With one tweet of 35 words, Donald Trump has changed almost 40 years of US policy towards Israel and Syria:
As with other Trump impulses, such as his sudden order in December to withdraw all US troops from Syria, no administration official appeared to have been consulted. Hours earlier, the US secretary of state, Mike Pompeo, said from Jerusalem that there was no change in the US position declining to recognise Israel’s 1981 annexation of the Heights. His appearance alongside Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu was delayed for almost an hour for Pompeo to assessed the suddenly altered situation.
Of course, White House officials scrambled to gloss the announcement. One insisted that Trump had spoken with national security advisor John Bolton, son-in-law and advisor Jared Kushner, and Jason Greenblatt, the special representative for Middle East negotiations. In a curiously defensive assertion, the official said: “There’s no obvious constituency not to do this.”
Others wheeled out Trump’s vague references to “security” and “stability”. Pompeo recovered to say the declaration was “historic” and “bold”.
But make no mistake. Trump’s priority had nothing to do with a Middle East strategy. His impulse was fed by three desires: the re-election of Netanyahu on April 9, his own 2020 campaign and the need to constantly stroke his own ego.
Israel seized the Golan Heights in the 1967 Arab-Israeli War. Fourteen years later, just before its entry into Lebanon’s civil war, the government of Menachem Begin consolidated its hold with the declaration of sovereignty.
Few in the international community accepted the declaration. The Reagan administration, despite its pro-Israel rhetoric, suspended a strategic cooperation agreement with Tel Aviv. The US joined every member of the UN Security Council in Resolution 497, calling the annexation “null and void and without international legal effect”.
The Heights remained in a de facto division, with a UN observer force seeking to prevent any clashes. The Assad regime’s response to the 2011 Syrian uprising, killing 100,000 and displacing more than 11m, threatened to spill over into the area as the UN force withdrew. But the Israeli military presence deterred any regime action, and Netanyahu secured an agreement with Russia’s Vladimir Putin in September 2015 to keep Iran and Hezbollah out of the area.
Friends in need
But Trump’s immediate concern is not with that interplay of Syria, Israel and external actors. As with his order to move the US Embassy to Jerusalem, his focus is on a side-by-side declaration linking his fortunes and those of Netanyahu.
The formal indictments of the Israeli prime minister for fraud, bribery, and breach of trust await a hearing. He may face a criminal graft investigation over the state purchase of naval vessels and submarines from German shipbuilder ThyssenKrupp, in one of the biggest cases in Israeli history. Polls have him neck-and-neck with the Blue and White Party of former general Benny Gantz and former finance minister Yair Lapid.
But on Thursday, Netanyahu could be exultant: “President Trump has just made history. He did it again.”
Trump will hope that exaltation boosts his own re-election prospects in a year’s time. His approval ratings are doggedly sticking at just over 40%. They haven’t collapsed despite multiple criminal investigations, the furor over anti-immigration policies and the government shutdown — but neither have they risen amid an economy fuelled by December 2017 tax cuts.
Thus an appeal to a domestic constituency which traditionally votes Democratic — with few exceptions over the past century, Jewish voters have given more than 70% support to the Democrat candidate, including 71% for Hillary Clinton in 2016.
Trump’s calculation may be misguided. The Jewish vote is largely propelled by social issues at home, rather than Israel abroad: only 9% cited the latter as the primary cause for their vote in the last presidential election. But an “Israel first” stance could also resonate with non-Jews in America – and pro-Trump Jewish donors and lobbies could be significant in the contest for the US electorate next year.
Then there’s the far from insignificant factor of Trump’s ego. As is often the case with his orders and proclamations, he used the announcement to try to portray his unique place in US history. Throwing in the falsehood that all of his predecessors – as opposed to none – had pushed for recognition of Israeli sovereignty over the Golan, he said: “Every president has said ‘do that’. I’m the one that gets it done.”
Recipe for danger
Despite the immediate headlines, Trump’s tweet has little significance for the Heights. The international community, including the UN, is not going to shift its position on their status. And, while Netanyahu may be boosted, the Israeli presence will continue to depend on the strength of arms, the expansion of settlements and the acceptance of actors such as Russia.
But that does not mean the declaration is without effect. Trump’s “stability” is likely to make a further contribution to regional instability.
The Assad regime will seize upon the opportunity to cover up its repression and hold on power. The Syrian foreign ministry’s pledge to regain the Heights is bluff, as the regime’s military can’t even secure its president without the lead of Russia, Iran and Hezbollah. But Bashar al-Assad and his inner circle will play the victim over the Heights for their narrative that the US and Israel are the supporters of “terrorism” and aggression.
Trump’s message also casts a dark shadow over the still to be presented Israel-Palestine “peace plan” of his son-in-law Jared Kushner. Some will rightly note that the plan, if it exists, is already a zombie proposal. However, the Golan Heights declaration on top of the relocation of the US embassy to Jerusalem confirms a Trump administration that has reduced its real objective to pleasing one Israeli – the one sitting in the prime minister’s chair.
