‘America first!’ Donald Trump hammered out this message over and again in his inauguration speech a week ago today. He promised tariffs, a crackdown on immigration, and a restoration of American military might. He entered the White House as the least popular incoming president in 40 years.
Not every liberal thinker, however, is in a state of despair. Jeffrey Sachs was recently ranked by The Economist as one of the world’s most influential political scientists. No Trump supporter himself, he came to the Intelligence Squared stage to explain why there may be silver linings to the Trump cloud, and to set out a new world order.
Take trade. Trump has threatened to tear up Nafta and slam huge taxes on Mexican imports, and has already withdrawn the US from the Trans-Pacific Partnership to bring jobs back to the heartlands of America. While this strikes fear amongst free-trade supporters, there is a case to be made that globalisation has been moving faster than is politically sustainable, dividing rich from poor.
Or take Trump’s proposal to invest $1 trillion in infrastructure. Sachs has described this promise to rebuild America’s decrepit inner cities, highways, schools and hospitals as ‘a valid, indeed uplifting perspective’, provided it is done in a smart and fair way. Trump’s programme could be viewed as a Keynesian fiscal policy to boost competitiveness and job creation. It may, Sachs believes, be Trump’s great legacy.
And then there’s foreign policy. As Sachs pointed out, Trump has filled his administration not just with protectionists but also with business people like himself, who enjoy making a buck (in fact, billions of them) and who have profitably invested for years in Russia, China, and other emerging economies. So while the rhetoric may be all about American primacy and trade protection, we shouldn’t rule out some friendly deal-making with other countries. And while Trump’s future relations with Vladimir Putin remain obscure, would it necessarily be a dangerous move if he pursues a conciliatory line with Russia? From a Russian perspective, America’s meddling in Ukraine and its attempts to bring that country into NATO, which would take the US-led military alliance right up to Russia’s border, look like aggression in its own historical sphere of influence. Isn’t it time there were a better understanding between both countries?
Sachs argued that we are entering not a new tripolar world, dominated by the US, China and Russia, but what he calls ‘the World Century’, in which the rapid spread of technology and the sovereignty of nation states mean that no single country or region will dominate the world. For Sachs, the great foreign policy challenge will be to manage cooperation among regions, and face up to our common environmental and health crises. The idea that one place or people should have primacy over any other should be as antiquated as slavery or empire, and guard us against the senseless descent into violence.