[yt_dropcap type=”square” font=”” size=”14″ color=”#000″ background=”#fff” ] A [/yt_dropcap]ccording to official news agencies, the recent phone call of February 8 last and the subsequent letter by President Trump to his Chinese counterpart, Xi Jinping, was “long” and “extremely cordial”.
In particular, official sources recall that, just upon the Chinese leader’s request, the US President reaffirmed he would honour the so-called “One China” policy in the US bilateral and multilateral relations, which means that the United States do not oppose – now or in the future – the Chinese ambitions over Taiwan that China still considers the “renegade province.”
As reported by Chinese sources, President Trump also formulated to the Chinese people his wishes for the New Lunar Year – the year of the Rooster, running from January 28, 2017 to February 16, 2018 – and for the upcoming Lantern Festival, celebrated on the fifteenth day of the first month of the new year.
Those who really know how to make foreign policy are always very attentive to symbols and traditions. They are not befuddled by GDP percentages or daily talk, but set great store by the various peoples’ symbols and old traditions, which are the fabric of each State community.
According to Xi Jinping who made his first phone call to President Trump, the two major countries, namely China and the United States, are bound to cooperate to manage the world’s fate. The Chinese leader also defined the substantial and non-formal mainstay of China’s foreign policy in recent years: the reaffirmation of the peaceful, but primary role played by China among all world countries.
The concept of a “win-win” relationship, the cornerstone of Xi Jinping’s foreign policy, was expressed – for the first time – by the Chinese President in his speech delivered at the Moscow Institute for International Relations in March 2013.
Later the concept was reiterated and applied in China’s State visits to Serbia, Poland and Uzbekistan last June, as well as in the Shanghai Cooperation Organization’s 12th Summit – and this is certainly not a coincidence, but a symbol.
In Xi Jinping’s mind, the “win-win” relationship between States can be defined as an organism consisting of a skeleton of political mutual trust, blood vessels of economic cooperation and nerves of cultural exchanges, with concrete cooperation projects as its cellular tissue.
Within this intellectual and political horizon, when the countries develop a clear understanding of the international situation and unite to meet security and economic challenges, they form a community shouldering responsibility together, namely a “responsibility community”. When they respect the various cultures and political systems, they form a group sharing a common fate, namely a “fate community”.
Finally, in Xi Jinping’s mind, a “win-win” relationship enables the traditional multilateral and bilateral treaties to work better.
This will be exactly China’s great offer to the European Union, which is based on three levels: the EU as the nerve centre of world economy, as well as a great Mediterranean region – and, in the future, China will focus on the Mare Nostrum – and finally as a strategic factor for rebalancing Asia, the United States and the emerging countries.
I wish there was – within the European Union – at least some strategic and geopolitical thinking about Europe living up to China’s.
The theory of “win-win” relations also means that China plans to extend its theory of “creative, coordinated and green” development to the rest of the world.
This is exactly the conceptual foundation of the Belt and Road Initiative that Xi Jinping launched by following up Li Keqiang’s policy line during his state visits to Asia and Europe of September and October 2013.
It is worth noting, however, that while Trump only called the Heads of State and Government of allied and friendly States, in the case of Xi Jinping he even wrote a letter – which is clearly a sign of great respect for China and its government.
The tension recently mounted between President Trump and the Australian Prime Minister, Turnbull, is the last thing that China wishes to see. In fact, China is very interested in a strategic – and hence economic, political and military – relationship with Australia. In particular, it wants a special link to be created with the United States through that country.
Hence, in Xi Jinping’s mind, America is a factor of stability and multipolar balance, in a Pacific Ocean where China is expanding northwards and is establishing new “win-win” relations and bonds with all coastal countries and with Japan, in particular.
Trump had also alarmed the Chinese government by calling the President of the Republic of Taiwan, Tsai Ing-wen, last December.
Furthermore, Donald Trump repeatedly stated – during the election campaign and after rising to power – he would impose additional tariffs on Chinese imports to the United States, by accusing China of artificially devaluing its currency so as to stimulate its exports and “stealing jobs from Americans” – just to recall the terminology used by the future President during the election campaign.
Furthermore, the Secretary of State, Rex Tillerson, stated in the Senate that China should not have free access to the artificial islands it built in the South China Sea. He also stated that the United States would anyway protect the free waterways between the Pacific Ocean and the China Sea.
However, is it true that China manipulates its currency?
Let us see whether this is true.
The (Chinese) capital is fleeing the country because international investors – and many of these are also Chinese – are not optimistic about the future of the Chinese economy.
The pace of growth is slow, the lowest rate in 25 years. A reduced growth rate, which is recorded for many good and useful reasons. In fact, the government is reducing the interest rate of government bonds and is also cooling real estate prices, as well as implementing reforms that will reduce excess production capacity and increase the production efficiency of public companies.