And if one wants to take Trump’s “bigly” view of his influence, one can look beyond the Middle East. Martin Indyk, a former US ambassador to Israel, noted that: “[President Vladimir] Putin will use this as a pretext to justify Russia’s annexation of Crimea.”
That, of course, may not cause Trump – who “gets it done” – the loss of a moment’s sleep, even as some of his advisors and almost everyone across the Middle East are worried sick.
Korea-watchers around the world are scrambling to tease out the meaning of the abruptly concluded US-DPRK summit in Hanoi. I want to cast a critical eye on denuclearisation itself as the framing objective of the summit negotiations.
If we step back for a moment to look at the extraordinary developments in Korean Peninsula diplomacy over the past year, we see three parties who want different things.
The Moon Jae-in administration in South Korea remembers all too well the chaos of 2017 that brought Korea to the brink of war, and sees a permanent peace regime as the most important objective of its engagement efforts.
For their part, the North Koreans want to neutralise the military threat from the US, see sanctions lifted, and obtain economic assistance to accelerate the development of their economy. The Trump administration, and much of the broader US foreign policy establishment, remains attached to the denuclearisation of North Korea as the end game of this process.
But denuclearisation is a fantasy that is leaving Washington as the odd man out on the Korean Peninsula. The goalposts on the Korean Peninsula are changing as the momentum for inter-Korean engagement grows, while the importance of the US as the indispensable security guarantor is diminishing.
Who walked out on whom?
Like everyone else, I will be watching closely over the coming days as details begin to emerge about the sticking points that led to the abrupt conclusion of the summit.
In the lead-up to the Hanoi summit, the Trump administration did signal some flexibility on verification measures for full, independent accounting of North Korea’s nuclear program as a condition for further negotiation.
It is ironic that Trump’s apparent willingness to befriend authoritarian leaders has opened the door for negotiations for a permanent peace regime in Korea, which previous US administrations had kept quarantined behind the demand for “complete, verifiable and irreversible denuclearisation” (CVID).
However, in his final press conference in Hanoi, the US president indicated that the North Korean delegation asked for too much in requesting the lifting of all economic sanctions in exchange for the shutdown of the Yongbyon nuclear facilities.
Considering the enormous pressure Trump has come under from domestic quarters not to sell out the denuclearisation agenda, there was no way the US delegation could accept those terms.
But there is another possibility. The Congressional testimony of Michael Cohen from Washington may have created fresh doubts in the minds of the North Korean delegation about Trump’s ability to deliver on a deal. It is possible that Kim Jong-un presented terms they knew the Americans could not accept, to avoid the possibility of a lame-duck deal negotiated by a compromised president.
It is important to recognise that the US and North Korea run at different political speeds. Since 1945, North Korea’s three Kims have presided through 13 US presidents. US presidents are confined to term limits and captive to the political demands of relatively short election cycles. The now extreme polarisation of American politics ensures that promises made by Trump may not be honoured by an incoming administration.
With a US presidential election looming in 2020 and widespread criticism within the American foreign policy establishment of Trump’s negotiating position, and with recurring allegations of criminality fuelling calls for his impeachment, it is understandable that the North Koreans might be cautious about making concessions.
They will remember the failure of the US Congress to ratify the Agreed Framework when President Bill Clinton was facing impeachment during the 1990s.
The denuclearisation of North Korea is a fantasy
Regardless of who blinked first, the failure to reach agreement in Hanoi further demonstrates that North Korea will never willingly denuclearise. This is not a secret. It has been obvious for more than a decade, since the failure of the Six-Party Talks. Beyond the economic sanctions regime, there is very little the US can do about it.
It bears repeating why this is the case:
successive US administrations have considered and rejected the use of military force against North Korea on the grounds that it poses an unacceptable risk to its ally in South Korea
because of the longstanding sanctions regime, the US lacks sufficient economic leverage over the DPRK to bring it to heel, even with the expansive list of goods banned from export to the North, and the expansive powers of the Financial Action Task Force (FATF) to restrict financial flows in and out of the DPRK
North Korea is adept at sanctions-busting, in spite of the squeeze being placed on the country by existing measures.
Holding out for denuclearisation as an end game is an exercise in futility. It is bad policy. It unnecessarily backs the US into a corner of weakness where it cannot bring its obvious strategic and economic advantages to bear.
Denuclearisation has been the obstacle that has kept the US and North Korea at the stage of talking about talking, halting progress on other confidence-building measures that could improve the relationship and take some of the heat out of the Korean Peninsula security dilemma.
Missed opportunity for a peace settlement
The dominant school of thought in disarmament circles is that states that acquire nuclear weapons are a threat to international peace and security, and so must be prevented from doing so. This is the denuclearisation perspective that has dominated the discourse on North Korea in the US and informed the longstanding CVID policy.
There is an clear logic here that stems from the terrible and awesome destructiveness of nuclear weapons, with which few could argue. From this perspective, any negotiations with North Korea that do not result in full nuclear relinquishment will be interpreted as a sell-out.
