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Trump’s Empty Threat to the International Order

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U.S. President Donald Trump, left, and Russian President Vladimir Putin leave a press conference after their meeting at the Presidential Palace in Helsinki, Finland, Monday, July 16, 2018
U.S. President Donald Trump, left, and Russian President Vladimir Putin leave a press conference after their meeting at the Presidential Palace in Helsinki, Finland, Monday, July 16, 2018Credit: Pablo Martinez Monsivais/AP

Watching the Trump-Putin news conference on Monday, I couldn’t help recalling an episode of “Seinfeld” whose theme is a game of Risk between the hapless Kramer and Newman. Asked by George what the two are up to, Seinfeld responds: “Oh, it's Risk, it's a game of world domination being played by two guys who can barely run their own lives.” Substitute “their countries” for “their lives” and the parallels are inescapable.

Vladimir Putin has enjoyed a fearsome reputation as a leader unafraid to invade and annex neighboring lands, run a no-holds-barred war to save the Syrian regime and brazenly interfere in Western elections. But the fact is at home, Putin presides over one of Europe’s few Third World countries.

Okay, they call it an “emerging market,” a term that gives it the patina of actually heading someday into the ranks of the world’s developed economies, but even that’s a stretch. Third World or emerging market is a label that advertises the ineffectiveness of Putin’s rule and his aspirations of making Russia a great power.

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His country has vast natural resources and an educated population. Instead, Putin chose to turn Russia into an underdeveloped economy reliant on oil, arms and farm exports, without a globally competitive industrial sector or much in the way of technology apart from weapons. GDP per capita is just one notch ahead of benighted Greece.

And it’s not going to get any better. A report by the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development on economic growth outlooks through the year 2060 predicts that without any major reforms Russia’s potential GDP per capita growth is just 0.5% a year over the next 12 years and 1.2% in the 30 years from 2030. That’s way behind its fellow emerging market countries (4.2% and 2.7%, respectively) and even the world’s developed economies (3.5% and 2.5%).

Putin might aspire to upset the global order and the Western alliances, but Russia doesn’t have the military or economic resources to do it. All he can do is muster are teams of computer hackers and stage military forays into weak and chaotic countries like Georgia, Syria and Ukraine.

Trump, on the other hand, is at the helm of the world’s greatest power with the potential to bring down the entire system and he seems determined to do just that. Just in the last month, he has called European Union a “foe” of America, termed NATO “as bad as NAFTA [because] it's much too costly for the U.S." and advised British Prime Minister Theresa May to sue the EU. Trump’s trade war with China, Europe, Canada and Mexico threatens to do real economic damage. Not a few thinking people worry he could do irreversible damage

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Fortunately for the world, Trump doesn’t have the intellectual or leadership tools to do it. As Monday’s news conference demonstrated, Trump has no world view at all -- only opinions of the moment that seem to be informed by what he’s last heard on Fox News or thinks will please whatever audience he has in mind. He’s happy to stir up trouble, but there’s almost never any follow-up with an actual policy.

Trade is the one exception. It’s clearly something that riles him, which we know because it’s about the only thing where his message is consistent and had been accompanied by actual policy moves. But even here, no one knows what Trump wants and how his trade war is going to accomplish it. It’s the blind rage of a businessman who thinks he is on the wrong end of a bad deal.

But Trump’s bigger problem is that apart from a core of Republican voters, no one in America backs him in any war against the global system or against the Western alliance that presides over it -- not the Washington establishment, not Wall Street, not the media (Fox excepted), not Silicon Valley and certainly not the majority of American voters, as opinion polls repeatedly show.

Even in the White House, the one man who was fixed on bringing down the system (Steve Bannon) is long gone and is struggling to find an audience for after losing his Breitbart platform. Mike Pence, Mike Pompeo, John Kelly, Jim Mathis and Jeff Sessions are stalwarts of the right, but they aren’t enemies of the international order —they’re part of it.

All that the president can count on for now is the Republican majority in Congress, who has been cowed into Trumpism by a GOP base that loves the president. But look how many Republicans have quit rather than submit and how few supported his remarks at the Putin press conference. Even the GOP leadership is unwilling to stand by him.

One little piece of evidence of that was the announcement indictment 12 Russian military intelligence officers, timed to steal the show from Trump as he was visiting Windsor Palace and cause trouble three days before his Putin pow-wow. Respect for the president and his authority doesn’t reach into his own Justice Department. Trump simply doesn’t have the depth of support to protect him from such an embarrassments much less implement his policy pronouncement of the day.

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