The Powerlessness of the Most Powerful by Javier Solana

Certain leaders’ short-term interests, often presented as “national interests,” are one of the factors roiling international relations more than any time since the end of the Cold War. But the rise of nationalist populism is less the cause than the result of rifts that have been forming for some time.

.. The center of the Western political spectrum has tended to underestimate the impact of rising inequality within countries, focusing instead on the benefits of market opening and integration, such as the unprecedentedly rapid reduction in global poverty. Understandably, however, not everyone is consoled by such outcomes.

.. It is not only goods, services, and capital that circulate through the global economy. Ideas circulate, too. So globalization, like democracy, is vulnerable to itself, because it puts at its opponents’ disposal a set of tools that they can use to sabotage it. Aware of this, the “nationalist international” driven by US President Donald Trump and his ideological fellow travelers has mobilized anxiety and alienation to launch a (somewhat paradoxical) crusade to globalize their particular anti-globalization discourse.

.. Yet globalism and patriotism are not incompatible concepts. Trump’s invocation of patriotism has no aim other than to whitewash his nationalist and nativist tendencies. Rhetorical traps of this type can catch us with our guard down, above all when the person who resorts to them is a leader who is known for serving his ideas raw. But it is evident that the Trump administration, too, worries about keeping up appearances.

.. At the UN, Trump sought to give his foreign policy a patina of coherence by calling it “principled realism.” In international relations, realism is a theory that regards states as the central actors and units of analysis, relegating international institutions and law to an ancillary status. Principles such as human rights are usually set aside, though countries may deploy them selectively to advance their interests.
.. This is precisely what Trump does when he criticizes the repression of the Iranian regime, while failing to denounce similar practices in other countries. But no self-respecting realist would exaggerate the threat posed by Iran, or allow a flurry of compliments from Kim Jong-un to cloud their vision regarding North Korea.
.. “America will always choose independence and cooperation over global governance, control, and domination,” Trump told the UN. In theory, cooperation is not incompatible with the realist paradigm. For example, realists could conceive of the US trying to offset China’s geopolitical rise by bolstering its alliances in the Asia-Pacific region, especially with Japan and South Korea.
.. This disconcerting behavior has extended to other traditional US allies, such as the European Union, revealing that Trump is extraordinarily reluctant to cooperate. When he does, he seldom favors the alliances that most fit his country’s strategic interests.
..  It is clear that China does not always adhere to international norms, but the right response is to uphold these norms, not to bulldoze them. Unfortunately, the US is opting for the latter course in many areas, such as commercial relations.
.. In his General Assembly speech, China’s foreign minister, Wang Yi, did not stress the realpolitik that his country often promotes; instead, he mentioned the concept of “win-win” no less than five times. If Trump – together with the rest of the nationalist international – continues to reject this notion of mutual benefits, he will likely manage to slow down not only China’s growth, but also that of the US.

From Economic Crisis to World War III

The response to the 2008 economic crisis has relied far too much on monetary stimulus, in the form of quantitative easing and near-zero (or even negative) interest rates, and included far too little structural reform. This means that the next crisis could come soon – and pave the way for a large-scale military conflict.

BEIJING – The next economic crisis is closer than you think. But what you should really worry about is what comes after: in the current social, political, and technological landscape, a prolonged economic crisis, combined with rising income inequality, could well escalate into a major global military conflict.

The 2008-09 global financial crisis almost bankrupted governments and caused systemic collapse. Policymakers managed to pull the global economy back from the brink, using massive monetary stimulus, including quantitative easing and near-zero (or even negative) interest rates.

But monetary stimulus is like an adrenaline shot to jump-start an arrested heart; it can revive the patient, but it does nothing to cure the disease. Treating a sick economy requires structural reforms, which can cover everything from financial and labor markets to tax systems, fertility patterns, and education policies.

Policymakers have utterly failed to pursue such reforms, despite promising to do so. Instead, they have remained preoccupied with politics. From Italy to Germany, forming and sustaining governments now seems to take more time than actual governing. And Greece, for example, has relied on money from international creditors to keep its head (barely) above water, rather than genuinely reforming its pension system or improving its business environment.