However, there is also an obvious hypocrisy in this position (and in the nuclear non-proliferation regime more generally) given the size of the US nuclear arsenal and the deliberate ambiguity of its doctrine around nuclear first-strike. It is this hypocrisy that the DPRK exploits in its official interpretation of denuclearisation as meaning the universal relinquishment of nuclear weapons by all countries.
There is another school of thought that it is not nuclear weapons per se that represent a threat to international peace and security. Rather, it is an international environment teeming with existential threats in which states feel compelled to acquire nuclear weapons to protect themselves.
From this perspective, a peace declaration could diminish the level of insecurity that feeds the desire for nuclear proliferation. If the perception of imminent threat lessens, then the probability of nuclear weapons use in the event of conflict is also reduced.
There is space within this perspective to work towards nuclear disarmament. But that goal is one element of a bigger picture. This is the essence of the South Korean position on inter-Korean summit diplomacy, and the fading shadow of a missed opportunity in Hanoi.
These summits are part of a long-term peace-building process. Clearly, Donald Trump and Kim Jong-un are not on the same page in their negotiating objectives.
If US-DPRK bilateral negotiations are to continue, they are going to have to find a lowest common denominator on which they can build. Regardless of how we feel about Kim Jong-un, the political system he presides over, and the abuses of his regime, denuclearisation is never going to be the lowest common denominator upon which the US-DPRK relationship can evolve.
Treasurer Josh Frydenberg has offered support to Donald Trump’s pick for the World Bank Presidency.
David Malpass is currently Under Secretary of the United States Treasury with responsibility for International Affairs, and his previous experience includes being chief economist at Bear Stearns prior to their collapse.
Our Treasurers support is wrong headed.
No matter what the strengths of David Malpass, the next World Bank President should not be American.
After World War Two the victors designed many of our global institutions, including the World Bank, and the International Monetary Fund. Major global institutions were headquartered in Europe or the United States, and there was an agreement that the World Bank President would be a US citizen, while the IMF would be headed by a European.
This cosy arrangement was fine for most of the 20th century, but is at odds with our 21st century world.
Trump’s unspoken ultimatum
It has been suggested that Trump would follow his usual negotiating tactics and withdraw support from the World Bank if the next chief is not American, which is presumably why some countries including Australia are likely to support Malpass.
The search for the US nomination was headed by Steven Mnuchin and Ivanka Trump, with Invanka Trump herself mentioned as a possible nomination.
Malpass may be a better candidate than the President’s daughter, but I doubt it.
Malpass has been a critic of World Bank lending to China and at Bear Stearns he ignored warning signs of crisis in 2007.
But it’s not so much Malpass’ dubious credibility that is the problem, but the idea that the President should always be American.
The American might not be the best candidate
Important global institutions should be led by the best candidate. The views and expertise of emerging market candidates, particularly from larger economies such as China, India, Brazil, Nigeria and Indonesia should be taken more seriously.
In recent years the IMF would have been much better led by a non-European. The decision to bail out French and German banks at the expense of the Greek economy in 2012 was a poor decision made by the French head of the IMF.
The IMF rightly supported restructuring of banks and financial markets after the Asian Financial Crisis in 1997, but did not push for the same for European or US banks after 2008.
So what if Australia and other middle powers did not support Malpass’ nomination?
Better off withoug the World Bank?
A US withdrawal from the World Bank would probably see its demise. But so what?
The World Bank has become relatively toothless.
Last year China lent more money to emerging market economies than the World Bank.
And this is the point. China needs to be brought into the World Bank and other institutions more fully, not sidelined.
Problems with governance and other issues with China’s Belt and Road initiative would be much better handled by a multilateral agency, whether that is a properly renewed World Bank or a new institution.
His move – described as “sudden” and a “shock,” particularly since the World Bank has been going through significant internal restructuring – gives US president Donald Trump the chance to appoint a replacement more aligned with his outlook.
This is because, since the World Bank’s establishment in 1945, the United States has had outsized influence as its largest shareholder. Its president has always been an American citizen nominated by the US government. Kim was chosen by the Obama administration in 2012.
Rumours circulated early on that Trump was considering his daughter Ivanka for the job. Even though that has since been denied, it’s likely he will choose a candidate sympathetic to his worldview.
This may mean a substantial change in the World Bank’s priorities. In particular, in two areas the bank has played an important and positive role: funding sustainable projects to deal with climate change (“climate resilience”); and encouraging robust international connectivity through trade.
Focus on climate resilience
The World Bank has put substantial emphasis on funding projects in developing countries that address climate change. Last financial year 32% of its financing – a total of US$20.5 billion – was climate-related.
Recently approved World Bank projects included climate resilient transport in the Oceania region (such as in Tonga and Samoa), and solar projects across Sub-Saharan Africa. This is all part of a detailed five-year Climate Change Action Plan underway since 2016.
This concern about the consequences of climate change stands in marked contrast to the Trump administration’s record.
