Donald Trump – Not an American Deng Xiaoping, Maybe Its Gorbachev?

09.08.2018

Is it possible that Trump’s presidency could be a blip in the American history and things would soon return to “business as usual”? Hardly so. Even if Trump’s presidency does not extend for more than the four years allocated to him by the voters (which is not certain notwithstanding Trump’s own gaffes, the “Russia-gate” and all the anti-Tump liberal media frenzy), his legacy could be felt for many years ahead.

The last quarter of the twentieth century produced two leaders – Deng Xiaoping of China and Michael Gorbachev of the Soviet Union, whose policies not only changed the history of their countries, but also transformed geopolitical structures of the whole world. The West did wholeheartedly welcome Gorbachev, who led to the collapse of the “evil empire.” At the same time, it is becoming increasingly worried about Deng’s legacy, which has made China an economic superpower claiming now an adequate place in the world politics. So, the first August issue of The Economist, which was mostly devoted to China’s rise and its Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), considered this Initiative, if not yet “a frontal challenge,” then at least a test to the Western-led “rules-based liberal order.” [1] Why such a strange welcoming of the failure of reforms while being worried of their success?

In November 2015, Georges Malbrunot, a French journalist, in an article on Iran, quotes an anonymous Iranian intellectual, who deplores that President Rouhani of Iran “is not Iranian Gorbachev; at best he could become our Deng Xiaoping.” [2] There is something disturbingly distorted in the idea that Michael Gorbachev was a more successful reformer than China’s Deng Xiaoping. One only needs to compare today’s China and Russia (especially its near collapse in the 1990s), and their respective economies and influences in the world (especially if we also take into account their respective starting positions). Such a mind-set goes against simple logic, to say nothing of a deeper comparative analysis of Deng’s and Gorbachev’s reforms and, particularly, their results. Such a myopia may be explained by the dominant narrative, mostly Anglo-American in origin, claiming that there is only one correct way of life, one adequate political and economic system – liberal democracy and free markets. Such one-dimensional and negativist approach to diversities between societies is in stark contrast with the acceptance and even encouragement of diversity within societies.

Of course, to change society to such an extent that it also has global effects, one needs not only an extraordinary (not necessarily always in a positive sense of the word) man or woman at the helm of the State but also a big enough country to experiment with. It seems that today may have come the turn of the United States of America and its current President Donald Trump. Although American economy is doing fine, the growth rates are much higher than in Europe and the jobless numbers are also much lower than in the Old Continent, benefitting from it are mainly those who have always been better off. However, the coming to power of Donald Trump, a person extraordinary mostly in his extravagance, has done a good job in exposing the controversies and antagonisms of the American society. The fact that something like that is also happening in Europe, shows that Donald Trump is not so much a cause of the current turmoil but rather a catalyst that is accelerating the coming of the unavoidable crisis that may be followed by recovery. It is the controversy and antagonism between liberal elites and conservatives.

It was more than twenty years ago when Richard Rorty published his “Achieving Our Country”, where he wrote that the American liberal left, concentrating on the rights of ethnic, racial, religious, cultural and sexual minorities, had neglected the widening gap between the rich and the poor. At some point, Rorty warned, “something will crack.” The nonsuburban electorate will decide that the system has failed and start looking around for a strongman to vote for – someone willing to assure them that, once he is elected, the smug bureaucrats, tricky lawyers, overpaid bond salesmen, and postmodern professors will no longer be calling the shots. [3] Sounds eerily familiar, doesn’t it? Rorty considered himself to belong to the category of liberal left, though as one of the brightest representatives of American pragmatism, he couldn’t be branded a post-modern professor. And differently from many, if not from most, he did not ridicule, deplore or detest those who were different, but tried to understand them (Spinoza’s advice).

Trump has indeed deeply disturbed the anthill of American domestic as well as international politics so that not only Democrats but also many Republicans have openly rebelled against their president. What such an infight has revealed is, first, that there have never been significant differences between Democratic and Republican elites. Hillary Clinton, epitomising the corrupt politics of the democrats, lost the 2016 presidential elections not because of some foreign interference but because the rift between the political elite and the American people had become all too obvious. Externally, she has been a perfect example of those “liberal interventionists” who differ too little from the “neocons” who were running the show under the Republican presidency of George W. Bush. Therefore, the enlightened worldview of Barack Obama and basic instincts of Donald Trump on foreign affairs are on many issues (though not on all) closer than foreign policy preferences of those like Hillary Clinton. Equally, or even more, Trump’s unpredictable and erratic foreign policy steps are making it clear to some American allies that blindly following the self-proclaimed leader of the “free world” is not necessarily good for them. His politically incorrect tweets and statements have forced those who fight him either on Capitol Hill or in the liberal media to leave behind their own political correctness, which has, like Orwell’s doublespeak, so far rather effectively covered the true face of American elites.

Is it possible that Trump’s presidency could be a blip in the American history and things would soon return to “business as usual”? Hardly so. Even if Trump’s presidency does not extend for more than the four years allocated to him by the voters (which is not certain notwithstanding Trump’s own gaffes, the “Russia-gate” and all the anti-Tump liberal media frenzy), his legacy could be felt for many years ahead. In that respect, one would wonder what Henry Kissinger had in mind in the recent interview to The Financial Times when he somewhat enigmatically opined: “I think Trump may be one of those figures in history who appears from time to time to mark the end of an era and to force it to give up its old pretences. It doesn’t necessarily mean that he knows this, or that he is considering any great alternative. It could just be an accident.” [4] These words of the grand consigliere of American diplomacy could lead one to reflect on whether Donald Trump would be an American Deng or an American Gorbachev.

