Trump’s clash of civilisations rhetoric is out of step with reality

Martin Wolf: Going it alone will cost the US domestically and internationally

Donald Trump seemed to declare a clash of civilisations, in Warsaw last Thursday. Thereupon, he participated, uncomfortably, at the summit of the group of 20 leading economies. The G20 embodies the ideal of global community. A war of civilisations is the opposite. So which will it be?

The central remark in Trump’s Warsaw speech was this: “The fundamental question of our time is whether the West has the will to survive. Do we have the confidence in our values to defend them at any cost? Do we have enough respect for our citizens to protect our borders? Do we have the desire and the courage to preserve our civilisation in the face of those who would subvert and destroy it?”

The speech took further the stance of two of Trump's senior advisers, HR McMaster and Gary Cohn, in an article published in May: "The world is not a 'global community' but an arena where nations, non-governmental actors and businesses engage and compete for advantage." They argued that "America First does not mean America alone". Yet the United States was alone at the G20. Despite papering over of the cracks, the US was alone on climate and protectionism.

If the West is asked to unite for a war of civilisations, it will fracture, as it did over the Iraq war. It is easy to agree that what Trump calls “radical Islamist terrorism” is a concern. But to judge it an overriding existential threat is ludicrous. Nazism was an existential threat. So was Soviet communism. Terrorism is just a nuisance. The great danger is that of overreaction. This could poison relations with 1.6 billion Muslims worldwide.


We must beware the self-fulfilling prophecy of a clash of civilisations, not just because it is untrue, but because we have to co-operate. The ideal of a global community is not airy-fairy. It reflects today’s reality. Technology and economic development have made humans masters of the planet and dependent upon one another. Interdependence does not stop at national borders. Why indeed should it? Borders are arbitrary.

People are increasingly using the word “Anthropocene” to describe our epoch: this is the era when humans transform the planet. The important point about the notion of the Anthropocene is that humanity causes the harms and only humanity can deal with them. This is one reason why the idea of global community is not empty. Without it, harms will go unmanaged.


Consider peace, as well. In a nuclear age war should be unthinkable. But that does not make it is impossible. Managing frictions among nuclear-armed powers is an inescapable necessity.

Consider also prosperity. Global economic integration is not a malign plot. It is a natural extension of market forces in an era of rapid technological innovation. Such a world inevitably exposes countries to the policy decisions of others. As we all learned in 2008, the global financial system is no stronger than its weakest links. Those who depend on international trade need confidence in the terms of access to the markets of other countries.

The US income distribution is now more like that of a developing than an advanced country

This is why the G20's concern over financial regulation, notably at the London summit in 2009, and the ongoing worries about protectionism are justified. Sovereignty is not the same as autarky. As the 2009 G20 communique rightly noted, "We start from the belief that prosperity is indivisible". Moreover, we are also rightly interested in the fate of other people. Development is a moral cause. But it is also essential if migration is to be managed.

The decision to call the initial summit of G20 leaders in Washington in November 2008 was therefore inescapable. The western-dominated group of seven countries had neither the right nor the power to co-ordinate global economic affairs. The rise of the rest, above all of China and India, had made that increasingly clear. Moreover, the West contains far too small a proportion of humanity to lay any moral claim to global management.

Global co-operation will always be both imperfect and frustrating. It cannot escape differences of opinion and clashes of interest. Nor can it replace the vital foundation of good domestic policies and legitimate domestic institutions. Indeed, both are essential,


Yet humanity’s affairs are now too interwoven and their impact far too profound to be the by-product of purely national decision-making. This truth may be painful. But it is a reality. Within that system of global co-operation the West may still have, for a while, the loudest voice. But even that is only possible if it is united.

If the cause Trump’s US now wishes the rest of the West to embrace is that of a clash of civilisations, in which the US aligns with the most reactionary and chauvinistic of contemporary European opinions, then there can be no West. If necessary, the Europeans will have to align themselves, on some vital issues, not with the US, but with the more enlightened of the rest.

How, one might ask, has this clash of civilisations now emerged, not so much between the West and the rest as within the West – a clash symbolised by the contrasting perspectives of Germany's Angela Merkel and Trump? For that tragedy I blame the rise of US "pluto-populism".

Behind this is something remarkable: the US income distribution is now more like that of a developing than an advanced country. Populism (of both left and right) is a natural consequence of high inequality. If so, Trump may be no temporary anomaly.

The transformation of the US we are seeing might prove enduring. If so, the world has moved into a dangerous era. "The US", argues former state department official Richard Haass, "is not sufficient, but it is necessary." He is right. If the one "necessary" player is absent, disorder would appear to be inevitable. – (Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2017)

Martin Wolf

Martin Wolf

Martin Wolf is chief economics commentator with the Financial Times