The western alliance has never looked more dysfunctional or out of sorts as it does this Spring.
The United States is now democracy’s sick man. The UK is governed by a party at war with itself. Germany has painted itself into a corner in which it is governed by a Chancellor supported by a potential coalition partner that recoils from office. France is in the hands of a political adolescent with delusions of grandeur. Spain is in a political crisis over Catalonia. Italy appears to be on the verge of electing a government which is discredited before it starts.
If someone powerful was actually planning the fall of the West, things couldn’t be going better.
What is happening in Washington is hard to credit. Trump called in the magnates and union bosses of the steel and aluminium industries to witness an oval office announcement of protective tariffs that strikes at the heart of the WTO global understanding. The stock markets immediately recognised the likely consequences - a partial unravelling of free trade based on retaliatory reactions, most likely by Beijing.
Beijing, after all, is supposed by the Trump administration to be a partner in imposing aggressive economic sanctions on North Korea.It isn’t at all clear how Rex Tillerson is expected to keep that sanctions wall in place while the US embarks in anti-Chinese tariffs.
There is more and more reason to think that Trump is quietly preparing a military intervention on the Korean peninsula. The apparent Winter Olympics thaw in relations between Seoul and Pyongyang is probably seen in the Oval Office simply as a crude attempt by Kim Jong Un to forestall US military intervention. Donald Trump simply can’t afford to allow the North Koreans to develop or keep nuclear ICBMs that threaten the US mainland. He has to end that threat -one way or another.
If that weren’t bad enough, this week Vladimir Putin has thrown down a nuclear gauntlet that Trump cannot ignore. Putin’s flashy screen presentation of a new set of Russian nuclear weapon systems which are designed to circumvent the US anti ballistic missile defence systems is calculated to humiliate Trump in the eyes of his supporters.
After all, Trump was the man who famously claimed that his nuclear button was “bigger” than Kim Jong Un’s. And that came as little surprise since Trump has recently openly talked of rebuilding an American system of tactical nuclear weapons as apart of its arsenal.
We seem to be edging towards a new multi-lateral Cold War, led largely by a man who seems to spend his evenings in bed watching Fox News and gorging on cheeseburgers after spending his day surrounded by a coterie of cowering, fawning relatives such as Jared Kushner.
The idiotic boast, made this week, that he would have shifted his manly bulk into the corridors of the Florida High School, even though unarmed, to confront a multiple murderer toting an automatic rifle was craven, risible and pathetic. He looked so diminished in stature by the common-sense and justified anger of the teenagers who confronted him demanding action on firearms control.
The decline of American international influence and internal democracy can no longer be concealed. GOP players in Congress look weak. It was their weakness that delivered their own party into the hands of the Tea Party extremists, paving the way for Trump. Paul Ryan and Mitch McConnell now look like washed-out spectators.
As for the Democrats, where is the challenger to Trump? The party lost the presidency to Trump by surrendering its soul to the almost unbelievable sense of entitlement , complacency and cynicism that characterised the Clinton candidacy. Where is there any sign of a new generation to take over from Nancy Pelosi and Bernie Saunders? Time is running out. The idea of a second term for Trump seems unthinkable. But who or what is going to prevent it?
On this side of the Atlantic, there are Trump-like aspects to the activities of the Tory hard-line Brexiteers. They don’t actually wear baseball caps bearing the slogan “Make the UK Great Again”. But that is their undeclared mantra.
Are they inching crablike away from their fantasies and towards a soft Brexit based on a deal with the EU 27 that amounts to a customs union in all but name? Or is that too much to hope for?
Gove, Johnson, Rees-Mogg, Paterson, and Duncan-Smith just cannot bear to accept that they cannot be simultaneously free to negotiate trade deals with the rest of the world and have tariff-free access for their goods to the EU. That is impossible. Full stop. hat part of that can they not understand.
Theresa May has got this far by constructive ambiguity. But that ambiguity will have run its course within weeks. It will become destructive ambiguity if persisted with any further.
The Irish border question is not a minor geographical matter that can be overcome with technology like the Toll Free scanners we see on the M50 or such as is used in system of congestion charges in London. The same issues must be dealt with at Dover and Calais and all the other UK-EU trading channels. You can’t have goods incorporating materials or components imported into the UK tariff-free from outside the EU travelling unimpeded into the the EU whether that happens at Lifford, Newry, Dieppe or Calais.
In reality, the “back stop” guarantee that there will be no hard border in Ireland means that the UK must have a deal with the EU that amounts to de facto adherence to the EU’s common external tariff (the CET).
Unless the EU abandons its solemn commitment to Ireland on the no hard border issue, the UK must bend the knee on the CET if there is to be any deal.
Weakness and chaos in Washington and London is not good for Ireland - economically or politically.
Tariffs on steel and tariffs on goods going to and from the UK are suddenly the issues which will decide our economic and political futures. The irony is that the hard right in the US wants to impose them regardless of consequence while the hard right in the UK seems to think it can demand their abolition without consequence.
What a pity that the ballot box is providing such ideologically chaotic outcomes these days. It seems, alas, that Russia is now the only place where we can depend on the ballot box to provide predictable outcomes.
O TEMPORA, O MORES.