President Trump calls the WTO a “disaster” and NATO “obsolete,” and seasoned diplomats and foreign policy experts react with reasoned disdain and moral contempt. His tweets and remarks are said to be reckless, needlessly destructive, and further proof—as if any were needed—of the president’s lack of both capability and character. Whatever you make of his latest episodes, Donald Trump’s behavior is certainly disruptive—and, as progressives have argued, our outdated economic and political systems need a little shaking up. While Trump does not offer any positive alternatives with his populist takedowns, his disruptions create an opening for a new sort of world order to emerge.
The rules-based international order relies on political structures designed for a different era and built up over two twentieth-century waves of growth and prosperity in the West, the Trente Glorieuses following WWII and the 30 years of neoliberal globalization following the fall of the Berlin Wall. But these structures are ill-suited to the technological and economic realities of the post-millennial world.
“The old world is dying away, and the new world struggles to come forth,” observes Slavoj Žižek, paraphrasing Gramsci. “Now is the time of monsters.” While we may disagree with his solutions, and we may not like his style, President Trump is not wrong to question the UN and NATO, the IMF and World Bank, WTO and NAFTA, and other structures of twentieth-century globalization. NATO is built on the idea of a wall running down the middle of Germany that has not been there for almost 30 years. The UN rests on a notion of sovereign nation-states at odds with the explosive growth of diaspora populations and the power of non-state actors. Trump dislikes these Cold War-era institutions for disagreeably nativist reasons, but his opposition converges tightly with progressive skepticism.
The reality is that the post-millennial world has outpaced our understanding of it. A new global order is emerging, with more flexible dynamics and multiple centers of state and non-state power. Our leaders largely lack the conceptual and political tools to deal with it, but anthropology offers some key insights.
While it is unclear exactly what the new rules will be, China will play a preeminent role. They have replaced the U.S. as the world’s strongest pro-trade voice for globalization, taken the lead in international climate change efforts, and started an ambitious (strings-attached) international development program, One Road, One Belt. The country’s Asian Infrastructure Development bank is now capitalized at half the amount of the World Bank and gaining rapidly, while the Made in China 2025 is on track to achieve global dominance in key manufacturing sectors.
This is not just a story of China’s rise, however, but also of the emergence of a more fluid and diffuse international power structure generally. Recent polls show that Germany has replaced the U.S. as the world’s most respected country. Meanwhile Russia flexes its muscles by sending comically veiled signals, brazenly poisoning defectors and riling up the social media fringes.
It’s also a story of the rise of functionally sovereign non-state actors. Many, like the narco-traffickers of Guatemala and Honduras, not to mention Al Qaeda and ISIS, are better armed and more powerful than the governments. Or their power may be financial: East European cybergangs regularly hold not only hapless individuals but whole police departments and city governments hostage with ransomware, extracting payment in Bitcoin or other virtual currencies. Which leads to the realization that while the dollar is likely to remain the world’s reserve currency for some time, the curtain has been pulled back and governments have lost their mystical monopoly on the creation and control of money. Meanwhile, independent entities like the Gates Foundation, the Koch brothers and large transnational corporations like Apple, an American company whose stateless billions are stashed away in Irish banks, are supplanting, influencing, and circumventing governments in ways (good and bad) that we don’t have the tools to address.
We need a political understanding of the world that accounts for not just the emergence of these non-state actors but burgeoning diaspora populations as well. International migration to high-income countries increased by almost 90 percent since the fall of the Berlin Wall. Never have we seen such massive movements of people around the world, but our governance structures are ill-equipped to represent Syrian refugees in Europe, Filipino workers in Qatar, or Kurds anywhere. We need frameworks that can account for cultural communities that may be only loosely connected to a geographic place.
Bucking conventional economic wisdom and Republican orthodoxy, Trump sees trade as a zero-sum game in which there are losers as well as winners. Social-justice opponents of free trade largely concur, pointing out that such deals hurt smallholders and local producers (of corn in Mexico, for example) as well as dismantling the livelihoods of U.S. factory workers. While they have different victims in mind, Subcomandante Marcos and Donald Trump both see free trade pacts as mechanisms for the economic exploitation of those already in precarious circumstances.
Trump’s approach to trade deals seeks to protect certain sorts of jobs, the jobs of twentieth-century white working-class prosperity. But this idea is as retrograde as the global institutions themselves. A more forward-looking solution would be to support workers (rather than job categories) through inevitable transitions. Even that may not be enough to address the possibility of a crisis within capitalism itself, or the attendant social and political disorder, if the shiny diversions of social media prove insufficient distractions from the material realities.
In the current age of consumer capitalism, we are so inundated with attempts to shape our opinion that ironic distance can simulate critical analysis and Trevor Noah becomes the voice of informed reason. With all that is solid melting into air, Trump begins to sound like an alt right Baudrillard in his critiques of the social construction of “truth,” fueling disillusionment with a political-economic system that wide swaths of the U.S. electorate see as stacked against them.
In this context, Trump’s openness about “the system” being a system (that can be gamed) and his transactional view of relationships makes his insincerity come off as authentic. It also reveals an intuitive grasp of critical theory: understanding that the institutions of capitalism and democracy are human creations can empower us to make them suit our ends rather than conform ourselves to theirs. The progressive left needs to recapture this insight to offer bold, positive alternatives to outdated systems. It is time to put down the rocks and pick up a hammer.