The lack of structural reform has meant that the unprecedented excess liquidity that central banks injected into their economies was not allocated to its most efficient uses. Instead, it raised global asset prices to levels even higher than those prevailing before 2008.

In the United States, housing prices are now 8% higher than they were at the peak of the property bubble in 2006, according to the property website Zillow. The price-to-earnings (CAPE) ratio, which measures whether stock-market prices are within a reasonable range, is now higher than it was both in 2008 and at the start of the Great Depression in 1929.

As monetary tightening reveals the vulnerabilities in the real economy, the collapse of asset-price bubbles will trigger another economic crisis – one that could be even more severe than the last, because we have built up a tolerance to our strongest macroeconomic medications. A decade of regular adrenaline shots, in the form of ultra-low interest rates and unconventional monetary policies, has severely depleted their power to stabilize and stimulate the economy.

If history is any guide, the consequences of this mistake could extend far beyond the economy. According to Harvard’s Benjamin Friedman, prolonged periods of economic distress have been characterized also by public antipathy toward minority groups or foreign countries – attitudes that can help to fuel unrest, terrorism, or even war.

For example, during the Great Depression, US President Herbert Hoover signed the 1930 Smoot-Hawley Tariff Act, intended to protect American workers and farmers from foreign competition. In the subsequent five years, global trade shrank by two-thirds. Within a decade, World War II had begun.

To be sure, WWII, like World War I, was caused by a multitude of factors; there is no standard path to war. But there is reason to believe that high levels of inequality can play a significant role in stoking conflict.

According to research by the economist Thomas Piketty, a spike in income inequality is often followed by a great crisis. Income inequality then declines for a while, before rising again, until a new peak – and a new disaster.

This is all the more worrying in view of the numerous other factors stoking social unrest and diplomatic tension, including

  • technological disruption, a
  • record-breaking migration crisis,
  • anxiety over globalization,
  • political polarization, and
  • rising nationalism.

All are symptoms of failed policies that could turn out to be trigger points for a future crisis.

.. Voters have good reason to be frustrated, but the emotionally appealing populists to whom they are increasingly giving their support are offering ill-advised solutions that will only make matters worse. For example, despite the world’s unprecedented interconnectedness, multilateralism is increasingly being eschewed, as countries – most notably, Donald Trump’s US – pursue unilateral, isolationist policies. Meanwhile, proxy wars are raging in Syria and Yemen.

Against this background, we must take seriously the possibility that the next economic crisis could lead to a large-scale military confrontation. By the logicof the political scientist Samuel Huntington , considering such a scenario could help us avoid it, because it would force us to take action. In this case, the key will be for policymakers to pursue the structural reforms that they have long promised, while replacing finger-pointing and antagonism with a sensible and respectful global dialogue. The alternative may well be global conflagration.

Evangelical Support for Trump as a Moral Project: Description and Critique

For those of us on the left and the middle (and for some on the right), the ethos, rhetoric, and politics of Donald J. Trump are self-evidently evil. Thus, we conclude that those evangelical Christians who support him must act from depraved motives to the extent that his depravity appeals to them.

We see two obvious explanations of the fact that these conservative Christians support him in large numbers:

  1. they have abandoned their once-noble principles, or
  2. those principles were only ever a smokescreen behind which operated racism, classism, xenophobia, and other forms of prejudice.

..  I am just as sure that the obviousness of the moral meaning of the cause is a serious hindrance to it. The meaning of the struggle is no less true for becoming trite, but it is not the whole meaning. What follows is an attempt to see the less obvious element of that whole: support for Trump on the part of many evangelicals is a consistent outgrowth of a coherent political theology, one undertaken with noble intentions.

.. It seemed clear to many in Niebuhr’s time that the more we were committed to victory, the less acceptable it was to question our virtues or our enemies’ vices.

.. Niebuhr, however, is a realist. To him, realism means that descriptions of situations should be realistic rather than ideal, accurate even where inconvenient, rather than simple but inspiring.

.. As long as we understand and express only the obvious roots of this phenomenon in prejudice, and ignore the way in which those supporters understand themselves to be acting, we will prevent both meaningful dialogue and our own clarity about what is really going on.