Hence a vicious cycle has been triggered off, which shows that the market is not suitable for playing the role of supreme judge of economies.
Therefore investors are selling yuan and buying US dollars or other hard currencies. This creates downward pressure on the yuan exchange rate, which further stimulates the sale of Chinese currency and the purchase of US dollars and other hard currencies.
If there is capital fleeing the country, the yuan lowers its exchange rate, as always happens in these cases.
Since the time of double devaluation in August 2015, 1.2 trillion US dollars have left China. The Chinese currency reserves dropped by as many as 800 billion dollars in two years, just to defend the yuan parity – dollars obviously sold only to support the yuan.
Over time, the Chinese government has blocked the companies’ yuan transfers until rebalancing revenue and expenditure. It has also restricted the purchase of foreign currency by Chinese traders and businessmen, stimulated State enterprises to sell foreign currency and blocked the use of credit cards up 5,000 US dollars of spending.
These efforts now seem to be successful.
The latest data shows that capital is coming back to China and, therefore, the currency value should stabilize quickly.
Hence it is true that the Chinese government is “manipulating” its currency – although rescuing its reforms, economic stability and domestic policy – but said manipulation takes place upwards and not downwards. Therefore there is no yuan devaluation which favours Chinese exports in the United States or in the rest of the world.
Furthermore, it is worth recalling that the accusations of currency manipulation were also typical of Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton.
It is also worth recalling, however, that the Sino-US trade deficit is currently 232.25 billion dollars and that this is a problem that must be solved anyway.
In other words, the government keeps the yuan value “up”, thus de facto subsidizing imports from China.
Furthermore, China needs to provide jobs to a much greater mass of unemployed people than the US workforce and it does not want to encourage downward competition by Japan, India or Vietnam.
Moreover, Donald Trump’s economic positions, or what the Republican candidate maintained during the election campaign, are such as to strengthen the dollar, while the US economy is still the locomotive of global recovery.
And we assume it will remain so for long time.
In Trump’s mind, the maximum income tax rate will be 33% as against the current 39.6%; the real estate tax will be abolished altogether but, anyway, no company shall pay over 15% of their income in taxes.
On the other hand, however, there will no longer be domestic tax havens or tax tricks and stratagems, which has greatly alarmed many traditional voters and especially funders of the Republican Party.
Moreover, President Trump has threatened China also with regard to intellectual property and subsidies to exports he deems illegal.
Another theme in common with the previous Administration. In partial contradiction with these opinions, Trump has also supported the idea of transforming the United States into a more attractive country for foreign investment than China itself, by also trying to reduce the US public debt so as to avoid the hidden pressure of China, which is still the largest holder of US Treasury Bonds.
However, as international economic experts show, the United States record an aggregate trade surplus with 20 of the countries with which they have trade agreements, while 1 billion US dollars worth of exports supports approximately 6,000 US jobs, bearing in mind the fact that the jobs resulting from export activities are paid, on average, 18% more than the others.
Hence, finally President Trump will greatly change the recent Trans-Pacific Partnership (TTP), i.e. the trade agreement between the United States, Brunei, Australia, Chile, Canada, Malaysia, Mexico, New Zealand, Peru, Singapore and Vietnam.
However, currently the export tariffs of North American products to Asia are too high and the cooling of the TTP would largely favour only China.
No one in Trump’s administration likes TTP and the President prefers bilateral trade agreements rather than multipolar economic alliances.
Hence the paradox of the bilateral situation between the United States and China is the following: if the yuan rises – as it is expected to happen soon – the US dollar will fall significantly and it will be easier for President Trump to stimulate US exports.
And, for the law of unintended consequences, the freezing of TTP could become the primary stimulus to the recovery of the Chinese economy.
The (Dis) United States of America, 2030: A dystopian scenario
People tend to look for watersheds in history that mark the end of an era, that unique juncture when there is no going back and the future looms disconcerted. As a new decade begins, pundits are still trying to reconcile when the US fractured to a point of no return. The turbulent 2020s certainly provided fodder for the heated debates. Some looked at the 2007-2008 financial crisis as a symbol of capitalism’s unbridled greed and lack of government oversight. Others, taking a longer-term view, blamed the increasing inequality of US society over more than half a century, or the growing polarization of politics and society in recent decades. The more philosophically inclined felt that American exceptionalism and hubris were culprits; more cynical minds felt it was more like complacency and presumption.
Those who needed numbers to understand loss looked at the dismal US performance in combating the Covid-19 pandemic. Some say the day of reckoning came when the number of deaths from COVID-19 passed the 620,000 mark -the number of fatalities in the US Civil War- and then the roughly 675,000 Americans that died from the Spanish flu in 1918-1919. In any case, the numbers kept on growing as the vaccines took longer to develop and distribute than previously thought.
