Whoever wins the US presidency, expect the dawn of a wrenching new global order
N. Balakrishnan believes the tumultuous political forces unleased in this race, represented by the rise of Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders, will not only radically change US policy but also remake the world
Around this time next year, people in Asia and elsewhere will be wondering how they could have missed the signals about the political and economic tsunami that the US has unleashed on the world.
But, the truly blind are those who do not want to see and many pundits in this part of the world are used to condescendingly seeing US elections as a charade staged every four years, after which the “permanent government” of the US goes back to business as usual. According to this philosophy, there is no difference between a Republican or Democrat candidate; America is, like most of Asia, just another one-party state in disguise.
“Sophisticated” people from Asia and Europe are also used to sniggering about how ignorant gun-toting Americans are about world affairs. As one Canadian editor once told me: “Only two types of Americans went abroad until recently – missionaries and soldiers. That is why the Americans either want to convert you or kill you – there is no in-between.”
It is true that the typical American may not know where Timbuktu is. He does not need to, living in a rich, continental country where only about 35 per cent of the population have passports. But the many Asians who think they understand the US after short visits to Wall Street and Las Vegas are also wrong.
America is a country of immense variety and its people are angry now about their institutions, in a way they have not been since the Great Depression of the 1930s. The US was not this divided even in the 1970s when Richard Nixon was able to win by a landslide in 49 states.
The important thing is that the political forces unleashed on both sides are now unstoppable. Bernie Sanders the “socialist” is as much of a new political factor as Donald Trump – that means in this open society, radical policies will begin to appear next year, regardless of who wins. These policies will put America’s needs first, “free trade” will be less free and, one way or another, America will indicate that it is not going to pay the full value of the immense debt it owes.
No one could have predicted that Nixon, the fiscal conservative domestically and the rabid anti-Communist in both domestic and foreign affairs, would have abandoned the US dollar’s gold standard in 1971 or visited Communist China. But Nixon did so because he thought it was in America’s interest and the economy stood to benefit.
Trump has already indicated he may want to “renegotiate” America’s huge debt, which is almost mathematically impossible to pay back in full. Those who think the citadel of capitalism cannot act like a confiscating “socialist” state do not know American history.
On April 5, 1933, president Franklin D. Roosevelt signed an order “forbidding the hoarding of gold coin, gold bullion, and gold certificates within the continental United States” and criminalising the possession of monetary gold by any individual or corporation. Even in today’s officially “socialist” China, it is not illegal to own gold; it was in the US until 1974, when the law was finally repealed.
Even foreigners in the US in the 1930s had their gold confiscated, and were forced to accept paper money instead. Some Swiss companies lost about 40 per cent of the value of their gold.
Socialism is nothing new in the US, either, and Sanders is not the first presidential aspirant to declare himself a “socialist”. It is true that, after the second world war and during the cold war with the Soviet Union, socialism became marginalised in the US. But Eugene Debs was a founding member of the Socialist Party of America in 1901. He ran as a socialist candidate for president five times and, in the 1912 election, won 5.99 per cent of the popular vote.
Of course, the US is not going to say openly that it will not pay back its debt; there are always ways of “restructuring” so that it is effectively forgiven.
Trump’s idea to ask South Korea to defend itself rather than rely on the US has been greeted with hostility in Korea but Democrat Jimmy Carter ran on a platform of pulling back all US troops from Korea in 1976 and the policy was abandoned only because Carter lost the presidency to Ronald Reagan in 1981.
We also now know that South Korean president Park Geun-hye was secretly planning to develop nuclear weapons around the time of Carter’s troop withdrawal plan and was negotiating with France about it. It was only abandoned after the US learned of it and put pressure on Korea.
None of the ideas being described as abominations of Trump or Sanders are new – they have been floating around for a long time in the US in various forms. The US preached a policy of “isolationism” as far back as the 1820s. But part of the reason for that was to prevent the older European powers, such as Spain and France, from expanding their influence in Latin America.
In the past decade, the world economy has changed dramatically; so has world politics. It may well be time for the US to reboot the “world order” it established and has run since the end of the second world war. In this part of the world, we cannot wish this US plan away. Listen for the sound of water at night; it’s not your dripping tap but the slow beginning of the tsunami I am sure the US will unleash on the world next year.
N. Balakrishnan is a Hong Kong-based businessman