is one of America’s top political scientists. He is the former dean of the Harvard Kennedy School and has been chair of the National Intelligence Council and assistant secretary of defense for international security affairs. Alex Görlach, founding editor of the magazine The European, and Constantin Weiss interviewed Nye about his 2015 book, “Is The American Century Over?” and the election of Donald Trump as the next U.S. president.

In your book, you answer the question by saying, no, it isn’t. Now that we have President-elect Donald Trump, would you like to revise that thesis?

Well, much depends on the definition. If one asks if the U.S. will remain the most powerful country in terms of resources, I still believe, in the next 25 years or so, we will still be the strongest country. The question that has changed is how we will use that power. With Trump headed to the White House, we have no guarantee that the policies set in place over the past 70 years will remain. The maintenance of alliances and institutions ― the liberal international order ― is not clear.

If we look at history, we see that after World War I, America was then also the world’s most powerful country. But it did not use that power in the international realm and decided to focus on domestic policy, which incidentally led to the economic chaos in the 1930s. Since World War II, the U.S. has been the most significant international actor and whether that will continue under Trump is unclear.

After the U.S. election, many have commented that German Chancellor Angela Merkel is now the last remaining upholder of the West’s values. Would you agree? 

No question, Merkel and Germany are great defenders of Western values. But on its own, Germany does not have the power to take on a Russia with nuclear weapons or a China with a high sustained growth rate. Yes, Germany deserves credit for respecting and asserting Western values as others fade, but it’s essential that these values are backed up by power.

Russian President Vladimir Putin (L) talks to Merkel at the G20 Hangzhou Summit.
Mikhail Svetlov via Getty Images
Russian President Vladimir Putin (L) talks to Merkel at the G20 Hangzhou Summit.

If there is no American power behind those values, they will become a façade, simple rhetoric. It’s a matter of combining values with policy and implementation. Take Russia’s invasion of Crimea, for example. Russian President Vladimir Putin stole land from his neighbor using force ― something that is against any post-1945 agreement. Without U.S.-imposed sanctions, Putin surely would have gotten away with it much easier and perhaps would have continued seizing territory.

Are the West and Western values in crisis?

The main issue is maintaining international order. Putin, Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban and their like-minded friends have not managed to change the fundamental world order ― yet. If one interprets the rise of populism as something that will continue and change the large countries, then you will have long-term change in international order. But, we should not over-interpret the American election. Hillary Clinton won the popular vote, and if 100,000 supporters in three Rust Belt states had voted differently, then we would see no need to talk about this at all! 

Something is happening, no doubt. Brexit won narrowly, though the younger voters were not in favor of Brexit at all. The same in America; the young vote didn’t embrace Trump. Before we label this as an irreversible wave of populism, though, we need to closely look at these numbers and realize what they represent. 

If there is no American power behind Western values, they will become a façade.

But doesn’t that say something about the relevance of politics in the younger generation’s minds? As a millennial myself, I can say that my generation has grown up in an environment shielded from any chaos. Western millennials have not experienced any tangible threats of war. Are we an ungrateful generation that forgot the importance of politics?

The type of world your generation grew up in is one of outward-looking internationalism. Millennial attitudes are open to the international mindset, but they don’t vocalize their beliefs effectively. That’s why the youth vote lost in the Brexit vote and U.S. elections. Millennials have had an incredibly easy life. Young people in Europe should not take the E.U. for granted! It’s worth reminding them that it was the E.U. that brought an end to centuries of conflict between European powers. 

But does that mean that the generational conflict is yet another cause of conflict in addition to xenophobia, income inequality, sexism and racism? Is it yet another cause for polarization?

There have been studies on this new wave of populism showing that populism is mainly associated with old white males. The polarization also goes beyond economic situations and addresses a change in culture and loss in status. Take the U.S. for example: America was the country of old white males, but now you have women, immigrants and LGBT people in leadership positions challenging the dominance of these old white males. Should this be a generational problem, then it will cease to be in two or three decades time. As younger people, with higher diversity and better education, go to the polls in the future, this populism should decrease significantly.

Before we label this as an irreversible wave of populism, we need to closely look at these numbers and realize what they represent.

That’s assuming there will be no “explosion” of sorts. We may see an explosion of tension between pro and anti-Trumpists and a turning point! 

Unless you have an economic crisis, nothing will happen. These conflicts ― Black Lives Matter, alt-right, cultural conflicts ― will continue over time but on a low flame. An economic crisis, however, will throw gasoline in that fire and cause an explosion. 

What role does immigration play in this?

Immigration is a much more universal problem in the international sphere. The question is how you combine native culture with immigrant culture to prevent polarization of societies. Europe is struggling with it, and so is America. But large countries ― most notably Canada ― have managed to successfully immigrate people into their culture. Though Trump has made a big deal out of immigration, a recent Pew poll suggests that the majority of Americans actually thinks the U.S. handles immigration well, and that it is good for the country! Personally, I would worry more about a recession or an economic depression.

Doesn’t the current debate on trade deals give us reason to worry about the possibility of a depression?

Just because the large-scale agreements like the Trans Pacific Partnership and the Trans-Atlantic Trade and Investment Partnership may be over does not mean trade is over. Trade is driven not by agreements but by commercial entrepreneurs. We may see less large-scale trade agreements, but I don’t think protectionism will resurface.

People take to the streets in Toronto on Nov. 22, 2015 with banners and signs rejecting Islamophobia and welcoming refug
NurPhoto via Getty Images
People take to the streets in Toronto on Nov. 22, 2015 with banners and signs rejecting Islamophobia and welcoming refugees.

Will going back on these trade deals impact the progress of technological innovation in America? How will Silicon Valley be impacted? 

If America were to become protectionist, that would certainly make life for tech companies much more difficult. But again, Trump is unpredictable. The scrapping of TPP may reduce American technology gains, but apart from that, I think Silicon Valley may not notice much of a difference during a Trump presidency.

How do Western policymakers adjust to this new era? What are the next sensible steps for them?

They need to have policies that take into account the inequalities that result of trade and technological change but also need to address cultural issues. Even if you are a protectionist economy, your jobs will still be taken over by robots!

We ought to have policies that compensate this job loss ― policymakers need to come up with a solution here. At the same time, Western countries individually need to maintain a stable economic growth rate. There has been talk about investment in infrastructure here in the U.S., and I am a supporter of this. We need to worry less about debt and austerity and more about whether the economy is growing fast enough.

The majority of Americans actually thinks the U.S. handles immigration well, and that it is good for the country!

How does America overcome the divisive society created by the election and during a Trump presidency?

I don’t think you can do it in four years. Trump can try to ease income inequality, and he can try to bring jobs back to America again. But there are problems that will not go away ― for example, the coal industry, whose miners he claimed would get their jobs back. They are suffering from competition with the natural gas industry, yet Trump said he would stimulate fracking. There simply are some things Trump will not be able to solve. I have a feeling he will struggle immensely with adapting the labor market to long-term technological change and displacement of jobs by machine intelligence.

So, the politically conflicted atmosphere will be with us for the next four years?

I would be surprised if we saw a reduction in partisanship over the course of this presidency. But then again, Trump is unpredictable and may surprise us with something completely unexpected.

Looking to 2020, what do you see?

This upcoming presidency is marking an unprecedented era of uncertainty for many of us. Trying to predict how Trump will behave is very difficult. This country has never experienced a commander in chief who is this unpredictable. And that surely is dangerous.

Original Published at Save Liberal Democracy

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