Delphi Economic Forum 2019
“USA: Global Shifts and National Priorities”
Dr. Michael Haltzel, Chairman, Transatlantic Leadership Network
It’s a great honor and pleasure to speak at this prestigious conference. In the ten minutes allotted to me I will briefly look at major global shifts over the last decade and how the United States has adapted to them. These shifts include:
- Galloping Climate Change
- Economic Vulnerability resulting from the Great Recession
- Mass Migrations
- The Rise of Populism
- The Retreat of the U.S. as Global Leader
- The Accelerated Rise of China, and
- New and Serious Threats to the U.S. Homeland
Have American national priorities adjusted to these shifts? The short answer, I regret to say, is not very well.
- First, climate change. We can no longer afford to focus on medium-to-long term Climate Change, rather on now. The current evidence in the U.S. alone is overwhelming: more frequent and severe wildfires; more severe hurricanes, especially with massive rainfall. Alas, the Trump Administration has relaxed pollution controls, resulting in a rapid increase in U.S. greenhouse gas emissions, and intends to withdraw the U.S. from the Paris Climate Accord next year.
The left-wing of the Democratic Party has responded with an aspirational “Green New Deal,” which while admirable in intent, has totally unrealistic deadlines. Fortunately, federalism is alive and well, and 21 states representing more than half of the country’s population have formed the U.S. Climate Alliance, which pledges to meet the goals of the Paris Accord.
- The good news on the U.S. economy is the 4% unemployment rate and last year’s more than 3% economic growth, which will probably fall to slightly over 2% this year. The bad news is the massive tax cut for the wealthiest Americans that has resulted in an annual budget deficit of 900 billion dollars, with truly suicidal ones forecast for the future. Economic inequality, which began to accelerate in the late 1970s, is increasing and is the highest in the developed world.
- Contrary to the declarations of President Trump, the flow of illegal immigrants from Mexico and Central America has been slowing. Annual apprehensions at the border are down 70% since 2000. There is no national security crisis, rather a humanitarian crisis exacerbated by government actions. The state of emergency is a sham, and the subversion of the will of Congress an assault on the separation of powers.
- The rise of populism has not spared the United States. Using incendiary language laced with lies, President Trump has shamelessly polarized the American people along racial, cultural, and economic lines. He has undermined key governmental institutions like the FBI, the Department of Justice, and the intelligence agencies; and non-governmental institutions essential to democracy like the media, which he labels “fake news” and the “enemy of the people.” Trump has slurred Africans and Latinos and actually declared that there were “very fine people” on both sides in the riots provoked by Nazi marchers in August 2017 in Charlottesville, Virginia.
- This unprecedented presidential undermining of democracy has had important global ramifications. The days of the U.S. as a beacon of democracy are over, at least temporarily. Moreover, Trump’s support for autocrats and populists like Putin, Xi, Erdoğan, Orbán, Duterte ,and Mohammad bin Salman encourages their repression and serves to destabilize the international order.
- This trashing of democracy also coincides with the U.S. shedding its international leadership role. Trump announced a chaotic U.S. retreat from Syria, then faced with bipartisan Congressional opposition, last week reversed course and ordered a few hundred troops to remain with an ill-defined mission. Negotiations with the Taliban continue, but without the involvement of our Afghan government allies. We have withdrawn from international organizations like the Trans-Pacific Partnership, and from international agreements like the Iran nuclear deal (JCPOA) and soon from the Paris Climate Accord. Trump’s irrational antipathy to alliances is especially wrong-headed since the U.S. is no longer the global hegemon and needs allies more than ever. Worst of all, there remains the danger that Trump will pull the U.S. out of NATO, a move that was once unthinkable.
- The U.S. response to the accelerated rise of China is mixed. The criticism of China’s predatory trade practices, huge market-distorting subsidies, theft of intellectual property, and forced technology-transfer is spot-on, and I commend the Trump Administration for it. Unfortunately, the measures intended to correct Chinese misdeeds are counter-productive. Pulling out of the Trans-Pacific Partnership, which under American leadership could have written the “rules of the economic road” for the 21st century, was a serious error. Instead, Trump launched a mutually harmful trade war with Beijing. While the president haggles over purchases of American soybeans and liquefied natural gas, China continues its relentless national effort to dominate 5G technologies, quantum computing, artificial intelligence, robotics, biotech, and high-value manufacturing like aerospace.
- New threats to the American homeland are detailed in the intelligence community’s recently released annual “Worldwide Threat Assessment,” which paints a picture vastly different from that asserted by Mr. Trump. Russia emerges as a disruptive threat, China as a long-term one, and the failure of the United States to invest heavily enough in research and development for key technologies as perhaps the single biggest concern.
- Moreover, the assessment concludes that Iran is not “currently undertaking the key nuclear weapons-development activity” needed to make a bomb and that North Korea is “unlikely to give up” all of its nuclear stockpiles. This week’s summit in Hanoi with Kim Jong-un seemed to confirm this analysis. President Trump’s idea of suqmmitry relies on his instincts and supposed powers of persuasion instead of letting expert “sherpas” work out a deal for the two leaders to sign. This amateurish “winging it” didn’t work in Hanoi and left the American side with no good options.
- Perhaps the strongest rebuke of Mr. Trump’s overall security priorities can be found in what is missing from the “Worldwide Threat Assessment”: there is no rationale for building a wall along the country’s southwestern border.
- Meanwhile back in the real world, the report concludes that for the first time China is now positioned to conduct effective cyber-attacks against American infrastructure, specifically citing Beijing’s ability to cut off natural gas pipelines, at least briefly. It also notes the Russian planting of malware in the United States electricity grid. The Kremlin already has the ability to bring our grid down “for at least a few hours” the assessment concludes and is “mapping our critical infrastructure with the long-term goal of being able to cause substantial damage.” Finally, Russia’s development of hypersonic missiles poses an existential threat to the U.S. and to Europe, and Moscow’s poisonous meddling in American democracy continues unabated.
Faced with this evidence, the president persists in ostentatiously ignoring the advice of his intelligence chiefs whom he sarcastically advised after their Congressional testimonies on January 29th to “go back to school.” Trump is living in an alternative reality, fashioned to placate his populist base.
- In summation, events around the globe truly are shifting, but instead of adjusting U.S. policies to meet the new challenges, President Trump in most cases is guided by his own personal legal and financial interests or by electoral strategies. It is a dangerous picture, not only for the United States, but for what we used to call the “free world.”
The views expressed in this blog are solely its author’s, and do not necessarily reflect official endorsement or position by the Transatlantic Leadership Network.