Historians, though, mostly tend to agree that a pivotal moment in US history occurred in the 2010s when a perfect storm of creeping developments began to converge. A widening divide between a wealthy class that became politically adept at promoting and preserving their privileges and low and middle-income Americans whose wages stagnated became more conspicuous. Globalization and deindustrialization played a role in the largest wealth inequality gap among the most developed nations, but so did skewed policies that largely favoured the rich.
Increasing political polarization and hyper-partisanship made decision-making intractable; whereas in past decades Democrats and Republicans would cooperate on major policy issues, and even displayed camaraderie, the situation deteriorated to the extent that outlooks became irreconcilable and politics faded into trench warfare in which the opposing party was perceived not as an opponent but as enemy and traitor.
Parallelly, societal polarization also deepened as personal political identities increasingly transcended ideology to encompass topics as diverse as climate change, healthcare, gun control, the pro-life or pro-choice divide, and even the response to the Covid-19 pandemic. In broad terms, two Americas emerged: one liberal, racially inclusive and egalitarian, the other socially conservative, white-dominated, occasionally prone to nativist and xenophobic overtones, that increasingly overlapped with the party system.
The US might have survived this toxic cauldron of developments if it weren’t for the whirlwind persona of Donald Trump and his tempestuous presidency. His constant attacks on US institutions and the deep-rooted system of checks and balances at such a consequential historical juncture did irrevocable damage to the country. Trump weakened America’s democratic legitimacy and standing abroad by siding with autocrats of all stripes and deriding long-standing alliances and trade partnerships. The US has a long history of disruptive populist leaders: Huey P. Long, Joe McCarthy, George Wallace and Pat Buchanan stand out in the twentieth century. But none of them became president. Trump was the first one that reached the pinnacle of political power. He contributed more than anyone or anything else to the polarization of politics and society, all to serve his narcissistic persona.
Historians and sociologists still ponder on how a significant majority of less-educated white Americans, desperate to preserve their eroding prerogatives, could unconditionally condone his self-serving meanderings, so contrary to their own needs; ironically, they ended up strengthening Trump’s plutocracy. More worrying was the opportunistic subservience of the Republican Party to his whims and authoritarian tendencies. Some wondered whether Trump was a symptom or a cause of the unravelling of the US. It didn’t matter; his single, contentious mandate proved to be a harbinger of the fracture to come.
A most dysfunctional election
Trump lost the November 2020 presidential election by a wider margin of the popular vote than in 2016, though nobody knows the exact count as there was no official final tally, at least not one accepted by both parties. On Election Day his call to supporters – the self-proclaimed ballot guardians– to protect the votes in critical swing states led to abuse, violence and irregularities. The situation was aggravated by the presence of armed members of far-right vigilante groups. “Suspicious” voters and election adjudicators were harassed under the guise of preventing voter fraud; some voting centres and post offices were rampaged as sympathetic law enforcement officers looked on.
Though the results coming in on Election Night slightly favoured Trump, the expected blue-shift phenomenon as mail-in ballots were progressively counted began to give the Democratic candidate Joe Biden a commanding lead. There was no legal precedent to the mayhem that ensued. Soon thereafter, Trump reiterated the election was rigged against him; without any proof, he stressed that due to massive voter fraud in the mail-in votingthe count should be suspended and tabulation be based on the results of Election Night. The conflict went from the streets to the courts; it was no less ugly.
The elimination of the decades-old consent decree in 2018 had given the Republicans ample tools to again intimidate voters and suppress votes. Litigation ensued tabulation. Republican legal teams questioned the validity of many of these overwhelmingly Democratic mail-in ballots in an attempt to disqualify as many Biden voters as possible. Under the pretext of rampant voter fraud and political and civic chaos, Republican-majority state legislatures in the six crucial battleground states appointed their own electors to the Electoral College.
It was the most dysfunctional election in US history. To all effects, the Republicans attempted to stage a coup against the will of the majority of voters. The Democrats pushed back insisting that the electors should reflect the vote count. The Interregnum came and went, besmirched by political haggling and massive street protests that sometimes turned violent. Two separate Electoral Colleges chose two different presidents. The stalemate continued beyond Inauguration Day. Trump’s refusal to accept defeat plunged the country into the worst constitutional crisis in US history; actually, it was a series of constitutional crises.
Joe Biden was eventually declared the 46th President of the US, though the situation continued being tense and confounding, even though in the mid-term elections of 2022the Democrats won a majority in the Senate and kept the one in the House. Trumps insisted in his denunciations and called on his supporters to defend him, liberty and the Constitution, in that order. There was a certain irony in all this, as the white supremacy groups that mostly heeded his calls denounced the tyranny of the Biden government, while conveniently overlooking the authoritarian nature of Trump himself.
