The Turning Point
I’m on a mid-term break in my annual Unplug and Recharge effort, and am taking stock of what’s changed while I was out of cell phone range, and therefore blissfully ignorant of everything from CNN to Fox to Facebook to the Journal. The loudest development in my opinion seems to be what I’ll refer to as the Scaramucci Interregnum. Before I left for backpacking in Wyoming on July 13 Sean Spicer was the White House Communications Director, and Reince Priebus was the Trump administration’s chief of staff. While I was gone, Anthony Scaramucci rode into town, Spicer and Priebus left, and Scaramucci himself was dismissed shortly thereafter. Trump now has a new chief of staff in John Kelly, who served previously as the Secretary of Homeland Security.
Let’s break down what this all means.
First, an in-your-face personality like Anthony Scaramucci (aka “The Mooch”) was a horrible choice for a position that is all about smoothing ruffled feathers and keeping people – including those hostile to the administration’s views and policies – informed. But his presence did present us with something very useful. His profanity-laden tirades demonstrated that Donald Trump has opinions on how much is too much. Considering the president’s own, shall we say, disinterest in self-censoring, this in and of itself is a notable discovery.
Second, the Interregnum has signposted a sharp change in the administration’s domestic political capacity. The departure of Spicer and Priebus removes two of the three “mainstream” domestically-focused Republican personalities from the administration. The only one remaining is Vice President Mike Pence. While the Veep is hardly a wilting flower, historically the Vice Presidency is only as powerful as the Presidency enables it to be. Trump may be many things, but “enabler” isn’t the word I typically reach for when I try to describe him.
Without any “establishment” personalities left, the leading advisor to Trump on all things domestic is now Steve Bannon, a nationalistic populist who has some rather… eclectic and non-standard views on how everything should be. Many were critical of the “adults” in the Trump administration for their mixed record on guiding the president to a more conventional path. On domestic politics, there are no longer any adults left. Expect things to get lively.
Third, expect them to get chaotic too. John Kelly was a fine Marine general and seemed quite capable and at home in Homeland Security. I have no problem with senior military personnel serving in civilian administrations and have written before about my support of and respect for people like Defense Secretary James Mattis and National Security Advisor H.R. McMaster. In foreign and strategic affairs, the top-down model of management that is typical of military minds works. After all, you don’t want some low-level bureaucrat making strategic policy without supervision, or even with much wiggle room on the specifics of implementation.
But chief of staff is a political job. It is about balancing dozens of competing players, many of whom by design are attempting to manipulate or deceive the president, and yet still must be considered. It is a position that is a combination of gatekeeper, ego juggler, reality-checker, cat-herder, and selective censor. The military isn’t exactly known for cranking out such people. Solid chiefs of staff have broad exposure, deep expertise and/or cut-throat political instincts: Jim Baker, Josh Bolten, Rahm Emanuel. Kelly is smart as a whip and good at what he knows, but this isn’t the job for him. Which leaves Trump both under the influence of Bannon and lacking someone who can capably manage the chief executive’s affairs. Get ready for not just press reports by Twitter, but policy by Twitter.
Speaking of Twitter, a Twitter follower recently asked me for confirmation that despite all the… activity in the White House these days, does a functional plan still exist to promulgate American power in the long run? It’s a reasonable question. I’ve long taken the view that American power will grow in both absolute and relative terms for at least the rest of this century. That, in a nutshell, is the theme of The Accidental Superpower.
Let me be clear: there is no plan. The Americans have hardly ever had a plan. From an international and strategic viewpoint, America’s strengths are not and never have been in its governing system in general or any administration in specific. Instead, America’s strengths come from a balance of factors which exist entirely outside of the political realm:
- Geography: The United States occupies the world’s best lands interlaced with the world’s best naturally-occurring transport system, the Greater Mississippi system. In addition, any potential invaders are separated from the United States by the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans. That leaves the Americans free to develop without fear of outside interference, yet gives them the capacity to intervene across the world at times and places of their choosing. And should things get dicey, the Americans can always just head home. For them – and them alone – defeat doesn’t mean someone is parking their tanks in your lawn.
- Demography: Countries that survive in the long-term have a population balance between mature workers to invest and pay taxes, and young workers to raise children and whose consumption powers the economy. Most of the world’s countries have run out of young workers already: Germany, Japan and Italy are the worst – all are rapidly aging into national oblivion – while Russia, China and Brazil aren’t far behind. The United States is one of the (very) few advanced countries where the balance is even remotely stable and sustainable.
- Energy: Love it or hate it, energy is a requirement of modern life. For the last several decades, global politics was heavily colored by the need to bring energy from far-flung locations in the Middle East and Siberia to East Asia, Europe and the United States. No more. America’s shale revolution has already transformed the United States into a net energy exporter, and by 2020 it will likely even be an oil exporter in absolute terms. And if you’re of the Green persuasion, the United States is the First World power closest to the equator, making it the only one that can actually harness solar energy in meaningful volumes.
Other countries, not so much.
The three factors of geography, demography and energy enabled the United States to impose a global Order during the Cold War that, in essence, outlawed conflict among the allied powers. Maintaining that Order was difficult – it required constant consultation and coordination. Falling from Order to Disorder, in contrast, is eeeeeasy. The Cold War is over, and the American president no longer has a functional executive staff that is capable of consulting and coordinating. All it requires is not a goddam thing.
Since America’s strengths are natural and apolitical, the United States will broadly be fine. For countries that lack geographic strength and isolation, demographic heft and stability, and energy access or independence, however, life outside of the Order is looking mighty scary.
Which makes it absolutely critical for other countries to have their own plans if they are to survive the Disorder to come. Unfortunately, most of them are slipping into narcissistic populism, bald denial, deer-in-the-headlights panic, or some terrifying combination of the three. There are exceedingly few countries that boast the combination of factors required to even attempt to chart their own destinies in a sustainable manner.
I’m certain that in a few years domestic pundits will (correctly) use the Scaramucci Interregnum to signpost the beginning of a (more) volatile and unpredictable Trump White House, but there’s more at stake than that. The real issue of the day is that the transition from global Order to Disorder just accelerated from a slide into a free-fall.
And now we get to see what happens next: Now we can begin to witness the rise of the New Orders. The – ultimately successful – efforts of four specific countries to reshape their neighborhoods in the wake of the American withdrawal from the world.
As for who those four countries are, how they’ll do it – and above all else – why they’ll be the only four to succeed, you’ll have to wait a bit. You see, the next book isn’t done yet.
But I do have a cover to share…