.. Trump does not traffic in moral language. His is an almost entirely amoral political vocabulary, so it is hard to see how his supporters understand themselves to be supporting a moral project.

.. in his 2012 book Time to Get Tough, Trump called Obama and his diplomatic corps foolish, brainless “pansies” for not demanding half of Libya’s oil for the next twenty-five years in exchange for taking out Qadaffi.

.. That there were reasons not to make this deal other than idiocy and weakness does not seemed to have occurred to Trump. International law and norms of geopolitics are, from Trump’s perspective, for suckers.1

.. Many liberals thought Bush had mercenary intentions in the second Gulf war (making “No Blood for Oil” bumper stickers), but Bush made it easier to imagine his supporters’ noble intentions because he framed the conflict in moral terms. Trump gives us none of that. His discourse is almost exclusively about power, self-interested negotiation, nationalism, size, strength, and so on.

Making empathy harder still, Trump is not just amorally calculating and commercial; he is openly immoral: vulgar, dishonest, petty, mean-spirited, racially insensitive, and so on.

Conservative (and especially white) evangelicals have a political vocabulary that is almost exclusively moralistic. They also value personal integrity and Christian principles in their politicians. This makes their approval of Trump opaque to those who don’t share it. What follows is my attempt to make their thinking more transparent.

.. Benjamin Lynerd’s insightful book, Republican Theology: The Civil Religion of American Evangelicals.

Lynerd coins the term ‘republican theology’ (note the small ‘r’ in republican) to describe the way evangelicals understand American politics in relation to divine purpose. He provides a historical description of evangelical political thinking to explain what appears contradictory or hypocritical to many observers: the way evangelicals combine libertarianism with strict government regulation on moral issues, for example, being against government regulation of the economy, but in favor of government regulation of marriage.

.. he does not claim it is un-problematically consistent. Rather, he shows it to be part of a largely coherent, though imperfect, moral-political logic.

.. According to Lynerd, subscribers to republican theology—that is, most American evangelicals—believe that the United States has special religious and moral status—even to the point of being a “chosen nation.” That status is both ordained for and a result of our practice of proper religion and proper government. These form the necessary conditions of the development of personal morality, of virtue that allows citizens to direct themselves.

.. Political freedom, in turn, allows the practice of right religion, which inculcates virtue, which is required for limited government. Lynerd quotes evangelical writer Os Guiness: “Freedom requires virtue, which requires faith, which requires freedom, and so on, like the recycling triangle, ad infinitum.”3 For republican theology, America’s historic success resulted from a carefully maintained mutual reinforcement of proper religion, morality, and politics.

.. They see expansive government as a threat to both religion and morality. When the government interferes in religion and the economy, we lose the conditions and incentives to develop the morals that make self-government possible.

.. We can have the first sort of self-government if and only if we have citizens capable of the second sort: mature, self-sufficient, responsible, hard-working, generous people learning from and creating strong families, churches, businesses, and communities.

.. In such a society, government regulation of people’s lives is not needed or wanted. The one exception republican theology makes is for government action to preserve the conditions necessary for the formation of self-governing citizens: respect for life, marriage, family, decency, and so on.

.. This need for exceptions to protect the conditions of morality is the source of the tension between libertarianism and moralism in evangelical politics: we must limit the government to foster morality and use the government to protect it. Understanding this relation, we can see how limiting government in most cases, while advocating restrictive moral laws in specific cases, is not hypocrisy, so much as a balance which must be struck between competing impulses—and there are such tensions in all political philosophies.4

.. For many on the left, for example, government assistance for the poor is an obvious moral good. From the perspective of those who subscribe to republican theology, however, the liberal drive to “help the poor” through redistributive policies is not moral heroism, but a naïve misunderstanding of what actually helps people and the economy. They see government intervention in the economy as creating dependence, enervating creativity, and stunting both economic growth and the development of human beings

.. While liberals are regularly scandalized by how little conservative Christians seem to “care about the poor,” conservatives often oppose the expansion of government, at least in part, precisely for the sake of the poor, both economically and morally.