Proceedings began to arraign Trump on grounds of criminal and civil wrongdoing. It was the first time in US history that a former president would go to trial; ample evidence was presented. The majority of the American public, fed up with Trump’s railings and hoping for catharsis, supported prosecution; his supporters went ballistic. But President Biden eventually decided to grant a pardon on the grounds of national reconciliation. It was later discovered that a secret “deal’ had been made in which Trump promised to refrain from further destabilizing actions in return for a full pardon from prosecution. Even though Trump’s self-promotion as a master dealmaker rang hollow, as evidenced by his multiple bankruptcies and accusations of financial wrongdoings, this was one deal that actually worked out well for him.
In the end, the furor didn’t matter much. Trump’s empire eventually withered amidst a massive debt load and the enormous losses many of its businesses were incurring. Trump’s offspring and associates were accused of protracted criminal conduct involving bank fraud, tax and insurance fraud. When proof emerged (through a Russian source) of questionable financial dealings with Moscow and links to shady Russian oligarchs linked to Vladimir Putin, his credibility further eroded.
A tumultuous decade
Kamala Harris lost a close election in 2024 to a tech billionaire who ran as an independent and on a platform of discontent with the political system; the Republican Tucker Carlson came in third. The victory was inconsequential, as was the one in 2028 of a retired naval officer, a hero in the “skirmish” three years earlier with Chinese ships in the South China Seas. Neither president was able to reconcile the deep fractures in American society, the ones Trump had so ably and cynically exploited.
Republican Senator Lindsey Graham’s unfortunate comments in October of 2020 that African Americans and immigrants can live in his home state of South Carolina as long as they were conservative were prescient of developments to come. Even though the metamorphosis began long before Trump’s presidency, throughout the 2020s the Republican Party became increasingly radicalized and intransigent.
The decade was pounded by profound transformations. In the early 2020s Americans worried that the increasing and seemingly irreconcilable polarization of society would lead to civil war. It’s true that following the controversial 2020 election, violence did increase throughout the country. Political polarization evolved into societal intolerance and went from resentful to vindictive. The US lost its common identity, its moral compass. The melting pot crumbled as neighbour turned on neighbour and families broke apart.
White supremacist groups and ANTIFA members fought pitched battles in the streets of cities. Other groups from across the political spectrum sometimes joined in, though less vehemently. The abundance and easy availability of arms, even automatic weapons normally used in wars, facilitated the carnage. Scores of thousands of Americans lost their lives. There were violent attacks on Democratic politicians in Republican bastions, and several members of state legislatures, mayors, and even two Governors were killed. Some more radical Democratic factions responded in kind. The police were unable to stop the spread of civilian violence as they too sometimes fractured and identified with one side or the other. The same occurred with the National Guard. Many Americans watched in disbelief and wondered how did it come to this. The liberal democracies of the world watched aghast.
But there was no civil war. Instead, there was a great migration. As the decade progressed, tens of millions of Americans left their homes seeking a better life in regions more in tune with their beliefs, aspirations and political identities. In some cases, harassment and intimidation contributed to forced departures. White educated, liberal urban professionals, blacks, Hispanics and Asian Americans left the Midwest and South towards the Pacific, or to the northeast. Meanwhile, less-educated, conservative working-class whites fled these bastions of liberalism to find solace in Middle America- some nostalgically called it Trumpian America.
With states purging themselves of ideological opponents, violence has gone down. Very different territorial entities are emerging. The great reckoning is having an irrevocable impact on US society. Some say it’s almost inevitable the US will fracture into two or even three different countries. The exhaustion and deep mistrust on either side diminished the will to unite.
The Great Divide
The United Western States of America (UWSA), an area that includes the Pacific states but also Arizona, Colorado Nevada and New Mexico, are strengthening their common identity and increasingly challenging central authority. They no longer recognize the decisions of the Supreme Court, whose conservative majority rulings are overturning the liberal foundations of the country on everything from abortion and education to immigration and health care. They have taken paradiplomacy to the next level, opening up Economic and Cultural Offices throughout Asia, Latin America and other parts of the world that for all practical purposed function as embassies.
The UWSA has unilaterally joined the Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement for Trans-Pacific Partnership, and have intensified their economic and political relations with Canada and Mexico, as well as with the economies of the Pacific Alliance, a Latin American regional integration initiative. There’s even hearsay of a more formal agreement with Canada, maybe even a confederation, as that country defends and promotes the values that once made the US so exceptional. The interest is buoyed by the lobbying of millions of highly skilled Americans that moved to Canada during the tumultuous 2020s, and that contributed to Making Canada Great.
The UWSA has also welcomed talented immigrants in large numbers, predominantly from Asia, and mostly from China and India -these two countries are confronting their own existential dilemmas. The immigration and the higher domestic fertility rates in the UWSA have contributed to demographic growth and an economic boom. By the mid-2030sthe region will not have a single racial or ethnic majority. The heavy toll of climate change and water shortages have made the UWSA a global leader in mitigation and adaptation. They are rapidly transitioning away from fossil fuels and towards renewable energy. Interestingly, shared challenges have increased cooperation with the increasingly autonomous Chinese coastal regions. The UWSA is the fifth largest economy in the world.
