By Joniel Cha
While Congress and the rest of D.C. collected itself on March 2, the day after President Donald J. Trump’s speech to Congress, Professor Joseph Nye lost no time in paying a visit to the SAIS community. “It is difficult to formulate policy in 140 characters,” Nye surmised snidely. The Kenney Auditorium erupted in discontented laughter.
Globalization has put the liberal rules established post-World War II at risk. Entropy, neo-feudalism, transnational issues and non-state actors now take center stage in the world theater.
Nye presented a sweeping overview of the past 70 years as the United States, with unprecedented power, established a world order based on its values. Trump is the first president to question the American liberal world order, structure and institutions.
As China free-rides on the public goods provided by the United States, the world holds its breath and waits to see if China will assume the role of a responsible great power and take on the mantel of maintaining international stability.
Students of China Studies at SAIS bristled and protested angrily when Nye brushed off fears of a rising China that rejects the Hague Tribunal on the South China Sea. Nye argued that power is a positive sum game: If the U.S. benefits, China benefits too and vice versa.
On a tangent, Nye declared that a country in decline is more dangerous than a rising power. He claimed that Russia with its demographic decline, dependency on its one-crop economy and corrupt political system, was willing to take irrational risks like the Austro-Hungarian Empire in 1914, i.e., whatever it takes, to make Russia great again. Students of European and Eurasian Studies at SAIS agreed, pointing to Putin’s high poll ratings and widespread public support.
In the climax of his speech, Nye emphasized that the threat is from within. Trumpism, the populist movement, will continue further than the next four years. This entropy, he asserts, not China’s rise, is the threat to world order.
We have seen trends of growing nationalism as well as authoritarian leaders around the world – we see this even in major powers. We see this in Russia taking aggressive action in Eastern Europe, despite an economy struggling under sanctions; we see this in China becoming more assertive in the Asia Pacific under Xi; and we see this in the United States with the rising populist movement under Trump.
“Trump is not like Hitler, who had a coherent malign plan. Some compare him to Mussolini, but America is not like Italy in 1922. He is more like American populists such as Joseph McCarthy or George Wallace, but all comparisons have their limits.” Nye gave SAIS students much to chew on over the next four years and beyond, and many Chinese and other international students voiced relief at the fact that their countries had not been targeted as the main threat to world order.