.. The enthusiasm with which evangelical culture-warriors and champions of faith and family have embraced this secular, East coast, and thrice-married vulgarian is—on its surface—base hypocrisy, explicable only through unprincipled prejudice and ignorance. With reference to republican theology, however, we can see that—for many evangelicals—supporting Trump is at least in part the product of a coherent-if-imperfect, religio-political perspective faced with a difficult ethical tradeoff.

.. interpreting evangelical support for Trump as simply evil and ignorance obscures the drive for moral goods that lies behind it.

.. Lots of disastrous, even evil, political movements have been pursued for noble ends. It should prompt to us frame our criticism differently, however.

.. instead of dreaming up ever more strident denunciations of their evil intentions, we should try to show how their good aims have become confused or disordered.

Niebuhr helps us see that there are three confusions built into republican theology, affecting each of its three pillars:

  1. moral self-government,
  2. limited government, and
  3. proper religion.

1) First, republican theology is confused about when the government should intervene to protect morality, favoring only a narrow and private set of issues—mainly marriage, gender issues, and the like. When they think about economics, the government’s job is exclusively negative. Republican theologians do not often think about positive government intervention as necessary to preserve the moral-pedagogical role of the markets.

.. actual political practice has been more pragmatic, collectivist, and proactive than our creeds describe. As an example, Niebuhr notes that Thomas Jefferson was a champion of small government and an idealist about the potential for citizens to self-regulate, but also a realist about the economic conditions required. Jefferson believed, like many evangelicals today, that the economy was a school of virtue, but he believed that one could only matriculate in that school through independent land ownership.

.. He used the government to distribute wealth to the common person to help shape a society in which his creed made sense. Thus, he saw that the exceptions to libertarianism we need in defense of morality included material interventions to make economic participation more generally available.

Niebuhr believes that Jefferson’s realism worked and the federal effort to expand the frontier in the 1800s served as a massive infusion of wealth into the working class.

.. Economic opportunity meant the government had to do much less to maintain social order. He writes: “It can hardly be denied that the fluidity of our class structure, derived from the opulence of economic opportunities, saved us from the acrimony of the class struggle in Europe…When the frontier ceased to provide for the expansion of opportunities, our superior technology created ever new frontiers for the ambitious and adventurous.5We have been able to avoid more aggressive government involvement in society because economic fluidity has mitigated the social tension that requires government intervention.

.. With the frontier closed and industry no longer expanding, we will face new threats to our freedom: populist and authoritarian politicians who promise they can restore economic opportunity through regressive and nationalistic policies. Niebuhr foresees the end of easy economic fluidity if industrialization ever ceases to provide a path into the property-owning classes.  He concludes that, “ultimately we must face some vexatious issues of social justice” that have arisen in Europe and which will require the same sort of pragmatic social management they have developed.

.. Republican theology has become absolute in its opposition to government involvement in the economy. However, there is no reason it cannot learn from America’s past and see such intervention as in service of morality by allowing access to the economy, rather than as dependence-causing disincentives to such participation. This sort of exception to libertarianism should be in line with the basic logic of republican theology.

.. providing universal quality education, protecting sustainably productive land, ensuring a healthy population, and guaranteeing a path from steady work to property ownership. These strike me as areas in which bipartisan cooperation should be possible.

.. 2) The second confusion involved in evangelical support of Trump concerns the belief that limiting government always results in an increase of the kind of freedom republican theology values.

.. This confusion is the result of a naive view of power. Niebuhr’s description of the bourgeois liberal describes the modern conservative well. Such a person is, “oblivious both to the elements of power in society and to the disproportions of power in economic life. Power, in the thought of the typically bourgeois man, is political. He believes it must be reduced to a minimum.”6 In the discourse of contemporary conservatism, political power is the only type that threatens economic freedom. 

.. Conservative evangelicals believe that a reduction in government involvement in the economy removes the problem of power, resulting in free encounters between individuals. They are under what Niebuhr calls the “illusion of classical liberalism that power is not an important element in man’s social life.”7 They assume that competing interests make for justice without regulation.

.. Niebuhr, however, insists that such organic justice would be possible “only if the powers which support interest were fairly equally divided, and they never are.”8 What Niebuhr recognizes and republican theology misses is that imbalances in economic power are as great a threat to the wellbeing and freedom of individuals as political power.