The Eastern American States, encompassing most of the Great Lakes region, New England and Virginia, though more geographically constrained and scattered is also pursuing an active paradiplomacy, focused mostly on Canada, Europe and Latin America. In the late 2020’s they unilaterally signed a Transatlantic Trade and Investment Agreement with the European Union.
Middle America has not fared that well. Whereas in the UWSA the Democratic party splintered and new parties emerged that are transforming the region into a vibrant multiparty democracy, in Middle America the Republican Party became the dominant, sometimes the sole political force. The party that erstwhile advocated free-trade and fiscal discipline -whose Congressmen shared with Democratic colleagues a sense of institutional patriotism– became withdrawn and mistrustful of the world, hostile to immigrants, and incredulous of climate change.
The message of Donald Trump resonated among the fervent populists who took over the party and used his playbook to stoke mostly imaginary fears and sow tribalist viewpoints. They pandered to the reactionary evangelicals and white supremacists that constituted the party’s core militancy. Its adherents, though, were mostly white Americans unwilling to accept a changing country and acquiescent of the party’s backsliding into chauvinism to keep their historical prerogatives. An ugly legacy of racism that goes back generations resurfaced, reassured by Trump’s earlier attacks on a liberal, inclusive society.
The country’s de facto dismemberment has weakened Middle America. Segments of white Americans continued suffering from a devastating opiate epidemic that reduced their productivity and life expectancy. The epidemic grew as the economy stagnated. Such was the heavy human toll that some compared it to Russia’s demographic decline in the 1990s. The refusal to transition towards renewable energy sources is impacting its fossil-fuel-based economy, whereas climate change is curtailing agricultural production in the Midwest and damaging vital infrastructure throughout the Gulf of Mexico.
The resilient hegemon
There was nothing predetermined about the decline of the US. Quite the contrary; no other major power is so blessed by providence. The US had considerable strategic and competitive advantages over foes and allies alike that would have allowed it to be a key 21st-century global power. Its privileged geographic location shielded it from immediate rivals and made it both an Atlantic and a Pacific power. It had more navigable waterways -and major ports- than the rest of the world combined, with the Greater Mississippi Basin overlaying the largest contiguous piece of farmland in the world. The US became the largest fossil-fuel producer in the world, and with the proper policies and incentives could have led the global transition towards renewable sources.
As opposed to most other major powers who in the next decades will experience demographic declines, its population was due to grow steadily in large part due to immigration -thus guaranteeing economic growth and military preparedness. In addition, it held sway over the global financial and monetary system and had consistently dominated each new generation of technology. Its capacity to project hard power and the appeal of its soft power was without rival. Though the US had embarked on a process of global strategic retrenchment long before Donald Trump’s solipsistic resolve, it was still an energy, agricultural, economic, financial and military powerhouse, and could have continued being so. Few foresaw the fracture that was to come.
A world bereft of leadership
Alas, no country or region could muster the will, nor had the capacity to take the helm. The Union European (EU) mostly stumbled in the 2020s, as demographic decline set in and right-wing populism further encroached on the region’s politics. The governance challenges of such a heterogeneous block led to a multi-tier structure of interactions in which different members cooperate on matters of common interest. Economic divergence, anaemic growth and political squabbling limited the EU’s global ambitions, though the region maintained its allure as the world’s foremost cluster of freedom, prosperity and peace.
Japan’s economy fell from the third biggest in the world in 2020 to ninth place in 2030, due largely to sluggish economic growth, and a rapidly shrinking population and workforce. Automation and innovation, though, helped maintain the country’s high quality of living. Despite US retrenchment from the world and particularly from Asia, Tokyo actively maintained its commitment to an open rules-based international system. However, its diminished economic and geopolitical heft limited its global influence.
By 2030India had the third largest economy in the world and had overtaken China as the country with the biggest population. Despite arbitrary attempts at imposing Hindutva nationalism on the country’s mosaic of religions and ethnicities, it remained the world’s most populous democracy, albeit a flawed one. New Delhi has struggled to provide employment to its huge youthful working-age population, leading to social discontent. Large demographic imbalances, regional disparities and alarming levels of pollution and groundwater depletion have dampened India’s prospects, forcing it to cast its gaze inwards.
Russia is still governed with an iron fist by Vladimir Putin. Its raw commodity-based economy has been unable to modernize and transition. Russia is suffering from a fast-aging population and rapid demographic decline that’s affecting its industries and armed forces. There was an exodus of young talented professionals fleeing the stagnant economy and the stifling regime. Popular uprisings against personalist, authoritarian rulers in its near abroad left Moscow even more forlorn. The country never recuperated the Soviet-era geopolitical grandeur that Putin so vehemently promoted.