Trump’s disregard of climate science is reflected in the defunding or reorganisation of climate-related research projects and institutions. His appointee to head the US Environmental Protection Agency, Scott Pruitt, played a key role in the US withdrawing from the Paris Climate Agreement and energetically worked to gut pollution protection regulations.
So there’s good reason to believe the Trump administration’s pick for the World Bank will reflect its hostility to climate security, and that the bank’s priority towards funding climate resilience will change as a result.
Antipathy towards multilateralism
The Trump administration has already sought to curb salary growth among World Bank staff. More severely, Trump’s National Security advisor, John Bolton, has argued the World Bank should be privatised or simply shut down.
Trump’s belief that free trade has hurt the US is at odds with the World Bank’s long history of facilitating reforms designed to promote international trade.
The Trump administration has shown it is more than willing to revert to an old-fashioned trade war.
Its tariff contest with China (which joined the WTO in 2001 with the World Bank’s help) is already hurting global manufacturing, with the International Monetary Fund downgrading its global economic growth forecasts as a result.
Though a Trump appointee might not upend the World Bank’s commitment to free trade in principle, the result might be an organisation less active in promoting multilateralism in practice.
Playing to China’s strengths
Ironically a Trump-compliant World Bank might result in promoting its sidelining to the advantage of China.
In its first six decades of existence the World Bank was an immensely powerful international institution. But its relevance to international development and finance is now being overshadowed by alternative funding mechanisms such as private-sector lending and particularly institutions related to Chinese international development initiatives.
China is planning through its Belt and Road Initiative to spend US$1 trillion on international infrastructure projects over the coming decade. Much of these are focused on Eurasian and African regions where the World Bank has struggled most to promote sustainable prosperity.
China has also has built a rival to the World Bank in the form of the Asian Investment Infrastructure Bank (AIIB), which has a sizeable balance sheet and a proactive approach to funding projects, including those in sustainable development.
But in climate resilience and global economic integration, the World Bank still retains the mantle of global leader. Thus far it has welcomed cooperation with the AIIB, signing a memorandum of understanding in 2017.
Blunt its work in these two areas and the World Bank becomes more irrelevant. Combined with the organisation’s serious governance problems, which are most unlikely to be addressed by a Trump appointee, the future for the World Bank is not bright.
The United States and China have arrived at a temporary truce in a trade conflict that was threatening to further destabilise world equity markets, entrench a global slowdown and cause more damage to a rules-based international order.
Agreement by US President Donald Trump and his Chinese counterpart, Xi Jinping, to allow further negotiations before threatened tariff increases on Chinese imports come into effect is a welcome development.
However, this is a temporary respite, a short-term fix, not a long-term solution to myriad trade and other tensions that have put the US and China at odds with each other.
For their own purposes and in their own interests, Trump and Xi have come away from the Argentine capital with a deal that papers over differences that extend from China’s activities in the South China Sea to its mercantilist trade policies.
As far as we know, China’s ruthless assertion of its sovereignty over disputed waters in the South China Sea was not a material subject for discussion in Buenos Aires except, possibly, in passing.
China’s rise and America’s relative decline ensure these global economic superpowers will continue to bump up against each other.
So, what was achieved and what are the prospects for an accord reached on the sidelines of the G20?
In their efforts to lower trade tensions and prevent a further erosion of global confidence, Trump and Xi agreed to a 90-day extension on the imposition of additional US tariffs on some US$200 billion of Chinese imports.
Trump had threatened to increase tariffs from 10% to 25% on an initial batch of Chinese imports from January 1. He had also flagged his intention to impose levies on another US$267 billion worth of imports if progress was not made in resolving broad-based trade differences.
A joint statement laid out a timeline for continuing negotiations. It reads:
Both parties agree that they will endeavour to have this transaction completed within the next 90 days. If, at the end of this period of time, the parties are unable to reach an agreement, the 10 percent tariffs will be raised to 25 percent.
In return for these temporary concessions, China agreed to:
… purchase a not yet agreed upon, but very substantial, amount of agricultural, energy, industrial, and other product from the United States to reduce the trade imbalance between the two countries. China has agreed to start purchasing agricultural product immediately.
China also agreed to crack down on sales of Fentanyl by making it a controlled substance. The US is battling an opioid crisis in which Fentanyl is a lethal component.
In retaliation for US trade actions, China had imposed duties on US$110 billion of imports. A principal component of this is soybeans, effectively killing one of America’s more lucrative export markets.
Trump has been under huge pressure from his Mid-Western rural heartland over a collapse in the Chinese market for American agricultural products.
The two sides also agreed to address structural problems in the trading relationship. These extend to five areas – forced technology transfer, intellectual property protection, non-tariff barriers, cyber intrusions and cyber theft.
These are highly complex issues and unlikely to be resolved in the short term, if at all.
In the wash-up of the Xi-Trump discussions it appears China has got more out of the deal than the US – at least for now. It has secured a stay of execution for the implementation of tariff increases and forestalled, for the time being, tariffs on an additional bloc of Chinese exports.
