By Jean Pisani-Ferry, a professor at Sciences Po Paris and the Hertie School of Governance in Berlin. He was the Director for Programme and Ideas of Emmanuel Macron’s presidential campaign. Originally published at Project Syndicate; cross posted from Bruegel
What has fundamentally changed with the Trump administration is not that it behaves more selfishly than its predecessors, but that it seems unconvinced that the global system serves US strategic interests. For the rest of the world, the key question is whether the global system is resilient enough to survive its creator’s withdrawal.
This year’s World Economic Forum in Davos proved to be yet another opportunity for US President Donald Trump’s administration to display its customary verbal incontinence and send shockwaves through the global economy. This time, there were two sources.
The first shock came from US Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin, who broke with more than two decades of strict discipline by suggesting that a weaker dollar would be in America’s interest. The second came from Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross, who seemed to rejoice at the prospect of waging and winning a trade war.
For once, it was Trump himself who restored calm by denying that the US was pursuing a beggar-thy-neighbor strategy. But he did so only after his cabinet secretaries’ statements had attracted sharp responses from international partners.
If Trump’s first year in power provides an indication of what is to come, there is little reason to look forward to more stable US economic leadership. A year after his inauguration, Davos provided a powerful reminder that he is far from being normalized.
To be fair, the Trump administration is certainly not the first to put “America first.” Owing to its inward-looking political system and the persistence of strong isolationist undercurrents, the US has been consistently more reluctant than European countries to enter into or to abide by international commitments. The 1948 rejection of the Havana Charter (an early attempt to create a global trade organization), congressional hostility to the Bretton Woods institutions, or the refusal by President George W. Bush to ratify the Kyoto Protocol on climate change are just a few examples.
Likewise, taking ruthless measures to defend US interests did not start with Trump. President Richard Nixon’s unilateral decision in 1971 to abandon the gold standard was a major blow to the international monetary system. The US Federal Reserve’s monetarist experiment in the late 1970s precipitated the Latin American debt crisis. Arm-twisting with Japan in the 1980s circumvented established trade rules. And in the aftermath of the 2008 global financial crisis, the Fed implemented quantitative easing despite protests that it was allowing the US to export deflation.
Yet there is something different this time. From the moment it inherited global leadership from the United Kingdom – symbolically with the signing of the Atlantic Charter in the summer of 1941 – until Trump was elected 75 years later, few could doubt that the US was the ultimate owner of the international economic regime. Depending on timing and political conditions, it could fudge the rules or help enforce them; it could behave more selfishly or more generously; and it could pursue narrow, short-term interests or broad, long-term goals. But whatever the US did, it remained the dominant shareholder of the global system. And the rest of the world knew that perfectly well.
There were strong geopolitical reasons for this stance. Until the Cold War’s end, the system of rules and organizations that formed the institutional infrastructure of international trade, investment, and finance was considered by the US establishment to be vital to the prosperity of the “free world” and the containment of Soviet influence. After the Soviet Union collapsed, the system served as a strategic means for integrating former communist countries into the international capitalist economy.
Eventually, in the early 2000s, the global economic system came to be regarded as providing the best platform to accommodate China’s rise. China was invited to join the club, with the implicit promise that after it had learned to play by the rules, it could contribute to amending them. It would have a chance to participate in steering the international system, and gradually gain in power and influence. China’s accession to the World Trade Organization in 2001 was an important milestone here.
What has fundamentally changed with the Trump administration is not that it behaves more selfishly than its predecessors. It is that it seems unconvinced that buttressing the global system serves US strategic interests. Critically, it seems unconvinced that integrating China into this system and offering it a place at the top table is the best way to accommodate its rising economic might.
For the rest of the world, the key question now is whether the global system is resilient enough to outlive its creator’s withdrawal.
Superficially, the international economic consequences of Trump seem remarkably benign. Concerns over currency wars have waned. The global economy has not descended into a protectionist spiral. Even the US withdrawal from the fragile Paris climate agreement has not resulted in its collapse. On the contrary, all other leaders – starting with China’s President Xi Jinping – have confirmed their commitment to it, and 174 countries have formally ratified it. Concerns in the security field look more serious, owing to disputes over the Iran nuclear agreement and uncertainty over the handling of North Korean missile launches.
But the view that the economy, at least, is on firm ground is dangerously misguided, as it assumes that global economic rules and institutions have created the equivalent of an economic and financial constitution. Indeed, the system remains too incomplete to self-regulate, and its functioning requires constant guidance and frequent discretionary initiatives. This is why informal groupings like the G7 and the G20 remain essential: they provide the necessary political impetus. But they, too, depend crucially on US backing and leadership.