No did China become the global hegemon many had forecasted. The sum of its challenges exceeded the sum of its accomplishments. With its demographic dividend over, China faces a fast-shrinking population, one of the reasons it could not transition from an export-led economy towards a focus on domestic consumption. The extent of its Orwellian surveillance state reduced China’s appeal as an alternative governance model. There was a global backlash throughout the 2020s at Beijing’s systematic repression of its Uighur and Tibetan minorities and the emasculation of Hong Kong; developing countries sometimes criticized its economic policies as neo- colonialism.
The decoupling was not only with the US, as the more prosperous, historically outward-looking coastal regions demanded greater leeway from Beijing and the Communist Party’s suffocating rule. As the US reduced its presence in the Indo-Pacific, the Quad expanded its scope to include not only Australia, India and Japan but also Vietnam and South Korea, with some Southeast Asian countries showing interest. This reduced Beijing’s quest for strategic depth.
Even countries that were previously critical of America’s hubris look back in nostalgia and grief at its decline, and what became of the global community. For all its failings and moral contradictions, the much-vilified Pax Americana contributed to an unprecedented era of economic growth, as well as one of relative stability and peace. The globalisation it helped spur lifted more than one billion out of poverty and improved the lives of billions more. For decades democracy around the world flourished.
The waning of the US came at the worst possible time. The 2020s proved to be a ruinous decade. The liberal, rules-based international order is fraying; no alternative has yet emerged. Multilateralism in its many forms weakened. Globalisation, already in retreat, further receded as the wide-ranging consequences of Covid-19 led to a fractured and regionalized world and economic nationalism brought a decrease in global trade and investments. The world went rudderless. Prosperity and stability are frail things. There is no greater pain than to be aware of what was and what was lost.
The crisis of positivist, “evidence-based” political science in US
Right from its birth in the 18th century, the United States of America emerged as one of the most advanced countries, or even the most advanced one in terms of government organization and the ideology of state building. The newly independent British colony got a chance to shed off the past and start from the ground up, and the Founding Fathers, as they are called in the US, used this chance to the max, erecting the three pillars of the American political order – the Declaration of Independence, the US Constitution and the Bill of Rights, which laid out the most progressive ideas of their time: human rights, democratic procedures, separation of powers, trial by jury, broad state autonomy, social contract, free speech, and many others.
The period of the rapid development of these ideas, akin to the French Enlightenment, has since been known in America as the “Age of Reason.” This time period, just like the ideas and principles it generated, is closely associated with empiricism and positivism – the two dominant philosophical streaks of that time, which denied philosophy as such and prioritized a scientific fact, an observed phenomenon, an experiment, logic, and ignored theoretical philosophical constructions, complex models and hypotheses not supported by scientific data. Back then, this new philosophy was the philosophy of science and was conceived as something that would replace the outdated classical philosophy with its interweaving of worldview, morality and faith, and remove ethics from the speculative structure of society, with its characteristic disregard for experiment as a method of cognition.
Today, almost 250 years since the adoption of the US Constitution, many elements of the American state system have not only lost their original progressive meaning but even look downright archaic. The most vivid examples of this are the life-long appointment of Supreme Court justices, who maintain their positions for decades, the electoral system of voting, whereby members of state electoral colleges are not obligated to vote according to the will of the people of that state, and the decentralized legal system, where precedents are superimposed on precedents, and the passage of a new law does not entail a revision of the old one.
Even though this archaism is obvious to any unbiased observer, not only are there no active discussions about constitutional reform or at least new amendments to the fundamental law of the land, but there are heated discussions going in Congress, the media and universities about how to interpret provisions of the ancient document in such a way as to better reflect the founding fathers’ ideas.
Any liberal arts education in the United States, from the high-school level up, includes a detailed study, not critical, but apologetic, of the history of the founding of the United States, the adoption of the Constitution and the early period of the US as a country. The personalities of the founding fathers and their philosophical views are front and center in most of these courses, and the higher the prestige of the educational institution, the more diligently the knowledge of the “essential foundations” of American statehood is implanted in the students’ minds.
As a result, the overwhelming majority of America’s intellectual elite leave their universities with deep faith in the sacredness of the US Constitution and the principles embedded in it. They are also steeped in the very spirit of empiricism and positivism of the Age of Reason. These are exactly the philosophical doctrines that shaped the development of humanitarian sciences in the United States and continue to do so today, even though they have long been considered in Europe as limited, to say the least.
This is also why scientific psychology has been reduced to behaviorism and the theory of historical stages has been dismissed, replaced by a civilizational approach and the so-called “evidence-based” or “fact-based” political science, which is the centerpiece of this article.
