External Affairs

The Mule and His Very Big Nuclear Button

Trump is the proverbial black swan which was not anticipated – a low probability, high-impact presence which is disrupting American politics, its alliance systems and its governance structures.

Isaac Asimov’s Foundation series describes a future universe which is carefully programmed so that no single individual can alter the pre-set socio-historical path worked out by the mathematical genius Hari Seldon and his Foundation. Things go awry when an extraordinary individual called ‘The Mule’, with the ability to control the minds of the masses, defeats the Foundation and with it, the universe’s monopoly of nuclear weapons with which he conquers the galaxy and alters the course of history.

Asimov could well have been describing Donald Trump, the 45th president of the United States.

The carefully structured American governmental system with its separation of powers doctrine is designed for conservative and steady governance. This system, and the country’s great geographic and natural endowments, have taken the US to unprecedented heights in the 20th century.  With its secure geographic location, energy self-sufficiency, a system that attracts the best and the brightest to its shores, a peerless university system and military,  the US should retain its pre-eminence well into the latter half of the 21st century.

But now an outlier has turned these calculations upside down. Trump is the proverbial black swan which was not anticipated – a low probability, high-impact presence which is disrupting American politics, its alliance systems and its governance structures. There are questions not just about President Trump’s  policies, but, alarmingly,  his mental fitness. A year ago,  Richard Haass, president of the Council on Foreign Relations, wrote a book, The World in Disarray. Last week, in an afterword to a paperback edition, he noted that things have gone worse and the disarray is even greater. By viewing the burdens of global leadership as outweighing its benefits, “the US has changed from the principal preserver of order to a principal disrupter.”

Donald J. Trump could well end up as a  modern-day Attila or Chengiz, who changed the world through their acts of wanton destruction.

In recent decades as China and India have risen, the relative power of the US has been  steadily declining. But Trump is actively aiding that process, though he believes that he will make America great again.

Given the sheer magnitude of its power, the US has weathered  massive setbacks  like the “three trillion dollar war” of choice in Iraq and the 2008 financial meltdown. But the Trump effect is wilful and more pervasive.  Beginning with his two benign neighbours, he has undermined the strong system of friends and allies that the US had around the world. By pulling out of the Trans-Pacific Partnership, he knocked the legs off any viable strategy of standing up to China in what he now terms the “Indo-Pacific.”

He disdains multilateral trade rules and has surrendered American leadership in the issue of the day, climate change. He wants to cut the American foreign assistance budget for 2018 by nearly $12 billion, putting paid to any plan to counter China’s belt and road initiative. And the  $11.1 billion cut in the R&D budget flies in the face of the $20 billion per annum that Beijing is putting into just one area, artificial intelligence. The crowning blunder is restriction of immigration which has given America its science and technology sinews. Last year, all six American Nobel Prize winners were immigrants and since 2016, fully 40% came to the US from other countries.

In very obvious ways, such a situation offers other contenders for the Great Power mantle an enlarged strategic space. Even its best friends would say that India is not quite ready to exploit it. Indeed, as of now it views the American disruption as a useful way of keeping its regional rivals – Pakistan and China – in check.

But for China it is a clear opportunity. As  Evan Osnos put it last week,  “China has never seen such a moment, when its pursuit of a larger role in the world coincides with America’s pursuit of a smaller one.” In 2000, he says, the US accounted for 31% of the global economy and China 4%. Today, the US share is 24% and China’s 15.

China’s footwork has been flawless so far and it is steadily accruing economic power and military strength. It is striking out in new ways through the Belt Road Initiative to expand its remit and brazenly seeking to re-write the rules of the world order to favour its suit.

From US order to less order

Since we are not in Hari Seldon’s predetermined world, the quality of leadership matters. One measure of it is the reading habits of the China and the US. Xi, according to netizens who look at the shelves of his office when he delivers his New Year speech, are loaded with Marxist-Leninist texts, western classical literature, the Russian greats, as well as books of contemporary concerns ranging from the military, to economics and finance and AI. By contrast, Michael Wolff’s Fire and Fury cites White House aides as saying that Trump reads nothing, not even one page memos or briefing policy papers.

The US is not going to be replaced by China as the global hegemon soon, if ever. China lacks the combination of things which has made the US great, in particular the trust America garnered through its liberal internationalism. So, as Haass warns, “the alternative to a US-led international order is less international order,” something that has consequences for all of us residents of the globe.

Beyond issues of  Trump’s wrong-headed policies  is a more alarming thought. Is Trump all right up there? Last month,  a Yale psychiatry professor Bandy X. Lee  told a group of US legislators that Trump is “going to unravel.” His bouts of slurring, instances of using two hands to drink water off a glass and his intemperate tweets, the latest about the size of his nuclear button, are alarming.

The Atlantic magazine has run a major story asking “Is something neurologically wrong with Donald Trump?”. It rightly concludes that we should not judge such medical issues  from afar. Instead,  it has proposed a non-partisan body to come up with  a presidential fitness report, leaving the final judgment to the people and their elected representatives.

As for ‘The Mule’, his impact, in Asimov’s telling, turns out to be ephemeral and he is finally defeated by the Foundation. But then, that is the kind of satisfying conclusion fiction often revels in. Reality could  prove to be much more painful.

The writer is a Distinguished Fellow, Observer Research Foundation, New Delhi. 

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