December 21, 2017 | By Ivo H. Daalder

This Week's Reads - A World of Global Competition, Not Cooperation


At the core of President Trump’s new National Security Strategy, which was unveiled at the White House earlier this week, stands one overarching concept: global competition. Gone is the idea of global cooperation, or even of an America that leads others in confronting global challenges and building a better, more secure and prosperous world for all. Where there are winners, there must be losers.

The president and his advisers seem to relish the clarity with which they see competition as all-encompassing and cooperation as a charade. Earlier this year, for example, National Security Advisor H.R. McMaster said that the president was “clear-eyed” in his view that “the world is not a ‘global community.’” Rather, McMaster explained, it is ”an arena where nations, nongovernmental actors, and businesses engage and compete for advantage.” As Trump himself said on Tuesday, “With the strategy I am announcing today, we are declaring that America is in the game and America is going to win.”

But even “game” is too soft a gloss to put on the Trump administration’s view of the world once you dig into the details. It’s zero-sum. Each issue is win-lose, there is no room for win-win. At each turn, adversaries and allies alike seek only their own advantage, and at the expense of others, especially the United States. Even defense alliances are seen through this lens. “Countries that are immensely wealthy,” Trump said of our allies “should reimburse the United States for the cost of defending them.” 

In short, Trump’s is a bleak worldview, akin to Thomas Hobbes’s characterization of humankind’s lot in life as “nasty, brutish, and short.” Yet Hobbes’s near-contemporary, Isaac Newton, may offer an even more apt way to understand how Trump and his team view the world. As the White House sees it, international relations have a Newtonian simplicity to them. States are little more than balls on a billiard table. Any momentum one state takes is gained from another. Size alone is the surest ways to hold your ground. What’s inside each ball is irrelevant except in its ability to present a hard shell to the outside world. Nations, like billiard balls, compete for position and advantage, and the way to win is to be the biggest ball on the table that can push all the others out of the way. 

That’s a simple way to look at the world. It is also wrong. International relations are rarely zero-sum. History confirms that nations are more secure and prosperous when others are as well. Nor is cooperation merely a blindness to competition, as the Trump team seems to see it. Rather, cooperation is the result of acknowledging competition as a fact to be contended with and surmounted, not simply cowed to. Two devastating world wars and a series of fits and starts in the seventy years since were the hard-fought price for a US-led liberal international order that has, until recently, consistently sought increased cooperation among nations.

Today there are important issues that the United States cannot solve alone, from climate change to transnational terrorism. Moreover, the United States will be more secure and more prosperous if it does not seek to solve these issues alone, but rather does so while working with others. To see the world otherwise, as one entirely within the frame of a winner-take-all clash, is not clarity. It’s myopic. 

The articles below in This Week’s Reads touch on competition and cooperation, as well as on some other issues that I think you will find useful. This will be the last weekly reads of 2017. I therefore take this opportunity to wish you all a very happy and healthy 2018! As always, please shoot me a note with any comments.

European Politics: Leaders Struggle to Contain Rising Populism

Anne-Sylvaine Chassany and Guy Chazan/Financial Times

The rise and fall of the populist wave in European politics is, alas, not as easy to predict as the tide in Marseille, which is where this excellent essay in the Financial Times begins. This summer, the city in southern France saw the defeat of a far-right National Front candidate by a member of President Emmanuel Macron’s new centrist party. Yet, as Anne-Sylvaine Chassany and Guy Chazan explain, the tide has not necessarily turned against the populist and nativist sentiment on the continent that as recently as a year ago seemed to be on the rise.

Brexit Will Cause Loss of Influence on Scale of 1970s, Says Ex-MI6 Chief

Patrick Wintour/The Guardian

The era of Harold Wilson and Edward Heath is not exactly remembered as a high point in British history. Yet those economic and diplomatic doldrums for the United Kingdom are exactly where the country is headed again, according to the former head of MI6. “We can see the trend of the coming years and we do not want to go through a repeat of the 1970s where the UK went progressively downhill compared to our national partners,” Sir John Sawers recently explained to Britain's foreign affairs select committee. Brexit, he cautioned, remains a fraught proposition for the nation. “We have to recognize a pretty stark reality faces us at the end of this process, and we have to rebuild from that,” he said.

Spring 2018: When America Will Go to War with North Korea?

Kim Beazley/The National Interest

Evidence of the Trump administration’s plans to attack North Korea in the coming months may be found in the military equipment that has recently been directed toward the Korean peninsula, including several carrier battlegroups. But as Kim Beazley writes in the National Interest, the most convincing evidence of a White House intention to attack may instead be found closer to home, in what Trump’s advisers believe about Pyongyang’s capabilities. “The critical point here is that most in the Trump administration don’t believe that a nuclear-armed, ICBM-capable North Korea can be deterred in the classic pattern of deterrence relationships,” he writes.