The seeds of political science and sociology, which fell into the fertile American soil in the first half of the 20th century, were soaked in the juices of the developed political class, their young shoots basked in the rays of a fleeting electoral cycle and an all-pervading electoral system, and their flowers were brighter than anywhere else. Election managers have never experienced any shortage of money and resources, and experts, who were able to predict the voters’ reaction, awaited universal respect and cushy jobs.
Now, in the run-up to the 21st year of the new century, America has a whole army of sociologists and political scientists, with regiments and divisions “deployed” in every state and in every district of each state. This army is big enough to simultaneously serve the election campaigns of two presidential candidates, dozens of candidates for state governors, hundreds of congressional and senatorial hopefuls, and thousands of candidates for elected positions in local administrations. This 300,000-strong army has its own soldiers – street agitators, and its generals – campaign managers. It also has its own intelligence – sociological institutions and political spin doctors, trying to analyze the voters’ preferences and work out the best strategy and tactics.
It would seem that all this multitude of people, endowed with almost unlimited resources, should have long ago studied the political landscape of every single corner of America and provided an accurate forecast of the locals’ reaction to statements made by a politician, or steps taken by his opponent. This doesn’t happen, however, and forecasts made by political scientists are disproved by reality. The biggest such flop ever was Donald Trump’s victory in the November 2016 presidential election.
This discrepancy between spent human and economic resources and the results attained has much to do with the culture of science and positivism that still prevails in American science. The positivist approach to science focuses on the search for objective truth, which can almost exclusively be achieved with the help of empirical facts and formal logic. This logic for centuries prevailed in physics, but even there it has been a subject of scathing criticism as it eventually turned out that the research method can affect the result of the research, and that one and the same object can have mutually exclusive properties, depending on how it is measured. This means that the fact obtained with so much effort is no longer absolute, and formal logic is simply insufficient in its toolbox.
These are the conclusions reached by physicists who study laws that are not subject to rapid change and are independent of human culture – a discovery that seems to have been completely overlooked by US political scientists, who still conduct public opinion polls as if the question never predetermines the answer, even though this is almost always the case. They avoid making assumptions, because they do not know all the facts, and try to objectively measure the immeasurable – the constantly changing moods of the mass of people divided into thousands of groups according to geographic, gender, age, educational, professional and other factors. And each of the millions of people polled represents a mixture of cultures, religions and ideologies and can change his or her opinion on a given issue every day, even a dozen times a day.
Such a system of studying the electorate and the related forecasting method are doomed to failure. Even if the combined forces of sociologists and political scientists were a hundred times larger and at a certain moment in time could collect data on the people’s preferences that would meet the strictest scientific criteria, the next day this information would be no longer relevant, and the whole work would have to be done again… In real life, however, this does not happen either.
Thus, US political scientists, who have always been taught not to invent theories, but only generalize the available facts, are chasing these facts and use them indiscriminately. Can an ordinary Biden election campaign expert run a scientific check on and compare multi-page descriptions of survey methods, when dozens of surveys are conducted each week, and sometimes, each day? Of course not, and so experts rely on the authority and decency of the organization that provides the “facts.” At best, they summarize the results of several surveys, and at worst, they use the one that suits them best.
This is the case at the level of data synthesis and forecasting, based on this generalization, but things are even worth when it comes to research and data collection. In an ever-changing environment, when precious “facts” become irrelevant in a matter of hours, research teams have to rely on the speed of research, rather than its coverage, representativeness or accuracy. This constant race leads to the emergence of such Frankenstein sociological monsters as a poll, where the difference in the candidates’ ratings is less than the margin of error allowed by the researcher, or a methodologically flawed survey, deliberately presented as an All-American poll that less than 1,000 people took part in.
And yet, US sociologists and political scientists still stick to positivism, because positivism is the true-blue American way. Never mind that these principles and methods, invented to study the eternal laws of nature, are now used to “study” the ever-changing mood of the crowd.
The bigger the process that the American system of public opinion research tries to study or predict, the worse the result: while it works almost impeccably in local elections, at the level of elections to Congress it starts to fail, and during presidential elections things get real bad. A positivist analysis is impossible where you have no positivist facts, which means that the winner will be the one who better applies different methods of analysis. However, such methods are nowhere to find in the American universe, and those who successfully apply them are said to have “guessed.”
According to the American elite, in 2016, Trump “guessed” exactly what the conservative voter wanted. He is “guessing” again this year, while Democrats, also forced to engage in guesswork, use their favorite tactics of “identity politics”: they nominate those who they believe best relate to their typical supporter in terms of demographic indicators – an elderly white middle-aged male, and an African-American woman.
Which of them guessed better the whole world will know very soon.
From our partner International Affairs
Israel, the Middle East and Joe Biden
How will a Biden Administration change American policies on Iran, the Palestinians and Israel’s tightening relationships with Arab states?
