Donald Trump’s victory in the US presidential election is often characterized as a surprise. Ahead of the November vote, the opinion polls certainly suggested Hillary Clinton was set to win. Some bookmakers even paid out early, so adamant were the television pollsters that the former first lady was heading back to the White House.
A new American century?
This new year isn’t just the 100th anniversary of the Russian Revolution. It also marks a century since America entered the World War 1, an act that transformed relations between the “New World” and Europe, declaring that America – then newly-crowned as the world’s largest economy – would from now on be calling the shots on the world stage.
It was this US military intervention in 1917, followed by President Woodrow Wilson’s audacious “14-point” speech early the following year, which marked the start of the “American century” –with the US going on to lead a “liberal coalition” of Western democracies, aided by client states elsewhere.
Under former president George W Bush we saw the limits of America’s military might in both Afghanistan and Iraq. Under Obama, America’s economic hegemony has been increasingly challenged not just by China, but also by a coalescing group of increasingly strident emerging markets. Now, the incoming president hopes to “make America great again”, but with his country taking a more inward-looking, if diplomatically more assertive, global role.
When it comes to blocking trade and seriously challenging America’s status as an immigrant nation, taking Trump’s campaign rhetoric literally, and turning it into action, will prove not only practically difficult but economically counter-productive.
Turning America’s back on the World Trade Organization – and even the United Nations – will likewise prove an act of commercial self-harm. And while Trump still talks of “kicking Isis in the butt”, it’s undeniable that, for all America’s patriotism and military prowess, the US electorate is tiring of foreign interventions.
Already, with his election victory in the bag, and his inauguration looming, Trump is trimming his rhetorical sails. He has backed away from his promise to “eliminate Obamacare” – no doubt given the complexity of social reforms and the howls of protest when such programmes are scaled back. His call for a total ban on Muslim immigration has also been toned down, with the president-elect now talking of a temporary suspension from nations “with a history of exporting terrorism”.
When Ronald Reagan was elected, many observers derided him, given his previous status as a B-movie actor. Yet following Richard Nixon’s Watergate disgrace and diplomatic drift under Jimmy Carter, Reagan restored America’s strong global leadership, pumping up the arms race to such an extent that the fragile Soviet economy couldn’t cope, precipitating its collapse.
While a deeply unconventional candidate like Reagan, the new president is unlikely to share his Republican predecessor’s strategic success. Trump’s victory was in part a symptom of the US no longer having its own way in the world, both economically and militarily. Yet his stint in the White House, could see an acceleration of that trend, which began under Bush and continued under Obama.
Trump’s tax cuts may happen, but his “mighty spending boost” looks vulnerable. Either way, if he avoids a financial crash, US growth should continue. If his trade and diplomatic rhetoric becomes reality, though, then not only will the US economy be seriously damaged, but broader global growth too.
“It’s the economy, stupid,” as Hillary Clinton’s husband once said. That’s the main reason Trump’s rhetorical bark will ultimately prove scarier than his presidential bite.
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