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The Fulcrum of the Balance

The Conservative Treehouse described how Donald Trump likes to play the "leverage" or balance of power game in business and in politics.  He structures a conflict such that he can tip the balance which gives him leverage he would otherwise lack, in this case by courting Jack Ma of Alibaba.

Against the backdrop of a known position by President-elect Trump toward the business and financial monopolization by Amazon and Jeff Bezos, President Trump publicly brings Alibaba CEO Jack Ma to the cameras in Trump Tower. All except the business media will probably skip over the larger play within this epic display of 3-D leverage creation. ...

Trump is fracturing business globalism. Remember, all large business leaders in modern China are essentially political emissaries. China has been building an economic army for decades.

That is his modus operandi.  If Trump needs leverage against both Amazon and China he tries to drive a wedge. It is an ancient art which the British at their height had mastered. "In the 16th and 17th centuries, English foreign policy strove to prevent a creation of a single universal monarchy in Europe, which many believed France or Spain might attempt to create. To maintain the balance of power, the English made alliances with other states—including Portugal, the Ottoman Empire, and the Netherlands—to counter the perceived threat."

This game requires two skills: first creating divisions by encouraging competition among natural rivals; then building coalitions around the preferred solution to come out ahead. It's an enormously powerful technique. Unrestrained it can degenerate into a cynical pursuit of gain and would be highly destabilizing were it not anchored in something more solid. Traditionally that anchor was provided by nationalism.  The concept of a side -- a nation, people or country -- constrained the scope of coalition building to the benefit of a side.

In the past nations were presumed to have interests.  Even America, Henry Kissinger quaintly observed “has no permanent friends or enemies, only interests”. In that model the American public "sat on the board" through their representatives and hired and fired key executives at election time.

But over time the intellectual allegiance of Western politicians shifted to the "international community".  No longer were they expected to pursue national interests but maximize the welfare of the global economy and international government. We the People became We Are the World.  That may be about to change if Justin Vaïsse a former Senior Fellow at the Brookings Institution is right about Donald Trump's determination to play the national interest game once again.

[Trump] has a special talent for evaluating power relations, finding the vulnerabilities of his opponents, getting support from other actors, and the like. We do not know if these skills transpose well into international politics, but they just might. If that is the case, then this scenario four would unfold not because there is a Kissinger or a Brzezinski at the White House but because the president instinctively makes decisions that maximize America’s direct interests — even during a crisis.

Now, there are two major objections to the idea that this scenario could succeed. The first one is obvious: International politics is not the world of real estate. Sometimes there is no good deal to be obtained, but only a menu of bad options to choose from with no possibility to abstain even when you want a lesser role for America. Worse, miscalculations or the misreading of other actors can result in being forced to choose between backing down or escalating. In other words, failed negotiations can mean humiliation or war.

The second objection is the more troubling one. If President Trump successfully pursues a policy along the lines of scenario four, this will have international system wide implications, to the point that after a few years, America will find itself operating in a very different, and potentially much more hostile, environment. Competitors might refuse the deals offered by the White House and raise the ante. They might also align more closely together, if only to get a better deal from Washington. Allies might consider that their security is no longer guaranteed by the United States, and they might either hedge their bets (isn’t it what President Duterte of the Philippines has been doing?). Or they might build up their own defenses, resulting in a more dangerous world of arms racing in which the issue of nuclear proliferation will acquire a new urgency. Other actors around the world might consider that new rules or no rules prevail and let their long-standing grievances or even their territorial appetites prevail at the expense of weaker players. The fight against terrorism, the top priority for Trump, might be hindered by frustrated players who will refuse to play along because they no longer see America as being on their side. These developments would only increase nationalism everywhere.