.. It was largely impossible for black Americans to buy homes in the South under Jim Crow. This is overt political power, the kind that worries republican theology. What is less well known is that it was also largely impossible for black Americans to buy homes in places like Chicago. Private real estate covenants outlawing selling or renting to African Americans in whole neighborhoods, racist lending policies, and great inequalities in capital did the job nearly as effectively as the laws of the South.

.. All great imbalances in power lead inevitably to injustice. Corporations and the rich can collude to lower wages, to create dangerous conditions for workers, to pollute the air and water, to sell dangerous products, to sway elections and public opinion, and generally exert their influence irresponsibly. Less insidiously, the wealthy can simply outcompete the poor in the race for important goods and services.

.. there is no reason to think that a decrease in the deployment of political power in the economy will automatically lead to a proportional increase in individual freedom. Covert forms of power will fill the vacuum emptied by the state

.. We must use the power of constitutional democracy to check both the rise of authoritarian politics and the hegemony of irresponsible capital. We need checks against tyranny, but we also need strong consumer and labor protections and corporate transparency, and we must protect democracy from distortion by the influence of money. Freedom does not blossom where government retreats; freedom is possible when power, including the government, checks power, including economic power, in defense of the individual.

.. 3) Finally, there is significant confusion regarding the third and final leg of the republican theology stool: proper Christian faith as a necessary precondition of a flourishing democracy. I see many problems here, but allow me to highlight just one.

.. Niebuhr notes that the earliest Puritan settlers believed God’s will to be inscrutable and did not count their initial successes as merited blessings. He calls their transition from such pious humility to bright confidence that their success came from their faith and virtues a “descent from Puritanism to Yankeeism.”10 Lynerd, likewise, notes that the “evangelical gospel of the First Great Awakening” (think Jonathan Edwards), with its “dim view of human perfectibility” was something “republican theology…had to overcome.”11

.. Niebuhr’s work picks up a strain of pessimism about human perfectibility that runs through Augustine and Luther, which is deeply ambivalent about any straightforward connection between either faith and virtue or virtue and flourishing. Republican theologians would be well served to recognize that their take on this is not the only, or even the majority, Christian position.

.. In a forthcoming article12 in Sociology of Religion, Samuel L. Perry, Andrew L. Whitehead, and Joseph O. Baker argue that what they call “Christian nationalism” was a “robust predictor of voting for Donald Trump, even after controlling for economic dissatisfaction, sexism, anti-black prejudice, anti-Muslim refugee attitudes, and anti-immigrant sentiment, as well as measures of religion, sociodemographics, and political identity more generally.”

.. Where republican theology holds up political liberty as the necessary condition of right faith, Christian nationalism prefers the government to privilege Christianity. Sociologists identify Christian nationalism in their subjects by testing agreement with statements like, “The federal government should declare the United States a Christian nation” or disagreement with ones like “the federal government should enforce strict separation of church and state.”

.. According to the authors of the study, Christian nationalism draws heavily on Old Testament themes wherein Israel was “commanded to maintain cultural and blood purity, often through war, conquest, and separatism.” Christian nationalism, in actual practice, thus often carries with it racialized notions of purity. 

.. “Christian nationalism is a strong predictor of antipathy toward racial boundary crossing,” including interracial marriage. In surveys, Christian nationalism correlates strongly with racism and xenophobia.

.. I do not think that republican theology is necessarily tied to Christian nationalism or that Christian nationalism is necessarily racist. That said, it is an empirical fact that republican theology, Christian nationalism, and racism often overlap in our society.

.. This is a sociological, not a priori, criticism. While there is no necessary causation between republican theology, nationalism, xenophobia, and racism, I want to suggest that their overlap is also not accidental.

..  As long as we identify early America as a successful economic and political experiment and credit that success to morality and religion and we are willing to make exceptions to libertarianism to protect the preconditions of that success, then we will face the constant temptation to elide culture, race, religion, and morality and to use the government to enforce racial, cultural, and religious purity.

.. If republican theology is going to persist as a defensible option in American politics, it has to separate itself, consistently and vocally, from the tribal and bigoted elements of Christian nationalism. 