In return, it has agreed to buy unspecified quantities of US products and to talk about differences.
Trump’s willingness to compromise after months of bombast reflects pressures from a shellshocked grain-producing constituency and alarm on Wall Street at prospects of a full-blown trade war.
From Beijing’s perspective, China has demonstrated that its growing economic heft has enabled it to avoid the appearance of yielding to US pressure.
If not a “win-win” for China – as Chinese officials are fond of saying – it is certainly not a “lose-lose”.
In a statement at odds with months of fire-breathing rhetoric over China’s allegedly perfidious trade practices, Trump hailed his understanding with Xi. He said:
This was an amazing and productive meeting with unlimited possibilities for both the US and China.
For their part, Chinese officials were more circumspect.
Foreign Minister Wang Yi said the talks were conducted in a “friendly and candid atmosphere”. The presidents:
agreed that the two sides can and must get bilateral relations right… China is willing to increase imports in accordance with the needs of its domestic market and the people’s needs.
Impetus for a face-saving deal in Buenos Aires has been prompted by growing concerns about the global economy. The signs of a slowdown are clear. Trade volumes had begun to moderate in the third quarter, heightening worries of a global retrenchment.
On the sidelines of the G20, the International Monetary Fund’s managing director, Christine Lagarde, noted:
Pressures on emerging markets have been rising and trade tensions have begun to have a negative impact, increasing downside risks.
In its October Outlook statement, the IMF warned about threats to global growth due to trade disturbances.
In their final communique, G20 leaders danced around contentious issues on trade to accommodate American objections to having the word “protectionism” inserted in the document.
In the end, participants settled on the need for reform of the World Trade Organisation to describe a world trading system that is falling short of its objectives. Washington has been agitating for a review of the WTO to strengthen its dispute resolution and appeal procedures.
The US has also objected to a continuing description of China as a developing country, with concessions that enable it to take advantage of less developed country status in its access to global markets.
On climate change, Washington separated itself from the other G20 members. All, except the US, reaffirmed their commitment to the Paris Agreement. The US announced in 2017 it was pulling out of Paris.
Foreign policy specialists will be sceptical about a de-escalation of trade hostilities given the range of issues bedevilling the US-China relationship.
Reflecting a hardening of US attitudes towards China, and in contrast to the optimism that had prevailed for much of the past two decades, Ely Ratner in Foreign Affairs notes:
Even if tariffs are put on hold, the United States will continue to restructure the US-China economic relationship through investment restrictions, export controls, and sustained law enforcement actions against Chinese industrial and cyber-espionage.
At the same time, there are no serious prospects for Washington and Beijing to resolve other important areas of dispute, including the South China Sea, human rights and the larger contest over the norms, rules and institutions that govern relations in Asia.
A stiffening view in the US towards China is shared more or less across the board. In those circumstances, a temporary ceasefire in Buenos Aires is unlikely to be sustained.
When US President Donald Trump meets his Chinese counterpart, Xi Jinping, on the margins of the G20 summit in Buenos Aires between November 30 and December 1, nothing less than a reasonably healthy global trading system and continued economic growth will be on the table.
It is one of the more significant meetings between two global leaders in the modern era.
The encounter will recall the high-wire diplomacy between Ronald Reagan and Mikhail Gorbachev in the 1980s, which signalled the end of the Cold War and, as it happened, the disintegration of the former Soviet Union.
World markets unnerved by an evolving trade conflict between the world’s two largest economies will take their cues from this encounter between an unpredictable US president and a Chinese leader who will not want to be seen to yield ground. Or, to give it an oriental description, lose face.
This is a fractious moment in world economic history.
Billions of dollars in global equity markets will rest on a reasonable consensus in the Argentine capital. The two sides will reach for a compromise that will enable relative stability to be restored to an economic relationship that is threatening to unravel.
Since a ragged outcome, or even failure, is in no-one’s interests, it is hard to believe Washington and Beijing will not seek to calm legitimate concerns about the risks of a full-blown trade war and its impact on global growth.
US-China trade tremors are already having an impact on growth projections for 2018-2020.
In its latest World Economic Outlook, the International Monetary Fund reports the world economy is plateauing, partly due to trade tensions and stresses in emerging markets.
The IMF has scaled back its global growth projections from its July Outlook forecast for 2019 to 3.7% from 3.9%. It has marked down US growth by 0.2 percentage point to 2.5%, and China by a similar margin to 6.2%.
However, if trade disruptions persist, fallout will become more serious in 2020 with global growth projected to be down by 0.8%, and with it US and China growth down significantly.
Trade wars have consequences, including risks of a global recession.
All this invests the Trump-Xi encounter with more-than-usual significance. A bad outcome will heighten risks of an accelerating global slowdown.
In the lead-up to the G20, American and Chinese officials have been preparing the ground, with the Chinese side anxious to reduce tensions following a November 1 phone call between the two presidents.
But it is less clear that Washington is willing to ease pressure on China to liberalise further a foreign investment environment, seek ways to reduce a trade gap and make more conspicuous efforts to tone down concerns about Chinese pilfering of its intellectual property.
