For more than 70 years, the United States has led an international order organised around alliances, an open global economy, and multilateralism. This imperfect order had its fair share of mistakes, problems, and crises but it also produced the longest period of great power peace and relative prosperity in history. Today, it hangs by a thread. Three men can cut it.
In Donald Trump, America has a rogue president who has a 30-year track record of opposing key elements of the order, including free trade and alliances. Vladimir Putin wants to overthrow the order because he believes it poses a direct threat to his regime. Xi Jinping's China benefits from the open global economy but he would dearly like to replace the US as the pre-eminent power in East Asia.
And yet somehow, the old order endures, at least for now. Trump was so unprepared to govern that he turned to a number of generals and CEOs – the so-called “adults in the room” – who have worked closely together to contain his worst impulses and to maintain a traditional US foreign policy as much as possible.
The adults – Jim Mattis, Rex Tillerson, H R McMaster, John Kelly and Gary Cohn – have had some success, preventing Trump from starting a trade war with China or from pulling out of Nato. Trump continues to tweet irresponsibly and he overruled his advisers to decertify the Iran deal and pull out of the Paris climate accord, but he finds himself more contained and boxed in than he would like.
Meanwhile, Putin and Xi have been cautious and are biding their time. Both have domestic politics to worry about – Xi with the recently concluded 19th party congress and Putin with next year’s Russian presidential election. Putin’s election is unfair and fraudulent of course but much can still go wrong for him, as it did in 2012 when protests rocked Moscow.
One year on from the most shocking election in American history, the world could be forgiven for quietly asking the question: are we safe? Is this as bad as it gets?
The answer is unknowable of course but unfortunately there is good reason to believe precisely the opposite. Perhaps, in the age of Trump, this is as good as it gets and it just gets worse from here.
The notion that America and the world can muddle through the next three years without something breaking rests on the assumption that perhaps the system is stronger than the man
There is no escaping the fact that Trump is a unique figure in American presidential history. He is unique ideologically. No other postwar president believed the radical things he believes. He is unique cognitively and in how he processes information. No other president trusted crazy cable talk shows over his own intelligence agencies. He is unique temperamentally. No other president, not even Nixon, was as thin-skinned or as insecure. And he is unique intellectually. No other president knew less about history and current affairs than Trump. And no one cared less about what they did not know.
The notion that America and the world can muddle through the next three years without something breaking rests on the assumption that maybe this time the identity of the president does not matter. Perhaps the system is stronger than the man.
The first nine and half months of his presidency provides some evidence for this proposition. But the problem is that Trump does not want to be normalised. He is not an inexperienced governor who learns on the job, like Jimmy Carter, Bill Clinton, or George W Bush. He is determined to find ways to disrupt and upend world affairs on a whim. And, as president he is invested with enormous power.
As time goes on, Trump will find people who will empower him, instead of trying to contain him
He was broadly contained by the "adults in the room" because he had no one truly loyal to him who was qualified to hold high office and could be confirmed by the Senate. He brought the few people he did have into the White House, where Senate conformation is not required, but Michael Flynn was quickly forced to resign and Steve Bannon was marginalised from the national security decision-making.
However, as time goes on, Trump will find people who will empower him, instead of trying to contain him. Some of these will be junior officials who gain experience. Others may be opportunists who see a chance to gain high office by pledging to be more of a loyalist than the current cabinet. Senator Tom Cotton of Arkansas, rumoured to be a future CIA director or secretary of defence, already seems to be playing this role, saying that cabinet members should resign if they cannot implement Trump's vision.
And if the Republican Party does well in the mid-term elections, with more pro-Trump candidates on the ballot courtesy of Bannon's primary challenges, then Trump will feel empowered to loosen the shackles even more. He and his true believers will gradually figure out how to control the bureaucracy and tilt policy in their direction. They will grow tired of adult supervision.
