HONG KONG ― The election of Donald Trump as the next president of the United States has led many Americans and Westerners to do a lot of soul-searching. An underlying theme in much of the post-election commentary has been fear about an uncertain future and speculation about the end of the West’s global economic and political dominance. Many of these commentators are asking how the U.S., long held up as the preeminent model of good democratic governance, could have come to this point. Few non-Western perspectives on what the election says about America’s political and economic system have been included in the global public discourse.
The election of a man who many around the world (and indeed a majority of American voters) think is unqualified and dangerous should prompt a critical examination of the American political-economic system. In Trump’s triumph, there are valuable lessons for non-Western and developing countries. For those who have held up the U.S. as the bastion of all things good and right, this may be a wake-up call ― a realization that the country has serious flaws and that its shortcomings and mistakes have major implications for the rest of us.
This is not to deny the many positive contributions of the U.S. to the world, and a great many around the world hope such contributions will continue. But current trends, if allowed to continue, will diminish such contributions. The world has been shown that the U.S. has a tendency to elect leaders who have little understanding of the wider world, who threaten to overturn the international system in the name of American interests and yet who believe they have the right to intervene in the affairs of others.
In the rush to condemn Trump, many commentators forgot President George W. Bush’s two terms. Those eight years were marked by the rise of the neoconservative movement, disastrous and illegal wars, global financial disaster and an arrogant neglect of global views and opinions. Bush’s and Trump’s victories at the polls were through a legitimate democratic process. There were no coups, no refusals to concede by the loser. Power was transferred peacefully. But just because the process was respected does not mean that the process is not flawed. Nor does it mean that the process meets the democratic ideals and expectations of the majority of Americans.
“Democracy does not have to be American-style democracy.”
To ignore what these elections mean for the rest of the world and to sweep under the rug the high cost paid by millions of people due to American folly is to display ignorance and arrogance. The belief that a democracy will self-correct is little comfort to those who have been hurt.
With that in mind, here are five lessons that rising countries should learn from America’s flaws. This is part of a long overdue inquiry into the American model, which many around the world — not just Western nations — have until now viewed as the apex of political and economic development. Many aspects of this dominant ideology now appear to be crumbling, even as Washington continues to export it to the rest of the world. Similar problems are found in many countries, even non-Western rising powers like China and India. But as the world’s most powerful country, America can inflict major harm on non-Americans, and the rest of the world should avoid repeating its errors.
1. Democracy alone is not a path to strong leaders or policies.
The re-election of former President George W. Bush, even after his disastrous mistakes, is proof. Effective states are founded on institutions, norms and well-functioning societies. As these weaken or are corrupted, a democratic process will not necessarily lead to a good outcome. American democracy is an unfortunate example: its governing institutions are stuck, its politics are polarized and sensible policies supported by a broad majority of Americans, from reasonable gun control to higher taxes on the wealthy, go nowhere. Little wonder that people voted for a candidate who promised to upend the system.
Other countries should learn that, while democracy may be the best form of government despite its shortcomings, it does not have to be American-style democracy. And neither is democracy enough to ensure good governance.
Climate change is an example of how American democracy fails to lead to better outcomes. Many around the world, including most Americans, agree it is one of the most critical problems facing the world. But the American system has selected a president who will likely do very little or nothing at all to implement the Paris Agreement, and who will likely roll back the progress made by his predecessor. It’s not just Trump: Bush’s administration also questioned the science behind climate change and refused to take any significant action toward resolving it.
“Instead of looking to America’s money-drenched politics, democracies in the developing world should emulate Britain's legal restraints and Germany's cultural restraints on spending.”
Chinese climate negotiators, by contrast, have reaffirmed their support of the global agreement, leading many Western news outlets, even those not usually sympathetic to Beijing, to hail China as the new leader of efforts against global warming. The fact that a non-democratic state may take the lead on perhaps the biggest challenge of our times should at least raise some questions about governance in the 21st century.
Moreover, a democracy like America’s that is drenched in vast sums of money cannot be good for a nation’s political health. Trump did not spend as much money as Hillary Clinton did, but his millions fueled his takeover of the Republican Party. Similarly, Clinton perpetuated the deep and mutually beneficial ties between the Democratic Party, big business and Wall Street, which came back to haunt her during the campaign.
It is not a good thing that the independently wealthy and those who raise money from the independently wealthy are the only ones who can run for the most powerful offices in the country. Instead of looking to America’s money-drenched politics, democracies in the developing world should emulate Britain’s legal restraints and Germany’s cultural restraints on spending.
2. Don’t create a military-industrial complex.
Private companies that deal in weapons, military technology and mercenary contractors is a built-in lobby for aggression. Remember the words of Dwight D. Eisenhower, the U.S. president from 1953 to 1961 and a former general: “In the councils of government, we must guard against the acquisition of unwarranted influence, whether sought or unsought, by the military-industrial complex. The potential for the disastrous rise of misplaced power exists and will persist.”
Both the U.S. and the world have paid the price for Washington’s overuse of force. Despite efforts to justify foreign interventions as humanitarian missions or attempts to spread democracy, it has become clear that American interventionism has been a disaster. Washington’s justifications do not convince the global majority, who have had a long experience with lies along the lines of, “We are here to help you.” The world needs to stand firm against illegitimate coalitions of the international community led by the U.S. to serve narrow interests.
“The potential for the disastrous rise of misplaced power exists and will persist.”