For example, it was not the rules of the system that offered a response to the 2008 crisis; it was a series of ad hoc initiatives – a standstill on trade protectionism, coordinated bank rescues, a global stimulus, and the provision of dollar liquidity through swap lines, to name only the main ones – that owed much to the US. Absent its leadership and the initiatives of key players like the UK and France, the crisis would have been much worse.
True, the other major players – Europe, China, India, and Japan – may eventually be able to exercise global leadership. But, for the time being, they lack the will, the capacity, and the cohesion this would require. So the world should be under no illusion. To keep the boat on course after the pilot has left the wheel is one thing; to steer it in a storm is another matter. Let’s hope the next storm does not gather too soon.
One might say that the USA&Western leadership has over too many years had too many opportunities to act in a sane manner for the world’s common good, every time the selfish good of the empire of the rich won the result. My own country’s elite are right up there, a living symbol of western gifts to corporate welfare. I’m ashamed that my whole comfortable life has been lived thru this chaotic era.
For the common good, for a sane, ethical, compassionate future for all life on earth let this elite theft be over. Everything that has been the “West” has repeatedly had it’s turn at global leadership and failed….be gone….
….But, money is ruthless & nothing else matters, so….
I must quibble one of the points you make. I would modify one of your assertions slightly as follows: “… every time the selfish good of the empire of the rich [as they perceived that good] won the result.” I hesitate to credit the empire of the rich with a capacity to judge what is in their own selfish interests — most particularly their capacity at wisely judging between their short-term versus their long-term selfish interests. They live for today.
It is useful to take the following snippet:
And update it to reflect the rise of a US-dominated unipolar globalist workd order and the ascension of neoliberalism to be the pre-eminent economic orthodoxy among the developed western nations in the past 30 or so years:
If whatever Trump Inc. is doing economically makes Davos Man antsy, its worth a look, I say. That is by no means to claim that Trump gives a rat’s rump for the Common Man, but he has at least not been afraid to engage in a desperately-needed questioning of the neolib orthodoxy, however all-over-the-map his salvos has been.
Amen, EW! I’m in Italy and we’ve got a national political election coming up in one month. None of the parties (one big, several small) that claim to be “center-left” (none of them are liar enough to call themselves just plain “left” anymore) will tolerate any questioning of their “pro-Europe” stance (i.e., iron-clad fealty to the Euro and the EU’s (non)Stability and (non)Growth pact). Only one or two parties generally regarded as extreme right or “populist” are willing to publicly raise the issue — mostly without firm committment.
If the global “left” parties don’t get a clue (eg, Clinton, Schulz, Macron, Renzi, …) that the masses they (used to) represent have completely lost faith in the neoliberal establishment to which they still cling, the results are inevitable. I think we’ve been there before.
Trying to suss out a coherent economic ideology out of the mutterings of Trump is a fool’s errand, but on the whole they generally point towards a common gripe on the populist right. The international economic institutions are treated as suspect due to a larger view of global finance in the post-soviet era as being a fundamental perversion of “pure” capitalism. The real capitalism, in their mind, is the Trump capitalism; you build real-world things, highly visible and tangible that are sold at an often-literal marketplace. Debt, leverage, fiat currency, technocratic money management are economic slights-of-hand (it’s amazing how many Trump supporters are laboring under the misapprehension that Trump doesn’t “owe” anything to anyone). Thus the cheerleading for the weak dollar; cheap dollar means exports which means America making things and selling them elsewhere.
This article confirms that, in the EU, focusing on Trump, and blaming everything on him, is a useful political tool. Talking about beggar-thy-neighbour Germany is the elephant in the room that has been playing this game by means of consumer repression for so long., As China has done for years. Blaming everything on Trump allows to skip the inconvenient reality in Europe (and the whole world). This article doesn´t mention it but the “russiagate” nonsense is also publicly used to divert attention by EU leaders.
If you cannot recognize your own mistakes where is your moral authority to critisize others?
Thank you, Ignacio, and well said.
The focus on Trump and Russia in the UK is mind-boggling and always crowds out the rest of the news, especially Brexit. We had friends from the US staying for a week last autumn. They were amazed by the amount of coverage Trump gets, especially on state-owned BBC and Channel 4. One interesting development with Trump and Russiagate is that ethnic minority hacks, usually south Asians, on the BBC and Channel 4 often, if not usually, draw the short straw and have to announce the latest outrage with a straight face. It reminds me of how Hansie Cronje got black and mixed race players to assist with (cricket) match fixing in South Africa.
As Adrian Kent pointed out a couple of days ago, the editorial management of the BBC is entirely Tory. This includes Blairite / Red Tory James Purnell. Not only are they biased, they are paid telephone number salaries that exceed the UK PM’s by 4 – 5. The current scandal about gender and pay at the BBC conveniently masks the real scandal at the BBC.
