Last year was more Hobbesian than Panglossian, with the Trumpian swamp deteriorating into a more dangerous quagmire. The other side of this coin also needs to be examined. What can be done to make things better?
The first is to prevent an unnecessary arms race and military competition with Russia. The White House has declared it will exit from the Intermediate Nuclear Force Treaty with Russia this year. Similarly, with Russian declarations about super weapons such as the Satan and now hypersonic missiles, the United States may find no option except to respond. The new START treaty that limits strategic nuclear weapons likewise may be in jeopardy.
The basis for the increased hostility between Moscow and the West did not begin with the Trump administration. When the Soviet Union collapsed three decades ago, the West collectively began expanding NATO with former Warsaw Pact states. The crucial question that the Clinton administration failed to answer was what to do about Russia? The NATO-Russia Council turned out not to be it.
Russia has always been paranoid about encirclement. And President Vladimir Putin grew increasingly distrustful of what he saw as America’s irresponsible foreign policies. Putin argued strenuously against George W. Bush’s invasion of Iraq in 2003, rightly fearing the Middle East would be cast into chaos — which it was. In 2008, at the Bucharest NATO heads of government summit, Bush assured Georgia and Ukraine ultimate NATO membership. Putin was livid.
Russia set a trap for Georgia later that year. Georgia bit. Now South Ossetia is occupied by Russia and if NATO guidelines for membership are followed, Georgia with contested borders is not eligible. Similarly, in 2014, Russia seized Crimea and sent troops into the Donbas that still divides Ukraine. The West found this unacceptable and reacted by reinforcing defense and deterrence in NATO against further Russian encroachment.
The sensible approach is to put these huge differences aside for the moment in order to avoid a future and needless arms race. Whether or not Putin has leverage over President Donald Trump, reducing tensions is vital to both East and West. Global economies are not strong and sanctions are indeed hurting Russia. Spending more on mass destruction armaments makes little sense. Yet, will common sense permit some reconciliation?
Second, a trade war with China will be disastrous. Averting a trade war must be a high priority. Perhaps another summit between Trump and Xi Jingping can break the logjam. As bad as stock market performance was in the United States, it was far worse last year in China. And debt and deficits cast long shadows on the economic health of both giants. But can or will the two sides see a way out? We must try.
Third, politics in Washington are about to become even more bitter, divided and partisan. The border wall with Mexico is really a symptom of the huge divide between both parties. For the moment, bridging this seemingly impenetrable political wall appears impossible. The 2020 presidential campaign, already underway, will further harden the wall between Republicans and Democrats.
One area on which both parties agree is the need for a massive infrastructure program to restore and in many cases rebuild a decaying and broken system of roads, ports, power grids, airports, education facilities, waterworks and bridges. The issue is funding. The opportunity to use repatriation of corporate money kept abroad for tax reasons has been missed.
But some form of bonds, infrastructure bank and even more debt must be examined. Clearly with soaring deficits, financial hawks will be opposed. However, despite the claims of the White House, the economy is not as robust as presented. Without further growth, closing the debt and deficit gaps accelerated by the tax cuts will be impossible.
Action requires compromise and civility as starters. Democrats will exert power through control of the House of Representatives. The talk of impeachment and conviction will never be silenced, regardless of what the special counsel finds. Politics have simply become too divisive absent a simple solution — leadership.
But who will lead? Trump and his base believe the president is leading and the other 65 to 70 percent of the country is wrong. Hatred of the president is not too strong a description on the part of many Americans. Interestingly, the balance can only rest in what could be called “responsible” Republicans and Democrats.
Republican senators have been cowed by this president. Democrats have been bonded by revulsion against Trump. Unless or until these elected officials recognize a higher duty to the Constitution than to party or to disdain for the president, breakthroughs will be unreachable. This is THE issue for 2019.