.. The more evangelicals support figures like Trump, who embody “nationalism” more than “Christian” and are so publicly and unrepentantly immoral and who (at the very least) signal to bigots that they are friendly to their cause, the harder it will be for others to see any moral meaning to their behavior. The obvious meaning of that support will become, even more than it is now, the only visible meaning.

Road Runner Populism

But, of course, it is only a question of when, not if, the economic reckoning will come. Populism is not only about promises to give more to more people; but, without those promises, all of the cultural elements of populism would look merely outdated and reactionary. And even reactionaries do not like reactionary politics if it hurts them in their wallets.

.. In the United States, the midterm congressional elections in November will be decided by whether enthusiasm about the state of the economy is strong enough to compensate for the widespread disapproval of Trump’s personal style and divisive, sexist, and racist rhetoric. Yet it is precisely on this issue that the conventional wisdom breaks down.

.. Classical economic liberalism assumes that bad policies will be punished immediately by bad outcomes. Over the past 25 years, bond-market vigilantes have argued that all-seeing, forward-looking financial markets will always anticipate the future consequences of populist policies and impose risk premia.

According to this logic, as borrowing costs rise, populist governments will not be able to deliver on their rash promises, and sanity and orthodoxy will eventually return.

Economists who study populism generally draw lessons , where past episodes of nationalist over-promising have quickly led to massive fiscal deficits that could not be financed. In these cases, populist economics always produced cycles of inflation, currency depreciation, and instability, because global financial markets and other outsiders were skeptical from the start.

The problem is that the Latin American experience is not universal. Bond markets are not as predictable as many seem to believe; nor can they be relied on as an ultimate source of discipline. Like markets generally, bond markets can be captured by a popular narrative (or what might euphemistically be called the management of expectations) that overstates the prospects of a certain outcome.

.. The most extreme response to the Depression came from Hitler’s Germany. The Nazis did not miss an opportunity to boast about how quickly their programs had wiped out unemployment and built new infrastructure. With the German government keeping inflation in check through extensive price and wage controls, there was much talk about an economic miracle.

The Nazis’ apparent success in defying economic orthodoxy looked to many conventionally minded analysts like an illusion. Critics outside Germany saw only a deeply immoral polity pursuing a project that was doomed to fail. They were right about the immorality, of course; but they were wrong about the imminence of the project’s economic collapse.

In 1939, the Cambridge University economist Claude Guillebaud published The Economic Recovery of Germany, which argued that the German economy was quite robust and would not collapse from overstrain or overheating in the event of a military conflict. Guillebaud was widely vilified. The Economist, that bastion of classical liberalism, pilloried him in an unprecedented two-page review, concluding that not even the chief Nazi propagandist Joseph Goebbels could have improved on his interpretation. His work, the editors lamented, was emblematic of a “dangerous tendency among democratic economists to play the Nazis’ game.”

.. Guillebaud was also excoriated by other academics who were far more famous than him, such as the British economist Dennis Robertson. And yet Guillebaud was fundamentally right: Nazi Germany was not an economy on the brink of collapse, and the Western powers would have done well to start mobilizing a proper defense.

.. today’s populists have benefited from a general recovery that began before they arrived on the scene. When the next downturn comes, they will quickly find that their own reckless policies have severely constrained their ability to respond. At that point, Orbán, Kaczyński, and other Central European populists may decide to pursue more aggressive options.

.. If populism had an avatar, it would be the immortal cartoon character Wile E. Coyote, who, in his futile pursuit of the Road Runner, routinely sprints over cliff edges and continues to move forward, suspended by the logic of his own belief. Eventually, he realizes that there is no ground beneath his feet, and he falls. But that never happens immediately.

In the 1990s, when Russia was feeling the pinch of economic reforms, the Russian political provocateur Vladimir Zhirinovsky asked, “Why should we inflict suffering on ourselves? Let’s make others suffer.” The ultimate danger of nationalist populism always reveals itself during a setback. When things start to go wrong, the only way forward is at the expense of others.

As in the past, when the illusion of today’s painless economic expansion ends, politics will return to the fore, and trade wars may lead to troop deployments.