As commentators like Anonymous 2, Christopher Dale Rogers and Mark P have pointed over the past two days, the BBC no longer does analysis or cover issues that are relevant to the ordinary Briton. That goes for the rest of the UK MSM. I watch TV5 most days and find that France 2, RTS (Swiss) and RTBF (Belgian) don’t cover Trump and Russiagate to the same extent and focus much more on local matters.
I forgot to add that many of the UK’s leading broadcasters are freelance. They do a lot of private work, making speeches at or moderating panels at business events, producing or voicing over corporate films etc. They make more money that way than from the jobs most of the British public would recognise them from. They have every incentive and opportunity / occasion to promote a neo-liberal agenda that furthers their interests and pleases their masters.
Last Sunday morning’s TV news programmes were typical of that. The BBC had three programmes that attacked Corbyn / Labour over sexism, transgender rights and anti-Semitism.
Brexit, the NHS, homelessness, underemployment, zero hours contracts, collapsing infrastructure, care for the elderly, corporate corruption etc. were studiously ignored.
The surprise is not that the Tories are polling neck and neck with Labour, around 40%, but that Labour is able to keep up with the Tories around that mark. This said, the Labour leadership’s uncertain attitude towards Brexit (and chronic inability to distinguish between EU, EEA, EFTA etc.) and lack of (verbal) discipline, knowing that neo-liberal media are waiting in ambush, do not help their cause.
Thanks Colonel (oh, and happy new year to you). I’m glad I don’t watch much BBC or C4 these days, I find that every time I do it seems to have gone downhill, they don’t even attempt to be even handed anymore. One hope I have is that if Corbyn is elected that so many of those smug comfortable ‘journalists’ will learn to rue the day they abandoned neutrality.
Thank you, PK.
Belated happy new year to you, too.
It’s not just the BBC home service, but the world service, too. Overnight, the BBC African service is broadcast. One can’t get away from Trump, Russia and identity politics. Even the science and business programmes now have Trump, Russia and identity politics at their core.
I wonder what will bring the UK to its senses / reality.
It is a shame! I have always had a lot of respect for de BBC but it seems that unfortunately the institution has been downgraded. It was a pleasure for me to be invited to a debate about the end of terrorism in the Basque Country years ago.
Some years back there was a mini controversy about Cokie Roberts–prominent employee of our US public radio system–giving highly paid speeches to business and trade groups. These days it’s doubtful anyone would even bat an eye. The evolution of journalists from ink stained drudges to highly paid celebrities not, therefore, just a UK phenomenon. Perhaps their current upper middle class status has something to do with their reporting?….
Sorry to hear about the sad decline of the Beeb. But at least they still have David Attenborough.
Thank you, Carolinian.
You are right about the evolution to upper class and celebrity status. I have noticed as well the intermarriage of “journalists” with City and legal, but no other business, professionals.
You are also right about David Attenborough. A fat boy like me would add the two hairy bikers.
By way of contrast (because this nonsense about Trump is just that — at best he makes ‘explicit’ what was already going on basically since the part of the capitalist class that is attached to the ‘national fate’ of the country they live in, plus the pols, figured out that giving the WTO so much power also has disadvantages), consider what Harvey has to say about this trend towards regionalization in Marx, Capital and the Madness of Economic Reason:
^^This! That last paragraph, right there, starting at “Speed up in production and circulation has been the fetish quest of the times…”
This is not a facetious question.
Where does the fact that the US economy includes the MIC, and related ‘intelligence’ services fit in this discussion?
Why no mention of the coercive, if not openly violent nature of the power that enforces the neoliberal consensus.
Not only does the emperor have no clothes, but he walks through the ‘free market’ with a bloody club, all the while insisting he’s just one of the guys.
Fair question. Probably has a lot to do with the fact that violence is seen as the Trump card of the stupid, while words are seen as the tools of the intelligent, and so the meritocrats don’t want to have to acknowledge how reliant their pretty little world is on the liberal application of said violence. Graeber, in the utopia of rules, notes the following:
Thanks for that quote, it sheds a broad light on my question.
I would add those same social theorists who, I believe are coerced to ignore the macro-aggression underpinning our culture, have found focussing on micro-aggressions a growth opportunity.
However much Trump must bear the blame for his actions, I think that in all fairness it has to be recognized that we live in an era where we are evolving into a multi-polar world. After the collapse of the USSR in the 90s, Washington could call the shots and world decision making of course drifted into following the Washington Consensus. Those times are over now. With the comeback of Russia and the continued rise of China plus the evolution of other players on the world stage, what Washington wants is no longer what Washington gets.
Obama tried to reverse this trend with the everyone-but-China treaty, otherwise known as the TTIP. It was all about re-establishing American dominance, hence his words: ‘But beyond greater access to the world’s fastest-growing region, the agreement will establish enforceable commitments to protect labor, environmental, and other crucial standards that Americans hold dear….We should write the rules, and level the playing field for our middle class.’
