The thunderbolt burst, of all places, in the Technicolor gold and ochre setting of the United Nations in New York. The annual ritual of the General Assembly had just begun with a highly ambitious urgent agenda: how to cope with climate change and how to move the planet – as the world community had agreed in principle – toward a sustainable development goal by 2030.
But President Trump, who was the second speaker after populist Bolsonaro from Brazil, was going to have none of that. The United States, he said, would never yield to multilateralism, which he conflated with socialism. Patriotism and the pursuit of national interests were the keys of success. And America, stronger economically and militarily under his stewardship, while making no apologies for protecting American jobs and American interests first, was more than willing to cooperate with any like-minded nations and allies – on a bilateral basis.
Britain would be first in line, he promised. As soon as it left the European Union for good, it would be rewarded with a “phenomenal” free trade treaty.
There was practically no applause except from vice-president Pence and a few American officials. UN Secretary General Guterres listened intently pursing his lips, made aware once again of the United Nations sliding into semi-irrelevance, the way the old Society of Nations went, in which the United States never took part.
Then, while Trump strode out of the hall like an oblivious Sun King, lightning struck. After long dithering, the Democratic-dominated Chamber of Representatives, following a conversation of Trump with Ukraine president, in which he asked “as a favor” for an investigation into former vice-president Joe Biden (who happens to be, at least for the time being, the Democratic front-runner for president), had decided to start impeachment procedures, over claims that he unlawfully sought help from a foreign state to damage the chances of a political rival.
The story is murky. There is no suggestion of impropriety by Biden senior, or indeed by his son Hunter, who worked as a lobbyist earning considerable sums of money in Ukraine. However, as respected Columbia University academic Alexander Stille points out, the Biden-Ukraine business has a bad smell: even if it is a far cry from the alarming abuse of power, allegedly committed by Trump, of using the presidency to bring down a political opponent.
Given the current toxic climate in Washington, the investigation will inevitably debase the level of American politics at home, and damage the United States’ credibility abroad. It’s possible but unlikely that the time-consuming procedure of impeachment will be concluded in time for the November 3 presidential election next year.
Since impeachment requires a two-thirds Senate majority, however, unless 20 or more Republican senators totally despair of Trump, or are politically suicide-prone, the Democratic hope to get rid of the president via his impeachment looks like a non-starter. Politically, the outcome might go either way. If the public gets tired of an inconclusive inquiry, there could even be a pro-Trumpian backlash – although with his abysmal popularity outside his hardcore supporters estimated at 40 percent, that seems rather far-fetched.
In blunt terms, whoever prevails in next year’s election will have to come to terms with two realities. The United States, once the unchallenged global power, is in retreat. It is unprepared and unwilling to accept a diminished role in a still undefined and unstable multilateral world order. As for the economy, and contrary to what president Trump asserts, the United States, while still growing albeit slowly, is seriously unbalanced.
With a chronic trade deficit made worse by inadequate competitiveness, poor primary education and aging infrastructure, all ills that tariffs with beggar-my-neighbor retaliatory policies will not cure, the American economy is burdened by the three heavy millstones of budget deficit out of control, trade deficit, and ballooning private debt. It is heading for an unsustainable path. Meanwhile the Pax Americana is problematic. Like France and Britain in the Suez fiasco of 1956, the United States even if not so dramatically, is suffering from the classic symptoms of a great power in retreat: hesitancy and procrastination.
To be fair, these weaknesses did not start with Trump. They were manifest in fact also under his predecessor in Syria, in 2012. President Obama, having sternly warned Assad at the time (and indirectly his Russian supporters) that the use of chemical weapons against civilians was a “red line” that the US would not accept and that would trigger a military intervention by the United States, did nothing of the sort when one year later Syrian troops bombed 1,400 civilians with sarin. The Russians promptly stepped in with the offer to destroy the Syrian gas stockpile, and the Americans gratefully accepted.
Syria was Putin’s triumph and America’s humiliation. With Trump, who in 2018 along with France and the UK launched 105 missiles at Syrian targets, the United States opted for a policy of empty posturing that was lethal for civilians and changed nothing on the ground, apart from causing massive destruction. As for the political outcome, Washington abdicated to Russia. The still ongoing Syrian war. has in nine years caused 570,000 persons killed and over 5 million refugees. Assad, thanks to Russia’s support, and to the impotence of the United Nations, is safely in place. With America turning parochial, and the populist anti-globalist wave sweeping the self-styled developed world, uncertainty rules.
What next? Stanford university Michael Spence, a Nobel prize-winning economist, ventures a brave prediction in his book The Next Convergence (optimistically rendered as ‘La convergenza inevitabile’ in the Italian edition). Over the next fifty years, he suggests, and contrary to what the prophets of doom warn about the danger of trade wars– that they inevitably evolve into all-out wars– large economies such as the U.S. and China will have to converge in order to ensure future growth.
Let’s hope he is right and pessimists are wrong. But Europe, with the U.S. defense umbrella becoming more costly and possibly less than effective, instead of surrendering meekly to the siren songs of one-on-one “phenomenal” trade deals – under the threat of retaliatory tariffs in which Washington would easily have the upper hand – if it cares about its survival, ought to say firmly: “No, thanks” to president Trump’s proposal to transform the European Union into a collection of tiny Brexit deals.