Some two years ago, Democrats harshly attacked Trump for withdrawing US troops from Syria and thereby undermining the alliance with the Kurds. However, Democratic leaders also favor a reduced US presence in the Middle East and understand the region’s declining relevance to US global policy. It was Democrat Obama who withdrew US troops from the Iraqi bloodbath; Biden, if elected, will presumably continue a similar course. The US is no longer dependent on Middle Eastern oil, China is perceived as its greatest threat, and the defeat of ISIS has lowered the strategic terror threat level to US national security.
Biden, just like Trump and Obama, probably believes that the US can downscale its presence in the region and rely on its allies (the Gulf states, Egypt, Jordan and Israel, of course) and on the alliances being forged between its partners over the past two decades. The US could increase aid to a specific ally at a time of need (as was the case with the massive 2014 influx of Syrian refugees into Jordan) or Iraq (during the fighting with ISIS), but it is loath to continue meddling in local conflicts. What is more, the painful lesson of the intervention in Iraq has dissolved the Bush Administration’s messianic belief in the democratization of the Middle East. Concern about Russia or China filling the vacuum left by the US is also no longer deterring US leaders (like Obama and Trump) who are trying to score points with voters by troops drawdowns and free the administration up to deal with different matters, among them the “Pivot to Asia”.
As a Democrat, Biden is expected to be more sensitive than Trump to human rights violations in the Middle East. He condemned the conduct of the Saudi regime following the murder of exiled journalist Jamal Khashoggi in fairly harsh language several times and also called for curbing weapons sales to Riyadh.
However, if elected, Biden’s first order of business will be dealing with the biggest health and economic crisis the US has experienced since 1929. He will have to create jobs and deal with thousands of burning domestic matters. Those will be his flagship issues. He may have to set aside his moral repugnance and allow weapons exports to prevent job and profit losses for Americans. Trump, too, was harshly critical of Saudi Arabia prior to his election, but subsequently changed his tune and conducted his first overseas trip there as president.
One can cautiously assess that any change in US policy toward the Gulf would not undermine Israel’s rapprochement with those states. The strategic regional threats (expansion of Iran’s hegemony and its violations of the nuclear agreement, as well as Turkish activity in the region) will remain unchanged, and therefore the interest in economic and security cooperation between Israel and Gulf states will remain. Arab states that traditionally view Israel as a bridge to the White House could try to exploit this now official relationship to promote their standing with Congress and a new administration, if one is installed.
Biden’s position on the Iran nuclear deal (JCPOA) is of concern these days to both Israeli and Arab leaders, which could further cement their ties. Arab leaders are concerned about Biden rejoining and reviving the deal that Trump abandoned. They are relying on Biden’s criticism of the unilateral US pullout from the agreement and his declaration that he would make every effort to rejoin it. Nonetheless, Biden’s people seem to understand that they cannot simply turn back the clock. Blinken, one of Biden’s closest aides and potential future national security adviser, has said in interviews that the US would not return to the agreement until Iran fulfills all its commitments – meaning, until Iran walks back all its violations of the agreement. It is hard to predict just how Biden might draw Iran to the negotiating table, but as long as such an option is viable, Israel, Saudi Arabia, the UAE and other Gulf states will have sufficient grounds to close ranks.
Biden is a sworn supporter of the two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. He is expected to re-open the US Consulate in East Jerusalem, restore US aid to the Palestinians and invite the PLO ambassador back to Washington. However, this does not mean that he will place the Palestinian issue on his list of priorities, especially given the domestic crisis and ongoing tensions with China. The Palestinian issue is unlikely to return to center stage following a change in the US administration. The Arab world is growing increasingly weak as the coronavirus continues to spread, the economic crisis deepens and unemployment rises. Arab states also fear that the major non-Arab states in the region – Turkey and Iran – will exploit this weakness. Should that happen, the Palestinian issue is unlikely to attract much interest from key Arab states, Saudi Arabia, the UAE and Egypt, which also dictate the conduct of the Arab League.
That said, should Biden decide to revive the Arab Peace Initiative and mobilize Saudi and other Arab support (perhaps in return for a more determined US stand on Iran, the supply of US strategic weapons, etc.), pressure on Israel over the Palestinian issue could re-emerge. If Israel chooses to respond with accelerated construction in the settlements, in defiance of US policy, states such as Saudi Arabia and the UAE would likely toe the line of the US administration but would not cut ties with Israel as a result.
In conclusion, a Biden victory would not affect the strengthening relationship between Israel and Arab states, especially if he opts to focus on the Iranian issue and a US return to the JCPOA. The Middle East’s relevance to the US is expected to continue its decline, prompting cooperation among its partners in the region in order to forge a robust front and repel threats from the non-Arab states (Iran and Turkey). A changed US approach to the Palestinian issue could increase pressure on Israel slightly, but is not expected to substantially change the current dynamics.
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