• Making America Great Again?

    In his successful 2016 election campaign, Donald Trump used a number of slogans which he and his supporters repeated ad nauseam. They memorably included “lock her up” and “build the wall” – but the one that seemed to resonate most effectively with American voters, and still does, was “make America great again.”

    There is nothing wrong with the sentiment, but it has proved to be something of a chimera, since Trump has fallen into the habit of equating it with another slogan which is one of his favourites and which he also uses all the time.

    As he meets world leaders at the United Nations this week, we are assured in pre-briefings that he will be be focussed on “putting America first”. It is a further sign of his lamentable inability to understand how the world really works that he does not recognise the disjunction between the two slogans – that “putting America first” is not necessarily the best way to “make America great again” and might actually work against that second objective.

    If we look back at how the post-war global scene has played out, it is surely clear that one of the reasons for America’s emergence as the world’s premier power was the fact that they were willing to become the leading force in the establishment of major institutions that helped to create an international world order. It was not, in other words, their pre-eminence as a military or economic power, but their readiness to use that power, in conjunction with others, in international efforts to build peace and prosperity across the globe that made America a super-power.

    Trump, however, seems unaware that US support for the United Nations and for NATO, for the World Trade Organisation and for many other multilateral attempts to secure coordinated action on many of the problems facing the world, was what really “made America great.”

    Instead of embracing and reinforcing this valuable role, Trump has insisted on slamming on the brakes and going smartly into reverse. So, we have seen him tearing up the WTO rulebook, lecturing NATO on its failings and threatening to cut the US contribution to its budget, behaving similarly at the United Nations (where he has already cut or ended American funding for refugee aid -particularly in Palestine), abandoning the Paris Accord on Climate Change, withdrawing from the nuclear weapons agreement with Iran and re-imposing sanctions instead without regard for other countries (formerly regarded as America’s allies) who were parties to the same agreement.

    Trump of course has a point in that organisations like the UN and NATO have depended heavily on American financial support, but saving a few dollars – which, when spent in the past, could be regarded as the price to be paid for America’s dominant role and influence – is not necessarily the best (or any) way to “make America great again”. Trump’s disregard – perhaps even contempt – for the leadership role America has embraced so effectively in the past is completely at odds with – indeed, a specific denial of – the very elements which made America great.

    Across the board, we now see an American President who is content to sacrifice American leadership of what used to be called “the western world” so as to be seen to be “putting America first” through saving a few dollars and impressing his “base” with his “toughness” as the mid-term elections approach.

    There can be few examples on such a world scale of such a narrow mind failing to encompass and understand such broad and important issues – or of a major country deliberately throwing away its influence in the world. America may be many things under Trump’s leadership but “great again” is unlikely to be one of them.

    His other campaign slogans don’t look as though they will be much help either. Being “locked up” seems a more likely fate for some of Trump’s closest advisers than for Hillary Clinton, and “building the wall” is far away and fanciful as ever.

    Bryan Gould
    24 September 2018

  • Who Do You Trust on Climate Change?

    I foresee a day when, perhaps fifty years from now, New Zealand celebrates St Michael’s Day, in commemoration of Michael Hosking and his achievements. Speakers at the celebrations will recall how the great man – almost alone – had used the pages of the Herald and other outlets to refuse to kowtow to the conventional wisdom and the opinions of virtually the whole of the expert scientific community on global warming and climate change, and had warned against abandoning the life style and economic activity that had served us so well.

    He had urged us to go on with the emissions – produced by the burning of fossil fuels and the perpetuation of what Margaret Thatcher once called “our great car economy” – emissions that were thought to create global warming, and he had added that New Zealand was so “fantastically small” that, even if there had been something to be said for the global warnings about global warming, what we did would not matter a damn. He argued that we should put ourselves first and set at nought any responsibilities we might feel towards our island neighbours in the Pacific Ocean.

    The speakers would go on to celebrate the fact that the experts had been proved wrong and that only those of robust common sense, like Mike Hosking, had spared us the quite unnecessary disruption that had been proposed in order to avoid a quite non-existent threat.

    There is of course another possible scenario. On that same day, fifty years hence, it will be conceded, after a long struggle against steeply rising temperatures, raging fires and catastrophic weather events, that New Zealand, with many other parts of the globe, was no longer habitable, let alone suited to the production of food. It is recalled that the “tipping point” had occurred perhaps 25 years earlier, when the increased warmth of the world’s oceans had melted the Arctic and Antarctic ice caps, to such an extent that the delicate balance that had ensured climate stability was destroyed, and global warming had not only intensified and increased sharply in speed but had become irreversible.

    That leaves just one more possibility. With the benefit of hindsight, we might celebrate – as we marked another fifty years of development as a nation – the wisdom of our leaders in introducing policies that reduced our dependence on fossil fuels and the internal combustion engine and, as a result, allowed us to arrest the inexorable rise in global temperatures, so that we could maintain our life styles and living standards.