America’s Middle Eastern wars have diverted time and resources away from America’s domestic problems, and many Americans are tired of it. Trump seized on popular distaste for foreign nation-building in his campaign. The world should hope putting a stop to it is one promise he intends to keep. However, his wish to renounce the nuclear deal with Iran, another foreign policy priority, is not encouraging. The other parties to the deal, especially the Europeans, will need to reject such threats.
Clearly, keeping the defense industry in state hands (as China and Russia do), as opposed to private ones, will not prevent countries from acting aggressively or beefing up their armed forces. But it would remove an additional incentive to use force driven by vested interests. Given the danger and damage involved in warfare, why add private profit to the mix? China and India will inevitably see their military power increase, so they should ensure that questions of war and peace are decided by genuine geopolitical concerns, not private profit.
3. Technology isn’t a panacea to meeting development goals and driving economic growth.
Developing countries in particular should be skeptical about American tech companies selling utopian solutions to an array of challenges. These tools are some of the most powerful in human history, yet they are developed by an elite with a narrow perspective on the world.
The technology boom also contributes to income inequality as profits flow to a small number of developers and the venture capitalists who back them. Greater technology and mechanization have made people less secure: one interesting correlation from the U.S. election is that the areas that flipped from President Obama to Trump were not those with high unemployment, but those with large numbers of jobs at risk of being replaced by machines.
“Too often the negative effects of technology are waved away as the 'price of progress.'”
Technology has even started to negatively impact the political process, such as through the spread of fake news on social media. Chinese and Indian social networks are also flooded with rumors and speculation that, if allowed to flourish, can undermine social stability. Resolving this issue will be a particularly thorny political challenge, as any intervention will run up against domestic and international opposition, particularly from the West.
The lesson for rising countries is that technological progress is not an end in itself. Too often the negative effects of technology are waved away as the “price of progress.” Worse, concerns about the effects of jobs lost to mechanization and technology or about the massive consumerism fostered by online shopping phenomena like Black Friday or Singles’ Day ― with all the associated externalities conveniently ignored – are painted as backward thinking. Rising countries should treat technology skeptically and ask themselves which technologies truly encourage a better living standard.
4. Avoid exceptionalism.
Americans have long seen themselves as the lynchpin of a peaceful and stable world order, describing their country as “the leader of the free world” and the “world’s indispensable nation.” America puts itself forward as a model, which leads to rhetoric that it is the shining city on the hill that the rest of the world should look up to.
For those outside the U.S., and for those who live in societies with much longer histories, this rhetoric is annoying at best and dangerous at worst. It convinces Washington of its own innate correctness and discourages careful consideration of warnings to the contrary even from its own allies. It has led to a collective national amnesia for the many poor decisions the U.S. has made, both domestically and internationally. Exceptionalism has prevented America from fully understanding, acknowledging and coming to terms with the slaughter of Native Americans, for example, and the continuing impact of past injustice on the lives of African-Americans and the deeply entrenched racism that still exists at the heart of the American judicial system.
“The lesson for rising powers is that they should view their economic and political rise with humility.”
Exceptionalism is quite different from pride in one’s country. In America, exceptionalism has tied love of country to economic and geopolitical preeminence. It feeds a belief that America is special, with the ordained responsibility to manage the world. But as America’s global role recedes, this association may end up being harmful. Both Trump and Clinton tried to trade on “exceptionalism.” Trump ran on recovering America’s former greatness, a scary proposition to those both inside and outside the U.S. who view its past with trepidation.
The lesson for rising powers is that they should view their economic and political rise with humility. The hope is that China, as the up-and-coming power in Asia, avoids its own version of exceptionalism. China should be humble in how it understands its success and not feed narratives about its own superiority over other nations. The same can be said of India as it gains economic prominence: 150 years of domination by the British should not provide cover for denial of its own ailments, like the caste system, or current issues, like the continued failure to provide necessary basic services to its citizens.
5. Don’t unthinkingly replace a labor-intensive rural sector with industrial agriculture and low-cost, low-wage manufacturing or service jobs.
In the U.S., rural communities have hollowed out as the young and skilled move to cities to find economic opportunities. The spread of industrial-scale agriculture has degraded the environment, and this now includes countries such as China and many in Southeast Asia. It has led to an abundance of processed junk food, which has a negative impact on health.
Throughout the Western world, rural decline has encouraged many voters to believe they are being left behind or forgotten. This has encouraged them to strike back against the cities, as happened with the Brexit referendum, the rise of European far-right populism and the election of Trump.
The rise of industrial agriculture and the transformation of rural communities is not unique to America; China’s recent development has been fueled by hundreds of millions of people moving to the cities. But if rural people in developing countries feel they are being left behind, they too will act to upend the system. That is something China, India and other large countries in the developing world should be extremely careful about.
India should think twice about ignoring its rural agricultural sector, as China has, in order to urbanize rapidly. In China, it has led to large-scale migration, migrant workers stranded in urban centers and social structures fracturing. It has also resulted in the expansion of industrial agriculture that is now already producing too much food, leading to overconsumption and growing obesity rates, not to mention massive environmental and pollution problems.
As China, India, Indonesia and others continue to grow and develop, we must all hope that they keep the flaws of the American system in mind. The U.S., like any story of development, provides some positive lessons for the rest of the world. But we should not ignore American mistakes and weaknesses that have come to the fore in the last 20 years and must not be replicated elsewhere. We should know better.