He failed but I think that over time, the frustration of the elites not getting their way, especially in the field of economics, will become palpable. Trump is just the latest player. Anybody here put a coin in a drink machine but no drink comes out? So you stand there pushing buttons and eventually start slamming the side of the machine to make it work which it always has in the past? Maybe even kicked it in frustration? That is what it will be like for elites as time goes on as the old ways will no longer work.
So he admits the “rules of the system” didn’t work, it depended on people he apparently admires, and he doesn’t admire Trump and now expects (reasonably enough, I admit) the worst.
But the question is: why did everybody trumpet said system to begin with, if it wasn’t actually working? Let alone why they are trying to save it.
Reading the original post, I had a sense of discomfort. Then I read, “it was not the rules of the system that offered a response to the 2008 crisis; it was a series of ad hoc initiatives – a standstill on trade protectionism, coordinated bank rescues, a global stimulus, and the provision of dollar liquidity through swap lines, to name only the main ones – that owed much to the US. Absent its leadership and the initiatives of key players like the UK and France, the crisis would have been much worse.” That made the final verdict easy: utter establishmentarian bilge. Then I looked again at who the writer was: “Director for Programme and Ideas of Emmanuel Macron’s presidential campaign.” No wonder: another neoliberal technocrat completely lacking the intellectual capacity to envision an alternative to the status quo. Do I have to remind you of the environmental precipice the status quo is herding us toward?
The obvious alternative is to begin building international cooperation to implement the $100 trillion in new investments required to shift the world’s economies off fossil fuels and onto 100 percent sustainable energy within the next two decades. The $17 trillion squandered to save the banks from the 2007 crash would have been an incredible boost to actual economic growth. The most serious economic problem the world would be discussing now would have been shortages of labor. And the howls of jailed bankers would have been sweet background noise.
The old ways no longer work because they’ve been pushing buttons and slamming the machines hard with economic warfare. So the countries under attack responded quickly (to SWIFT) and launched their own dazzling new alternative machines. (CIPS, yuan-denominated oil contract) etc
Well, I don’t know what happened to the comment I was replying to? Vanished
The weak dollar is already here, and I’m not sure if it is caused by Mnuchin’s posturing as mentioned, the continued weakness of the U.S. economy, or a desire to increase exports (of whatever it is that the U.S. exports these days, mainly weapons, fracking products, and Hollywood productions) as part of the winnable trade war mentioned. I sent a payment to Italy this week, and the bankers pointed out to me that in twelve months the dollar has gone from 1.04 to the euro to 1.25 to the euro.
Yet what underlies the article is what I’d expect of someone who advises Macron: Somehow, the elites should rescue the world, just as Sciences Po and the other grandes écoles run France. Trump, though, is a part of the elites. He is a symptom and representative of the thoroughly detached and clueless business class of the U S of A. So is Mnuchin, with his Marie-Antoinette-ish wife number 2.
The analysis presented takes the current arrangement of states (countries) as given and discusses the role of the U.S. in either supporting or undercutting the current division of spoils between these states. But the entire point of “globalization” is to release corporations from the boundaries and constraints of states. From the identification of corporate interests with national interests to the forging of trade agreements, the “role” of the state is to transfer power from itself to corporations free of state control.
The question then, when considering Trump, is simple. Do his proffered policies assist in this transfer of power, or do they solidify sovereign state power. That doesn’t mean it is easy to answer. Politicians (including Trump) hide their true intentions behind patriotism and jingoism. Does Trump represent the interests of a limited U.S. oligarchy, or does he represent the interests of a global oligarchy? Is he fighting to make the U.S. oligarchy more powerful or competitive versus other national oligarchies? Is he fighting to weaken the sovereign power of the U.S. and other states?
Implies that Trump is all about strengthening the U.S.’s power as a sovereign. It takes Trump’s patriotism and jingoism at face value. And it pretends that the global system is a system of states who are not engaged in transferring power to corporations.
Will the system of state power survive the transfer of state power to corporations? No, obviously it cannot. It is not “resilient enough” to outlive its deliberate dismantling. If Trump is removing the U.S. from its former leadership position in the globalization effort because he wants, as Pisani-Ferry suggests, to strengthen U.S. sovereign power, this ought to reinforced the system of state power, even if it upsets the apple cart of the current distribution of spoils. But if Trump is removing the U.S. from its current leadership position in the globalization effort because it is time to weaken the state system of power overall, to introduce chaos into the state system, to further the ends of globalization, then we are on the cusp of a new wave of globalization and corporate power that will leave Pisani-Ferry’s questions in the dust.
That is true, but it is also true that the 2008 crisis started in the U.S. and spread through the rest of the world through the sale of fraudulent derivatives originating in the U.S. I do not see the U.S. as the great saviour of the crisis so much as the great perpetrator of it.