    We might marvel that, against the opposition of the ignorant and complacent, we had had the foresight to make the changes needed and that, through those far-sighted adjustments, we had succeeded in continuing to feed not only ourselves but also those in other countries who depended on us for essential foodstuffs and who continued to pay us the export earnings on which our living standards depended. We might ask ourselves where we would have been if we had insisted on ignoring the facts and assuming that we could just go on defying the inevitable.

    Those with long memories might also recall one Mike Hosking who had tried to persuade us that we should ignore what was staring us in the face and should instead just carry on regardless. Speakers might warn against the kind of self-delusion that holds that there should be no concession to the facts if they are in conflict with our prejudices.

    Bryan Gould
    7 September 2018



  • Helsinki Debacle Claims Its Victims

    Writing a commentary on current affairs is always a fraught business; however considered one’s views, they are bound to be challenged by someone – even many, – and they can, by the time they are published, be totally discredited by events that have happened in the meantime.

    Mike Hosking fell victim to this syndrome when he ventured a defence of Donald Trump in the pages of the Herald a week or so ago.  He extolled what he saw as Trump’s virtues – his powers of leadership and strength – and lambasted those who found Trump’s values and morals to be beyond the pale as “haters”.

    Sadly for poor Mike, no sooner had he committed these views to paper than we (and he) were treated to the bumbling debacle of Trump’s meeting with Vladimir Putin in Helsinki.  For the second time in as many months, the American President had engineered a highly publicised meeting with a notorious dictator and, after celebrating, in each case, what he described as a triumph, had emerged with little achieved other than further damage to his claim to be a master deal-maker.

    In the cases of both Kim Jong Un and Putin, Trump seems to have been remarkably subservient to his interlocutor – to the extent that it seemed that he dared not say anything, at least to Putin, that might displease him.  It was almost as though Trump was so impressed by, and perhaps envious of, the dictator’s powers (not least, to order the execution of critics or opponents) that he was completely unmanned.

    His obsequiousness in the presence of Putin inevitably revived questions about exactly what Putin “has on” Trump – to the extent that there was speculation in Moscow that Trump had been “turned” and was now an agent of the Kremlin.

    Whatever the truth of that, we were shown a President in Helsinki who preferred to believe Putin (for whom, the record shows, “truth” has no meaning) to the advice given him by his own intelligence chiefs and who was then so frightened by the outrage at his performance expressed, not least by his own supporters, that he ran for cover with a series of implausible denials that he had not actually meant what he had so plainly said.

    So much for Hosking’s vision of a “strong leader”.  What we had instead was a President who couldn’t negotiate his way out of a paper bag and who, when he was called to account, couldn’t even organise his words as they came out of his mouth.

    Even if Mike Hosking were now to concede that his hero-worship of Trump was grotesquely misplaced, what we should remember is his willingness to overlook – even give a pass mark to – Trump’s misogyny and bigotry and to his well-documented moral failings in his personal life.   Hosking’s tolerance of these attitudes should surely leave us with a valuable lens through which to judge the views he expresses in respect of the domestic political scene .

    Th fact is that Trump’s performance in Helsinki taught us a great deal about the President who is allegedly committed to “putting America first” but who ran away at the first sound of gunfire.  Both Trump, first, and then Hosking, have been holed below the water line.  Wouldn’t it be welcome if they were both, as a consequence, now to sink without trace? 

    Bryan Gould

    20 July 2018

  • The Demise of the West

    Students of the global economy have foreseen for a couple of decades that the centre of economic gravity was about to move from what we used to call “the West” – a shorthand term for the USA and Europe and their respective spheres of influence – to Asia, (now not just Japan, but China, South Korea, Singapore, India and others as well).  Few would have expected, though, that one of the principal drivers of this development would turn out to be the American President himself.

    But Donald Trump has committed himself to a series of policy initiatives which seem destined, if not designed, not “to make America great again” but to “make China great again”.  The most obvious manifestation of this supposed “strategy” is the launching of trade wars against America’s traditional trading partners in Canada, and Europe, as well as against China.

    Trade wars, according to Trump, are “good and easy to win”; but he is about to find out that they are dangerous, messy and destructive.  They are destructive not just in economic terms but in geo-political terms as well.  For the West’s leaders, they signal the end of the close alliance that has exerted great influence in world affairs – and that significant turning point has been given added impetus by Trump’s decisions to abandon his traditional friends by withdrawing from the Iranian nuclear deal and from the Paris climate change agreement.

    The demise of “the West” was emphasised by the recent G7 summit, when Trump refused to sign the closing communique and found himself in disagreement with virtually all of his allies when he urged the re-admission of Russia.  His attack on the Canadian Prime Minister was simply further evidence of his lack of concern for the damage he had caused.