This Is How Nuclear War With North Korea Would Unfold

Jeffrey Lewis/The Washington Post

In this scenario it’s the North Koreans firing on a civilian airliner that inadvertently flew into their airspace, but the impetus for large-scale nuclear war breaking out soon could be anything equally as trivial. That is a main takeaway from this excellent analysis by Jeffrey Lewis in the Washington Post that games out what a conflict with Pyongyang beginning in early 2019 would look like. The other main takeaway: the devastation would be immense. When the dust settled, Lewis writes, “nearly 2 million Americans, South Koreans and Japanese had died in the completely avoidable nuclear war of 2019.” The article is a sobering but necessary read.

It's Official: North Korea Is behind WannaCry

Thomas P. Bossert/Wall Street Journal

While much of the world has focused on Pyongyang’s nuclear and missile tests, its cyber capabilities continue to pose an important and often overlooked threat. Look no further than the so-called WannaCry cyberattack, which the United States just publicly linked to North Korean hackers. “The consequences and repercussions of WannaCry were beyond economic,” as Thomas P. Bossert, assistant to the president for homeland security and counterterrorism, details in the Wall Street Journal. “The malicious software hit computers in the UK’s health-care sector particularly hard, compromising systems that perform critical work. These disruptions put lives at risk,” he writes. 

How China's "Sharp Power" Is Muting Criticism Abroad

The Economist

First there was “hard,” and then “soft,” and then for a time “smart.” But the rise of China has brought with it something new, “sharp” power. As the Economist explains: “It stops well short of the hard power, wielded through military force or economic muscle; but it is distinct from the soft attraction of culture and values, and more malign.” The result is a more subtle, but nonetheless dangerous Cold War between China and much of the West. Nor is the danger going unnoticed in places such as Australia and New Zealand, where opinions about Beijing’s growing influence abroad are beginning to sound alarms. 

Doubting the Intelligence, Trump Pursues Putin and Leaves a Russian Threat Unchecked

Greg Miller, Greg Jaffe, and Philip Rucker/The Washington Post

Russia interfered in the 2016 US presidential election. But this conclusion, arrived at by the US intelligence community, has not been readily accepted in the White House, as Greg Miller, Greg Jaffe, and Philip Rucker report in the Washington Post. In fact, the entire issue of Russia is oddly delicate. Even bringing it up can derail a presidential briefing, the reporters note. While L'Affaire Russe has taken on near-mythic proportions in the last year, this masterful and detailed account of President Trump’s unusual and unaccounted for dealings with Russia is a must-read to understand what has happened and, just possibly, what will happen next.

Mr. Trump's Trade War

Douglas A. Irwin/Wall Street Journal

Rules, rather than outcomes, should be the measure of success for Trump’s trade agenda. As Douglas A. Irwin explains in the Wall Street Journal, the raw numbers comprising a bilateral balance of trade tell us little about prosperity on a global scale. The former is steeped in a win-lose understanding of the world, while the latter can better capture the win-win aspects of global trade and competitive advantage. It will also be easier to get things done focusing on rules, Irwin explains. Before coming to office, Trump promised a bonanza of bilateral trade deals. But after seeing the harsh, win-lose way that Washington has treated its NAFTA partners, the reality is that few nations will be eager to sign up, he writes.

At EU Meeting, a Hobbled Merkel and a Stalled Agenda

Steven Erlanger/The New York Times

There’s a vaudevillian double-act quality to the pairing of President Emmanuel Macron and Chancellor Angela Merkel at the center of the European project. Macron is new and dynamic, ready to act on his plans for an ever greater union. Merkel has more or less been at the helm of the European Union for a decade, yet has recently been hobbled by an inconclusive domestic election and the need to put together a governing coalition. They are, unavoidably, Europe’s odd couple. But no duo is more important to the future not only of Europe’s economy and security, but also to its clout well beyond the continent. This report from Steven Erlanger in the New York Times is an excellent summary of where these two leaders stand now.

The Great Globalization Lie

Dani Rodrik/Prospect

The heady optimism about globalization that animated politics in the 1990s was shortsighted only when it was not otherwise wrong, writes economist Dani Rodrik in Prospect. But Rodrik’s essay is notable not only for its pushback against a too optimistic approach to globalization in the past. He also details what might happen next, from the political success of fringe populists to — and his hope is that it’s the latter — a true democratic rebalancing. “Stepping back from hyper-globalization without slamming the door, while restoring greater national autonomy in the service of a more inclusive domestic order,” as he explains. 


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