No one can say Donald Trump was coy about his intent to dismantle or at least grab by the neck and shake globalization, alliances, and the Western world order. Now that he’s president-elect, be prepared for him to follow through.
His victory echoes and reinforces the rise of populist nationalism among our close allies — across Europe and in the Philippines — and Britain’s vote to exit the European Union.
“America First” was Trump’s foreign policy rallying cry that harked back to 1930s isolationists (including some anti-Semites) who resisted America’s entry into World War II. For Trump, it was shorthand for his transactional, art-of-the-deal, I-win-you-lose approach to trade, treaties, allies, and naked interests (like his insistence that “we should have taken” Iraq’s oil).
I watched the results come in with Carl Bildt, a former Swedish prime minister, foreign minister, UN and EU envoy, and unabashed champion of NATO and the transatlantic alliance, and his horror at Trump’s victory was palpable. “Trump managed to portray himself as an agent of change and Hillary Clinton as an agent of the establishment,” Bildt said, shaking his head in disbelief, sure that NATO countries would be watching in “stunned silence.”
Vladimir Putin, who US intelligence agencies determined directed hackers to expose Democratic leaders’ e-mails, was one of the first to congratulate Trump, who has repeatedly expressed admiration for the Russian and for other strongmen. Anti-immigrant nationalist politicians in France, the Netherlands, and Hungary hailed his victory too.
Trump has promised a shift in the post-World War II order, “the free world” that the United States has led from FDR to Reagan to Obama. If he follows through on his rhetoric, Trump will reassess the NATO alliance, cut off allies who don’t pay their share, cease criticism of Russia’s annexation of Crimea or interference in Ukraine, encourage Asian allies to get their own nuclear weapons, declare China a currency manipulator, and tear up or seek to “renegotiate” the climate agreement, trade accords, and the Iran nuclear deal.
Tomes will be written about the first president to be elected without government or military experience, whom voters saw as more unfavorable than his opponent (60 percent to 54 percent), more dishonest (63 percent to 61 percent) and less fit to serve (38 percent said he was qualified, compared with 52 percent who said Clinton was), if exit polls are to be believed. Some part of the answer, unavoidably, is sexism and Clinton’s struggle to convey “likeability” to male voters, who went for Trump by 12 points.
But another part is Americans who feel left behind by trade and threatened by immigration, like a growing number of their populist nationalist cousins across the Atlantic; Trump tapped into and amplified their economic and cultural dislocation. Half of America voted to repudiate what Trump caricatured as “globalism” — open borders, free trade, and international treaties pushed by a cabal of global elites led by the former secretary of state. Ironically, globalization enabled Trump’s international business empire — with his name on properties from Turkey to India, investors from Russia to the Middle East, eponymous merchandise manufactured from China to Mexico.
But trade hasn’t delivered visible benefits for low-skilled workers, and though study after study shows it’s automation and higher productivity that are behind the loss of manufacturing jobs, trade opens “a false perception that foreigners were taking over and ruining the country,” says Harvard professor Stephen Walt. The hard truth Trump didn’t tell voters — and which they don’t want to hear — is that low-skilled, well-paid manufacturing jobs aren’t coming back because technology has rendered them extinct. Trump can talk about “making America great again,” but no amount of protectionism can conjure those American-dream factory jobs from the grave.
I still don’t believe globalization is dead. The connective tissue of technology — mobile phones and an Internet that link people and businesses across the earth — is largely positive and people know that. It’s not just tycoons like Trump who benefit; talk to poor people in India or any developing nation about the benefits trade and mobile technology have brought to their lives. Household data show globalization has improved living standards for almost everyone over the last three decades, with a notable exception of the bottom half of earners in rich nations, whose income has stagnated. Politicians are to blame for not addressing their grievances by creating better education for 21st century opportunities. It’s now up to Trump to do better.
Indira A.R. Lakshmanan is a Washington columnist. Follow her on Twitter @Indira_L.