Paradoxically, as Trump gains more control over his administration, he will become weaker on the world stage. America’s strength is rooted in its predictability. Trump’s defining characteristics are an indecisiveness born out of ignorance and an inability to learn quickly and a weakness born out of insecurity. He seeks the trappings of strength but like Kaiser Wilhelm II he is prone to rash decisions and like Napoleon III he is easily manipulated by foreign powers who know what buttons to push. It is this intrinsic weakness that creates further openings for Xi and Putin.
Xi’s goal appears to be to overthrow the international order while pretending to be its protector. Under his rule, China has pursued mercantilist economic policies much more in line with Trump’s worldview than with the principles of an open global economy. And yet Trump’s folly allows Xi to portray himself as the champion of globalisation. On security, he is telling the region that China is reliable and here to stay while the US is in decline and cannot be trusted to play its traditional role.
Now that the 19th party congress is out of the way, Xi's China is likely to become even more assertive in its region. Like Putin's Russia, it will also step up its political interference in other countries, especially in South East Asia. While Xi pressures the west, he will also preserve the possibility of a bargain or series of bargains with Trump that puts China in the pilot's seat in East Asia.
Putin though is the real wildcard. He has the ability and motivation to wreak havoc. He now knows he can interfere in US elections on behalf of the Republicans without sanction or response from Trump. If he can calibrate it correctly, he could strengthen the pro-Russia position among the Breitbart and America First Republicans. He will also continue to wage his political war against the European Union, seeing it as part of that US-led international order that poses so many dangers to him.
Putin believes he is responding to a political war the US and the EU has waged against him. He believes that NGOs, support for human rights and democracy, and the free press are all part of a western strategy to orchestrate revolutions to topple his regime. For Putin, this is the real threat – much more so than Nato troops or military interventions. Russian political warfare is his response.
The big question is whether he would make a big move to test Trump’s resolve. Would he invade the Baltic states to expose the mutual defence clause of Nato as empty and obsolete? Probably not. Putin is risk acceptant but such a move would bring a real risk of major power war, which he wants to avoid. Better to wage a covert war under the radar. Especially since it is already producing results.
The real test will come if and when a major crisis occurs. All eyes are currently on North Korean dictator Kim Jong Un
It is the combination of Trump, Xi and Putin that makes the present situation so dangerous. If Trump was elected in the 1990s, it would have been ugly but the rest of the world would have been in relatively good shape. Today though, the world is fragile and predators lurk in the shadows.
The real test will come if and when a major crisis occurs. All eyes are currently on North Korean dictator Kim Jong Un who is mastering the technology to destroy American and European cities with nuclear missiles. Kim is rational enough not to launch these weapons against the west, knowing that would bring about his own destruction, but he is also ruthless enough to try to use the leverage they provide to realise his grandfather's dream of unifying the peninsula on North Korea's terms. The likely result is a series of crises and brinksmanship to test the will of America and its allies.
The US is unlikely to launch a preventive strike on North Korea, not least because secretary Mattis would never agree to it. But war could also occur by accident or miscalculation. A war on the Korean peninsula would be devastating in terms of the loss of life. It would also be the greatest geopolitical shock to the international order since the collapse of the Soviet Union.
It’s not just military crises we have to worry about. The 2008 financial crisis was worse than the 1929 crash for the first few months. It levelled off because of the responsible decisions taken by the US, China, and the EU. Would Trump act as responsibly if a financial crisis occurred on his watch or would he repeat the mistakes of the early 1930s by blaming other nations and imposing massive tariffs? There is a non-trivial probability he would choose the latter course, making a depression much more likely.
It would be an analytical error to infer from the first year since Trump’s election that we will continue to muddle through. Small signs of normality in the national security bureaucracy do not necessarily portend a linear trend of improvement. Make no mistake – this is a great American and global crisis that continues to unfold. In retrospect, we may look back on 2017 as the phoney war when the three major protagonists – a modern axis of disorder – readied themselves to act in a radically changed world.
- Thomas Wright is a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution and author of All Measures Short of War: The Contest for the 21st Century and the Future of American Power