A narcissistic bully will face nationalist leaders just as dangerous. Prepare for a direct clash with China
January 21, 2017
By Timothy Garton Ash
Donald Trump’s arrival in the White House reflects a wider phenomenon: a new era of nationalism. He joins Vladimir Putin of Russia, Narendra Modiof India, Xi Jinping of China, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan of Turkey and a score of other nationalist leaders around the globe.
While it might be unfair to describe Theresa May as a nationalist, her announcement that she’s going for a hard Brexit reflects the pressure of English nationalism on the British right, and will encourage the nationalism of others. Of course, eras of nationalism are nothing new. But precisely because we have experienced them before, we know that they often start with high hopes and end in tears.
For now, the nationalists are giving one another the Trumpian thumbs-up across the seas. Paul Nuttall, the Ukip leader, says he is “massively excited” by the advent of President Trump, who in turn tells Michael Gove in the Times that he thinks Brexit “is going to end up being a great thing”. In a photograph that should become notorious, the Brexiteer Gove gives Trump a sycophantic thumbs-up, with a curiously goofy expression on his face, making him look like a teenage Star Trek fan who has caught 10 seconds with Patrick Stewart. The vice-president of France’s Front National responded to May’s Brexit speech by declaring: “French independence soon.” And so it goes on.
This world of mutually reinforcing nationalisms is also one in which both the relative power and the internal coherence of the west are being eroded from both sides of the Atlantic. The deterrent effect of the United States’ Nato security guarantee to Europe is being undermined from Washington itself.
Meanwhile, we have had the amazing spectacle of the leaders of Russia, Turkey and Iran getting together to make a cynical deal over Syria. Erdoğan-supporting Turkish commentators revelled in the fact that neither the US nor Europe was even at the table.
Looking at the photograph of the three leaders shaking hands, I was reminded of David Low’s famous cartoon of Hitler and Stalin greeting each other in September 1939, raising their caps and making courteous bows to each other over the body of a dead soldier, with Hitler saying, “The scum of the Earth, I believe?” and Stalin, “The bloody assassin of the workers, I presume?”
To be sure, whenever you so much as mention Hitler there’s an instant risk of hyperbole. The warp and woof of interdependence and liberal international order is significantly thicker now than it was, going into the 1930s. That’s why the Leninist nationalist Xi Jinping spoke at Davos as a defender of an open, globalised international economy. He knows that his own country’s economic performance, and therefore the stability of his regime, depends on it.
The way in which the representatives of these countries talk about international relations is in many ways more reminiscent of the 19th-century world of sovereign great powers pursuing their own national interests. I’m writing this column in India, and came across some recent remarks made by India’s foreign secretary, Subrahmanyam Jaishankar, that illustrate this perfectly. Faced with the prospect of Trump’s America cosying up to Putin’s Russia, he observed: “With Russia, India’s relationship has actually grown very substantially in the last two years, as has the bonding between our leaders. An improvement in US-Russia ties is, therefore, not against Indian interests.” That is the sober, realpolitik kind of nationalism.
But by their very nature, nationalisms are likely to clash sooner or later. Thus May’s insistence that Britain will leave Europe’s single market puts her on a collision course with Scottish nationalists, who have a referendum mandate for saying that Scotland wants to remain in the EU – and certainly in the single market. Moreover, 21st-century nationalisms exist in a high-pressure ecosystem of 24/7 media coverage and public scrutiny that would have appalled Bismarck, Disraeli and the tsar of Russia. Even authoritarian rulers such as Putin and Xi are riding the tiger.
By far the most serious of these potential clashes is that between China and the US. In his confirmation hearing, Trump’s new secretary of state, Rex Tillerson, compared China’s programme of island-building in the South China Sea to Russia’s annexation of Crimea, and said the new administration would tell Beijing: “Your access to those islands is not going to be allowed”.
Meanwhile, in India the commander of the US Pacific command, Admiral Harry Harris, warns: “India should be concerned about the increasing Chinese influence in the region. If you believe that there is only finite influence, then whatever influence China has means that influence India does not have.” A zero-sum game, then.
Now this is partly just the familiar dance of great powers competing for influence with each other and with third parties. But the risk of an accidental naval or air confrontation somewhere in the South or East China seas is far from negligible. And then the question would become: do Trump and Xi have the wisdom, statecraft, sound advice and, not least, domestic political elbow room to step back from the brink?
This is where Trump’s irascible, bullying, narcissistic character could be such a liability. On the other side, the personally much steadier Xi has staked so much of his legitimacy as “core leader” of China’s party-state on his “China dream” (ie making China great again) that he would be under pressure not to back down. Whether the cause is psychological, political or both, so-called strong men often feel they can’t afford to show weakness.
No, I’m not predicting the third world war. But a 21st-century variant of the Cuban missile crisis? Entirely possible. So let’s have no illusions. Up on the magic mountain in Davos, Trump’s smooth-talking mouthpiece Anthony Scaramucci tries to persuade us that everything is going to be fine. He says “the path to globalism for the world is through the American worker” (unpick that if you can), and that Trump’s “disruptive change” is going to be “a positive thing in [our] lives”.
Don’t be fooled; don’t be Scaramuccied. We are in for a dangerous, rough ride over the next few years, and we’d better be ready for it.