Speaking to his supporters at a recent political rally, Donald Trump evoked the example of Singapore to suggest the United States should solve its opioid crisis by introducing the death penalty for drug traffickers. The proposal was met with loud cheers. “They don’t play games over there,” the President added. It was a remarkable moment not so much because of what being said, but because Singapore—and China, which Trump also mentioned—were being offered as models.
The surprising allure of the Asian model has been a constant in Trump’s speeches, one that so far has not been met with the attention it deserves. It started with his acceptance speech in January of last year. It was a very odd speech, at times sounding both apocalyptic and like something you might deliver at the Oscars or the Emmys. More important, it was an odd speech because it left out the core of what an elected politician in the United States would include: an appeal to the universal principles of freedom, democracy and equality guiding America in its action at home and abroad. There was nothing on that, but a lot on being a world leader, growing the economy at record breaking speed and building new infrastructure that will be “second to none.” It could have been a speech delivered by Xi Jinping.
Trump’s personality colors his approach to world politics. He was a businessman operating in the globalized economy of the last thirty years. Trump has witnessed from a privileged spot the rise of Japan and then China as economic powerhouses. He is aware of that fact in a way that no traditional politician would be, simply because the shift of economic power eastward has not yet been followed by a similar shift in political or military power. The world for Trump is a world where West and East are already equally significant poles. His main concern—which was the main concern for Trump the businessman—is to be able to compete with the new sources of economic power in the world. If that means adapting to their methods—even adopting them at times—well, that is what successful companies do all the time.
He has seen how China was able to vault itself to the top of the economic pile by having the best infrastructure available, by preserving state capacity against the paralysis plaguing Western states, and by applying a naked interpretation of national economic interest to, for example, trade negotiations. Trump wants to copy or import what the Chinese do well. Call him a victim of Chinese soft power.
When it comes to Europe, things could not be more different. Trump the businessman has been operating in a global economy where, for the past thirty years, Europe has produced a single company that deserves to be called a world leader: the Spanish Zara. For the first time, an American President believes that Europe is a has-been. The secret of Trump’s approach to Europe is this: he will not allow the United States to be dragged down with Europe, even if that means bringing about a new schism in the transatlantic alliance.
Calculating the global economy’s center of gravity—plotting a point on a map approximating the average distance to the poles of economic activity—provides some clues to what is going on. In the three decades after 1945, this center of gravity was located somewhere in the middle of the Atlantic, reflecting how Europe and North America dominated the world’s economy. By the turn of the century, however, this point had shifted so much that it was now located east of the borders of the European Union. Within ten years, we should find it east of the border between Europe and Asia, and by the middle of this century, most likely somewhere between India and China.
The United States can be thought of as a high-precision compass that tracks the movement of this center of gravity, and adapts its foreign policy accordingly. In a world where China is able to marshal a powerful national will, will the private sector of a liberal society offer enough of a counterweight? Whether it likes it or not, the United States is starting to feel it has to develop similar weapons if it wants to compete with Chinese state capitalism—not the full arsenal, to be sure, but at the very least a range of defensive weapons like tariffs and investment screening mechanisms. In the same way that China and Japan had to change and adapt to the arrival of European civilization in the nineteenth century, the United States is feeling the impact of China’s unique takes on modernity and capitalism.
Posed with the existential question of its own diminishing global influence, Europeans seem happy to settle for a world where their civilization and their values are protected from outside influence, even if that means renouncing the old “civilizing mission” to export them. The United States could of course reach for a similar bargain, in which case transatlantic ties would be strengthened. This seems unlikely because it would be tantamount to sacrificing its role as global leader and giving China a free hand in all those regions uncommitted to any of the two poles of the new Eurasian world. The alternative is for Washington to insert itself between Europe and Asia, drawing on the strengths of both and appealing to a global public from the position of what could become a common denominator. The fact that the United States will at some point no longer have a majority white population will help the process, and there is no reason this new position would have to amount to an abandonment of liberal principles. It could be interpreted as placing those principles on a more realistic basis, or, alternatively, as the development of a new variety of authoritarian liberalism, where the same liberal goals are pursued with increasingly authoritarian means.
If ever the United States becomes convinced that the West belongs to the past, it will leave Europe living in that past, but will not be inclined to do so itself, especially if that would entail sacrificing the thing to which it is most addicted: global primacy. If the West ever falters, America will want to become less Western. As the fulcrum of world power moves away from the West, so does America. That—insofar as there is a doctrine—is the core of the Trump’s worldview.