In a media briefing in Beijing, Chinese officials underscored China’s desire for a reasonable outcome in Buenos Aires. Wang Shouwen, a vice commerce minister, said:
We hope China and the US are able to resolve their problems based on mutual respect, benefits and honesty.
However, Trump is continuing to threaten further increases in tariffs on US$200 billion of Chinese imports now set at 10% but due to increase to 25% from January 1. He told The Wall Street Journal this week:
The only deal would be China has to open up their country to competition from the United States.
Trump also threatened to slap tariffs on an additional US$267 billion worth of Chinese imports if negotiations with Xi are unsuccessful:
If we don’t make a deal, then I’m going to put the US$267 billion additional on [at a tariff rate of either 10% or 25%].
This next batch of Chinese imports might include laptops and Apple iPhones, which are among China’s biggest exports to the US.
Further complicating the possibility of a satisfactory negotiation in Buenos Aires is a lingering dispute between the US and China over reforms to the World Trade Organisation to strengthen its dispute resolution and appeal mechanisms.
The US also objects to China’s continued description as a “developing country” under WTO rules. This includes provisions that are favourable to Chinese state-owned enterprises.
A collapse in efforts to reform the WTO would strike another blow at a multilateral trading system that is under more stress than at any time since globalisation gathered pace in the 1990s.
The US-China trade conflict, which is threatening to become a full-blown trade war with unpredictable consequences, cannot be separated from a more general deterioration in relations.
These were given expression last month by Vice President Mike Pence in a speech to the Hudson Institute, in which he lambasted China in a way that prompted talk of a new cold war.
Pence accused China of deploying:
… an arsenal of policies inconsistent with free and fair trade, including tariffs, quotas, currency manipulation, forced technology transfers, intellectual property theft and industrial subsidies handed out like candy. These policies have built Beijing’s manufacturing base, at the expense of its competitors – especially the United States.
The US trade deficit with China reached US$375 billion last year – nearly half the US global trade deficit.
None of this augurs well for a constructive resolution of US-China differences at the G20, although you might hope Trump’s approach would be tempered by concerns about the economic consequences of a conspicuous failure.
What seems most likely, given the stakes involved, is for officials from both countries to be tasked with responsibility for addressing a range of American concerns, with the aim of resetting the relationship.
This would seem to be a best-case scenario.
In the meantime, officials working on the draft of a final communique will be struggling to satisfy competing demands from G20 participants for clear-cut statements on protectionism and climate change.
These have been staples of such communiques since the G20 was formed ten years ago amid a global financial crisis.
Washington is reportedly resisting an explicit call to fight protectionism. It is also demanding a watering down of the G20’s commitment to the Paris Agreement on climate change.
Consensus on these issues is proving elusive, further undermining efforts to address global challenges.
This underscores a dramatic shift in the global geopolitical environment since Trump gained office.
At the 2016 G20 summit in Hangzhou, world leaders agreed on a “rules-based, transparent, non-discriminatory, open and inclusive multilateral trading system with the World Trade Organisation playing the central role in today’s global trade”.
On climate, the G20 committed itself “to complete our respective domestic procedures in order to join the Paris Agreement”.
Two years later, a “rules-based” trading system is being shredded and the Paris Agreement is at risk of unravelling. These are troubled times, not helped by an American pullback from the stabilising role in global affairs it has played since the second world war.
In October 2005 Stephen Colbert was just starting his eponymous show. It is somewhat chilling to realise that this was when he came up with the word truthiness: it seems so now.
It has taken a while to reach maturity and morphed into the even more menacing trumpiness. Truthiness captures the slippery world inhabited by those unencumbered by books, or facts, context or complexity – for those who just know with their heart rather than their heads – where things can just feel truthful.
Who would have thought that a little more than a decade later, the White House would be occupied by a man who makes the Colbert character seem almost reasonable. Quaintly charming. Trumpiness captures something even more sinister, statements that don’t even have to feel truthful, apparently ignorant rough-hewn words, weaponised for effect. Whatever comes out – alarmingly frequently words that sound as though they emanated from the crib sheet of a propaganda handbook.
In defining these words, Colbert provided a helpful predictor for a president who according to the Washington Post last week, had made 6,420 false or misleading comments in 649 days. That is industrial scale deception – small lies told over and over, medium sized lies that have become a new global lingua franca and big lies that take even his most ardent supporters by surprise and sometimes force a sort of retraction or denial – sort of, but only after they have already infiltrated the virtual world and got a life of their own.
This is not normal. It is not the way we have come to expect even a tainted public sphere, distorted by the commercialisation of public attention, to operate. The president’s mantra of fake news is, as he has admitted, a deliberate and determined effort to undermine confidence in what remains of a rigorous public sphere and professional journalism that takes itself seriously. In the unregulated, “more insidious” domain of the internet this is particularly dangerous.