Donald Trump, or rather his role and legacy in history, notwithstanding all their personal differences, may be rather like that of Gorbachev, not at all that of Deng Xiaoping. Both Deng and Gorbachev at some point understood that “business as usual” would be disastrous to their respective countries. But here the similarities end. Professor Weiwei Zhang of Fudan University, who used to be Deng Xiaoping’s interpreter, told me recently that after the May 1989 meeting in Beijing with Michael Gorbachev, the Chinese paramount leader had, in the circle of his advisers, characterised the Soviet leader as naïve and weak. If Deng knew what he wanted and slowly but surely, sometimes using brutal means and methods (e.g., suppressing the 1989 Tiananmen square protest, which, had it succeeded, would have put an end to the economic reforms and growth of China), moved towards the goal of making China great again. Gorbachev, on the contrary, rather naively believed in the possibility of the Swedish-style socialism in the Soviet Union and in the sincerity of promises of the Bush-senior administration of not moving NATO an inch to the East. Gorbachev’s nemesis Boris Yeltsin continued, in the 1990s, his predecessor’s policies in the diminished borders of the Russian Federation. Adi Ignatius, the former Wall Street Journal bureau chief in Moscow, reminisced at the end of 2007 about Yeltsin’s Russia of the 1990s in the following way: “I retain three indelible images from that time. The first: the legions of Ivy League – and other Western-educated ‘experts’ who roamed the halls of the Kremlin and the government, offering advice, all ultimately ineffective on everything from conducting free elections to using ‘shock therapy’ to juice the economy to privatizing state-owned assets.” [5] And he concluded that it was easy to see why the Russians were supporting Vladimir Putin “after the humiliations of the 1990s, when Harvard M.B.A.s flooded Russia, preaching Western-style democracy, only to let a small cabal of criminals bleed the country dry.”

Trump, being a ruthless, wily and ruse businessman, is nevertheless rather naïve in politics and ignorant in the world affairs. And this, notwithstanding his some rather good instincts that could be due, at least partly, to the very fact of being a novice in politics, particularly in the world affairs. What is NATO for, if the Cold War had been declared to be over; why to continue seeing Russia as an existential threat, while it is China that is threatening the American dominance the world; aren’t uncontrolled migration and the rise of Islamist extremism becoming global problems? Of course, foreign policy based on personal instincts has necessarily its flip side. In international relations it is expressed, for example, in the US withdrawal from the Paris climate agreement as well from the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, (JCPOA) signed by the five permanent members of the Security Council plus Germany with Iran.

If it were only the erratic decisions and tweets of the 45th President of the United States that disturb the American as well as the whole Western mainstream, Trump’s impact would not be so great. Trump’s acts and utterances are amplified by the feverish hostility of his opponents, particularly, in the USA. They have learned nothing from their failure to continue business as usual, expressed inter alia in the 2016 presidential elections. If Trump has turned the country, and to some extent even the world, upside down, his opponents, to get rid of their hated enemy, are ready to tear down their own house. Moreover, in their frenzy they do not care about endangering international peace. As American political scientist Micah Zenko writes in the article Democrats Will Regret Becoming the Anti-Russia Party, “When a political party increases its animus towards a foreign country – believing that this will enhance its own popularity – it introduces second-order effects that can manifest themselves years later. It creates a voting bloc of Americans who become socialised to hate a foreign government and, by extension, its citizens. It reduces the motivations and complexities of that government to a simplified caricature of anti-Americanism or just plain evil. More broadly, it engenders hostility between the United States and foreign countries, which makes cooperation over shared problems difficult and rapprochement unimaginable.” [6] Hopefully, this dangerous infight may clear the ground for new people, who may be able to adopt policies, both for the country as well as in international relations, that differ from those of Donald Trump as well as from those of his fieriest opponents amongst the American political and media elites.

Therefore, Trump, like Gorbachev, can, using the insight of Henry Kissinger, “mark the end of an era and to force it to give up its old pretences.” Like Gorbachev, he has no vision and no time for building something new that would correspond to the requirements of the American society that has great potential. Like Gorbachev, Trump not necessarily knows what he is doing and what his legacy would be. Repeating what the clear-minded and great American elderly statesman, quoted above, said: “It doesn’t necessarily mean that he knows this, or that he is considering any great alternative. It could just be an accident.”


[1] The Economist, July 28th – August 3d 2018.

[2] G. Malbrunot, ‘En Iran, Hassan Rohani sous pression’, Le Figaro, 26 November 2015.

[3] R. Rorty, Achieving Our Country, Harvard University Press, 1997, p. 90.

[4] The Financial Times, 20 July 2018.

[5] A. Ignatius, ‘A Tsar is Born’, Time Magazine, December 3, 2007- January 7, 2008, p. 42.

[6] M. Zenco, ‘Democrats Will Regret Becoming the Anti-Russia Party’, Foreign Policy, July 24, 2018.


Views expressed are of individual Members and Contributors, rather than the Club's, unless explicitly stated otherwise.

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