Review 2017: Trump, the US and a world upended
A US domestic focus left communist China to defend free trade and globalisation
On a cold January day in early 2017 the 45th president of the United States, Donald Trump, ascended the steps of the United States Capitol, in Washington, DC, and took the oath of office. In a dark, dystopian speech he evoked a metaphor of the United States as a desolate graveyard with “rusted-out factories scattered like tombstones across the landscape of our nation”.
Denouncing what he termed the current “American carnage”, he conjured up an image of a country ravaged by division. “For too long a small group in our nation’s capital has reaped the rewards of government while the people have borne the cost; the establishment protected itself but not the citizens of our country,” he said. “Their victories have not been your victories; their triumphs have not been your triumphs.” He proclaimed: “From this day forward a new vision will govern our land. From this moment on it’s going to be America first.”
On the other side of the globe the world’s wealthiest and most powerful elites were gathering for the annual January meeting of the World Economic Forum, in Davos. Although Trump’s recent victory and its implications for the world economy was dominating discussion on the slopes and at the cocktail parties in the Swiss ski resort, the absence of the US delegation from plenary sessions of the annual meeting was glaringly evident.
Instead focus turned to the president of the People’s Republic of China, Xi Jinping, who, as leader of the world’s second-largest economy, inadvertently stepped up to fill the void left by the United States. In a keynote address he delivered a robust defence of globalisation, urging countries to put their own concerns in the broader context and refrain from “pursuing their own interests at the expense of others”.
The spectacle of the head of the Chinese Communist Party defending free trade and globalisation symbolised the radically shifting global order and the dramatic changes in the balance of power in the 21st-century economy. As 2017 began it seemed as if the world had tilted.
If 2016 was the year of global shocks and electoral earthquakes, 2017 was the year when the world came to terms with those seismic changes. The second half of 2016 witnessed two democratic decisions that appeared to undermine the postwar liberal order that had governed international relations and global trade for most of the 20th century.
In June 2016 Britons voted to leave the European Union, motivated by a desire for greater national sovereignty, a resistance to further immigration and a rejection of the multilateral structure of the community they had joined 40 years earlier. In the United States a property magnate turned reality-television star, whose electoral pledges included proposals to ban Muslims and build a wall with Mexico, won the 2016 presidential election in defiance of most political predictions.
Twenty seventeen was a year that saw the political realities of those two democratic decisions play out. Among the millions of people who opposed both results there was wishful thinking that the reality might somehow be different and that the results, although irreversible, could be managed in some way.
The reality has been different.
Although progress has been slow, and it will be bound to the union for at least two more years through a transitional arrangement, preparations are under way for the United Kingdom to leave the European Union in March 2019. Ireland, along with 26 other states in the bloc, must confront the inevitability of Brexit and accept that the club to which it belongs is losing one of its biggest members.
Despite the outrage of millions of Americans, Donald Trump did indeed arrive in Washington on January 20th and take up residence in the White House. His immediate future as president seems secure, at least until next year’s midterm congressional elections.
Trump’s failures mask his achievements in various areas, some of which could have far-reaching implications long after the president leaves office
The past 11 months have seen Trump set to work on achieving his goals and delivering his agenda for the millions of white-collar workers and long-time conservative Republicans who backed him. His failures are patently evident: despite promises to repeal and replace Obamacare, Republican healthcare plans have crumbled; plans to build a wall along the Mexican border remain in the planning stage; attempts to ban Muslim immigration have been halted by various federal courts, and even now the adminstration’s ban on travel from eight nations, six of them predominantly Muslim, has been given the go-ahead by the US supreme court only while legal challenges continue.
But his failures mask his achievements in various areas, some of which could have far-reaching implications for Americans and the world long after Trump leaves office.
He has followed through on promises to renegotiate the United States’ international trade deals, pulling out of the Trans-Pacific Partnership, which the US signed with a dozen Asian-Pacific countries, and reopening the Nafta trade deal between the US, Canada and Mexico.
He is poised to deliver a huge tax-reform package that many analysts believe will benefit the United States’ richest individuals and corporations while leaving its poorest behind, particularly through its provisions on healthcare.
The Trump administration has also quietly pushed through dozens of nominations to federal courts and, in the conservative Neil Gorsuch, to the supreme court, guaranteeing the conservative hue of the American legal system for decades to come.
Other changes include plans to end the Dreamers programme, which allows young people who were brought to the United States as children to stay, as well as banning transgender people from serving in the military.
But it’s his decisions in the realm of foreign policy that could have long-term implications for the global order, and made 2017 a year of fear, trepidation and uncertainty for citizens around the world.
The escalation of tensions in the Korean Peninsula, which peaked in August, has moved the prospect of nuclear war ever closer, fuelled by inflammatory altercations between Trump and the North Korean leader, Kim Jong-un, conducted through Twitter and other media platforms. In 2017 Pyongyang launched 18 missile tests, 13 of which were successful.
Trump has also risked inflaming tensions in the Middle East, and undermining the long-term progress of a peace plan to resolve the Israeli-Palestinian conflict by declaring Jerusalem the capital of Israel and confirming plans to move the US embassy there from Tel Aviv.
On Iran the US president reversed the signature achievement of his predecessor Barack Obama by pledging to pull out of the nuclear deal struck between Tehran and leading world powers if Congress does not come up with a solution by March. And he also announced a plan to take the US out of the Paris Agreement, the climate-change accord that has the backing of every other country in the world.
As 2018 looms, the future seems as uncertain as ever.
The midterm elections scheduled for November will give some inkling of whether Trumpism is the new reality or merely an aberration, just as negotiations on a trade agreement between the UK and EU will begin to set out exactly the shape of Brexit.
In the United States the deep divisions that have riven the country during the first year of the Trump presidency promise to continue. All the while the Mueller investigation into Russian interference in the election will continue its work, and continue to search for proof of possible collaboration between the Trump campaign team and Russia. But with the decision to impeach a president resting with the Republican-controlled Congress, much depends on how far the Republican Party is willing to back its president.
Trump may be sailing close to the wind, but with the support of his party and his core voters he may well see out his four-year term. After that, the prospect of another four years may not be far from sight.