Such industrial scale deception is at odds with the norms that characterise any flourishing civilisation. If truth is irrelevant to discourse, trust is not merely dented it is destroyed. Other norms of acceptable behaviour cannot be far away. What is happening now, goes well beyond spin or hollow speech. The New York Times correspondent Roger Cohen describes it as “corrosive, corrupting and contagious”.
In the shrunken global village this has dangerous implications everywhere, for public and personal behaviour. If the so called, “leader of the free world” can talk the way he does, without regard to fact or feeling, the level of civilisation is turned down everywhere he is heard.
What we are witnessing is behaviour contrary to the long-established moral core of a civilised society, arguably giving succour to evil, and deliberately destroying trust.
Democracy in retreat
So how did it come to this?
It is easy to feel that the world is going to hell in a handbasket – the news of catastrophe and disaster, the inflammatory US president, the distortion of social media, the global instability of superpower realignment, the palpable threat of climate change, the rise of authoritarian leaders – and that is for starters.
Freedom House, the Washington-based NGO, has been monitoring global freedom since 1941, when a very different US President articulated an expansive ethic that has since prevailed in “kin countries” and beyond. With the second world war in full, murderous, destructive fury, President Roosevelt declared that as human beings, all people were entitled to freedom of speech and expression, freedom to worship their god in their own way, freedom from want and freedom from fear. At the time it was ambitious rhetoric, demonstrably at odds with the wartime experience. But it provided guiding principles for a different future.
Last month in a very different context, Freedom House reported that around the world, political and civil rights sunk to their lowest level for a decade.
For the twelfth year in a row, democratic setbacks outnumbered gains. Democracy is in crisis. Values are under assault and in retreat in country after country. Young people are losing faith in politics. Trust has been eroded by commerce and the calcification of institutions. Millions of people are living without the rights we take for granted as a measure of civil, liberal, democratic society. Even nations that like to pride themselves on a deep democratic history are slipping on the scale, as trust in institutions is eroded and checks and balances slip out of equilibrium and technology remakes the way things are done.
This is most notable in the United States, which fell to 86 out of 100 on a scale measuring a wide range of political and individual rights and the rule of law, and the United Kingdom, which slipped to 94. Australia and NZ scored 98, with the virtuous Scandinavians topping with perfect scores.
This trend line is a matter of real concern, because it is contrary to the previous trajectory.
Until relatively recently, enhanced civil and political rights were what was expected, giving comfort to those of us who “hope the arc of history bends towards greater emancipation, equality and freedom”.
Taking a wider view of the state of the globe provides a slightly more reassuring message, that that arc may still be bending the right way. But the tension between individual rights and popular will is fertile territory for authoritarian leaders and their shadow puppets.
Survival is deep in our make up, means we dwell on the negative, alert to threats and dangers, ready to respond to fear. But as Stephen Pinker and Kishore Mahbubani loudly proclaim, the bigger picture is not as bad as we might be inclined to think with one ear cocked to the latest news bulletin and an eye on the real Donald Trump’s twitter feed.
The Human Development Index shows that as a species we are living longer and better. Life expectancy at birth worldwide is now 71 years, and 80 in the developed world; for most of human existence most people died around 30. Global extreme poverty has declined to 9.6% of the world’s population; still limiting the lives of too many, but 200 years ago, 90% lived in extreme poverty. In just the last 30 years, the proportion of the global population living with such deprivation has declined by 75%. Equally unappreciated is the fact that 90% of the world’s population under the age of 25 can read and write, including girls. For most of the history of Europe, no more than 15% of the people could read and write, mostly men.
So despite the truthiness feeling that things are going wrong, a lot is going right, for a lot of people, in a lot of countries. But this is a moment at risk of being squandered.
‘Reason sweeteened by values’
Which invites the question of what is at stake, how might the level of civilisation here be turned up, by whom, and to what end?
This was a question addressed by Robert Menzies when in 1959, as Prime Minister, he approved the formation of the Humanities Council, the precursor of the Australian Academy of Humanities. At the time, with the Cold War in full swing, and the memory of the hot war still smoking, Menzies declared the Humanities Council would provide,
Wisdom, a sense of proportion, sanity of judgement, a faith in the capacity of man to rise to higher mental and spiritual levels. We live dangerously in the world of ideas, just as we do in the world of international conflict. If we are to escape this modern barbarism, humane studies must come back into their own, not as the enemies of science, but as its guides and philosophic friends.
Now we are more often likely to hear prominent politicians pillorying the humanities as esoteric and truth-defying, and humanities scholars as ideologues in cahoots with self-aggrandizing scientists who are addressing the existential crisis of climate change for personal gain.
To attack the university system at precisely the moment when it reaches more people, when its impact on the social, cultural and economic wellbeing of the nation has never been higher, seems perverse. Based on medium-sized lies, madness even, from the zone of truthiness.
As the debate triggered by the Ramsay proposal has shown there is a lot at stake. For all the noise in the press, the very fact that there are lots of different ways of approaching the study of civilisations, has not been addressed except by snide, often ill-informed or defensive comments about “relativism”.