    The irony of all this is that the vacuum that has been created by America’s withdrawal will be quickly filled by the other potential global superpower, China.  The increase in China’s influence – welcome or otherwise – is already clearly apparent, not least in the Asia-Pacific region.  The recent Australian legislation, beefing up security against foreign influence was clearly directed at Chinese interference in Australian domestic affairs.

    But it is not just in the international sphere that America has abandoned its long-held leadership role.  An important element in the Western hegemony that has dominated the world scene for so long has been the sense that the West represents the best way of doing things – that factors such as democracy, the rule of law, human rights and civil liberties, a free press, are all essential aspects of a successful society.

    Yet it is precisely these aspects of American society on which Trump has launched his most bitter assaults, with the result that the US is no longer seen or held up as an exemplar of all that is best in Western values – quite the reverse.  Trump has succeeded in demonstrating that America democracy is deeply flawed, and can no longer be seen as shining a beacon light for the rest of the world.

    Trump’s surrender of any claim to American moral leadership is of course entirely consistent with his personal moral stance – his lies, his racism and his attitudes to women are as unacceptable to most people as his policy of separating children from their parents and holding them in cages.

    It is hard to believe that the American people can stand idly by and allow such damage to be done to their history and values.  If American democracy is to mean anything, it must rapidly re-discover itself.

    Bryan Gould

    2 July 2018

  • At Last – A Republican Who Tells It Like It Is

    As President Trump stumbles from one bungle to the next, particularly in the field of diplomacy, the mystery is that the Republicans have stayed silent, and have offered no dissent or criticism in response to Trump’s many failings – not just in respect of foreign affairs but in domestic affairs (of which there have been many) as well.

    But, at last a Republican Senator has had the courage to break ranks and tell it like it is.  The Arizona Senator, Jeff Flake, has just published a book, titled “Conscience of a Conservative: A Rejection of Destructive Politics and A Return to Principle”, which spares Trump nothing in its condemnation of his moral and policy mis-steps.  And Senator Flake has gone further, lambasting the President in a recent speech in these terms:

    “Our presidency has been debased by a figure who has a seemingly bottomless appetite for destruction and division and only a passing familiarity with how the Constitution works…the Congress, is utterly supine in the face of the moral vandalism that flows from the White House daily…I do not think that the founders could have anticipated that the beauty of their invention might someday founder on the rocks of reality television, and that the Congress would be such willing accomplices to this calamity. Well, simply put: We may have hit bottom.”

    It is hard to over-state the sense of despair, disbelief and disgust that these words express.  They cannot be dismissed as the complaints of a political opponent.  We can only assume that there are other senior Republicans who feel similarly but who do not have the courage to risk their seats in Congress or their political futures if they tell the truth.

    As it happens (and not surprisingly, since they come thick and fast), this development comes hard on the heels of yet another Trump debacle – the cancellation of his meeting with Kim Jong Un.  The episode tells us a great deal about Trump’s order of priorities and how his mind works.

    We know that President Trump saw his meeting with the North Korean leader as a defining achievement of his Presidency, and it did, in truth, offer a brief hope of an enduring peace on the Korean peninsula and a permanent relief from the threat of nuclear war.

    But, important though these worthy goals may have been, they were clearly not the outcomes that were uppermost in Donald Trump’s mind.  How do we know this?  Not just because of the pleasure that Trump obviously derived from the (faintly ridiculous) suggestions that he should be awarded the Nobel Peace Prize, but because we have seen photographs of the impressive celebratory coins that Trump had struck  – coins that bore the profiles of both Trump and Kim – to mark the historic meeting even before it had happened.

    The boost to Trump’s ego was apparently so valuable and tempting that he could not forbear from claiming it even before the meeting had taken place – and now that the meeting may not after all take place – he is left, not with egg, but fragments of precious metals, on his face.

    We should all be alarmed that international relations, involving major questions of war and peace, and nuclear war or not, should be in the hands of someone whose priorities are so narrow and self-serving.  Even more seriously, major decisions are being taken by someone who displays a lack of understanding of how other countries react when they are insultingly treated – taken for granted, threatened and pushed around.

    The Singapore meeting, if it was to happen, had to be preceded by the most careful preparation, to make sure that both parties knew exactly what was in the other’s mind.  We now know that what was in Trump’s mind was the potential boost to his popularity, not the unresolved questions as to what Kim meant by de-nuclearisation.  And any chance that Kim would be prepared to offer what the Americans wanted was certainly dashed by the crude threat that Kim, if he failed to come up to scratch, would suffer the same fate as Colonel Gadaffi of Libya.

    Instead of those careful preparations, however, we had a repetition of nuclear threats and boasting by Trump about American military might.  That Nobel Prize now looks a long way away – and Senator Flake may soon find that he has some company in the Republican Party.

    Bryan Gould

    25 May 2018