I am not a scholar of civilisations or a philosopher, but I am aware of some of the complexity of these debates. The need to define civilisation, and to allow the notion of civilisations, has preoccupied fine minds, and lead to different conclusions. Are there six civilisations, as Samuel Huntington suggested remained when he wrote his most famous essay The Clash of Civilisations? Or the 26, not including the civilisation of the first Australians, which Arnold Toynbee had identified a few decades earlier in his monumental work A Study of History.
Some maintain that civilisations are shaped by religion, others by culture, cities, language, ideology, identity or as a response by human beings to nature.
Civilisations flower and die. Some leave artefacts, buildings and monuments that endure. Others leave stories, philosophies, language, knowledge and ways of being that echo and resonate long after. Some just disappear, some suicide. Others grow and respond to interaction, adapting and changing as they go. And we now know, many leave a measurable trail in the polar ice, as the recent discovery of the traces of lead from Ancient Rome from 1100 BCE revealed.
As Kenneth Clark reputedly said after devoting his life to popularising the study of civilisation, “I don’t know what it is, but I recognise it when I see it.”
I like to think of it as a shorthand for the way human beings coexist with each other, the world they have created and the natural environment which makes it possible. While recognising the contestability of values, I like the positive humanity of Clive Bell’s notion of “reason sweetened by values” and RG Collingwood’s, “mental process toward ideal social relationships of civility”.
For me, civilisation is pluralist, contestable, open, polite, robust; buttressed by law, culture and institutions and maintained by sustainable economic conditions across time and place.
The need for a bill of rights
The barbarism of the second world war galvanised the creation of civilising mechanisms and institutions. They varied from country to country, with different impacts , but the intention was generally to expand rights and enhance democracy.
The Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which will turn 70 on the 10th of December, was the most singular global response: its 30 rights recognise and spell out “the inherent dignity and equal and inalienable rights of all members of the human family”. Its symbolic power exceeds its legal effect, as George Williams has written. It forms part of customary international law and is seen as binding on all nations. It been translated into 500 languages. Australia has ratified two of the most important subsequent conventions which grew under its umbrella to define political and civil; social, economic and cultural rights – so it is not without effect here.
The Universal Declaration may well have faults and limits. Some regard it as “human rights imperialism” used by the West to run the world in ways that will protect and promote its interests. But when expansively applied, rather than as an embodiment of Western hegemony, it remains the best organising principle for civility that humanity has yet been devised. Ask women in Asia, India and the Middle East, democrats in Turkey, Hungary and Poland, activists in China or journalists in Russia.
“Without it”, as a Turkish-born scholar recently wrote, “we have few conceptual tools to oppose populism, nationalism, chauvinism and isolationism”.
Australians played an important role in the creation of the Declaration, but we have been tardy about its application. Ours is the only democratic nation which does not have a bill of rights – the only one. This is something that demands pause for thought. It is something we need to address if we are to foster an ethic for a distinctive, hybrid Australian civilisation.
It is probably worth noting in passing that some of the most strident opponents of an Australian bill of rights are also amongst the most vociferous promoters of a narrowly defined agenda to study western civilisation. It is easy in this environment to forget that the demographics are with those of us who see the arc of history bending up. Surveys show most Australians would welcome a formalisation of rights.
Surely a clear statement of rights and responsibilities is central to any attempt to define a civilisation and the way we co-exist, respectfully, sustainably, creatively.
More than a pale shadow
“Person by person the world does change,” Tony Abbott wrote in his essay for Quadrant that marked the beginning of the end of the Ramsay program at ANU. In his final paragraph, the former prime minister suggested that the “hundred bright young Australians” who received the proposed scholarships “might change the world”, and begin “a much more invigorating long march through our institutions!”
That makes me a little nervous. It sounds a bit like a fifth column, though I doubt that the students would be willing fodder for such a scheme. I suspect that if they were to embark on such a long march, they, like me, would prefer an open, inclusive, contested, respectful, non-ideological journey, grounded in the unique nature of this place as home to the oldest living civilisations, a product of British colonialism, the creation of people from every continent and our own imagining.
This country has a lot going for it, but we seem stuck in neutral. We need to regain ambition. To foster a remarkable country, one which learns from the mistakes of past and displaces complacent caution to imagine and create a robust, inclusive, generous, rights-based democratic order that will work well in the very different world of the 21st century.
It won’t come from politicians. It will, if history is a guide, be something that is worked up on the ground, in our universities, in our institutions, in our justice system, in business, community groups and on social media. As it takes shape, the politicians will follow and carry it forward.
There is a lot at stake. Person by person, we can help to turn the level of civilisation up in this place, so that it becomes much more than a pale shadow of the worst of the rest of the world.
This article is an excerpt of the 49th Academy Lecture delivered by Professor Julianne Schultz AM FAHA as part of the Australian Academy of the Humanities Symposium, ‘Clash of Civilisations: Where are we now?’ held at the State Library of NSW on 15 November 2018. The full lecture will be published in the 2019 edition of the Academy’s journal, Humanities Australia.