After his long-time personal lawyer Michael Cohen pleaded guilty to eight felonies, and his former campaign manager Paul Manafort was found guilty by a jury of a similar number of crimes, the endgame has begun for Donald Trump’s unlikely sojourn in the White House. Although he is immune from being charged for the offences detailed by his former attorney Michael Cohen, impeachment proceedings are certain if Democrats take control of both houses of Congress in the November elections. Even without impeachment, the legal net thrown by Special Prosecutor Robert Mueller will keep tightening, snagging those closest to Trump and making the US President’s daily cries of “witch hunt” sound absurd except to a relatively small core of supporters. The question is: will the Trump presidency implode or explode? In the world’s interest, I hope it is the former, but given the character of the man the latter is far more likely.
Aligned alongside and against Trump is a group of strongmen who have created cracks and fissures in the world’s politics and economy. We do not know when one of those fractures will trigger the next global crisis, but any of them might.
March of the strongmen
In Turkey, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan has been granted dictatorial powers by the electorate, and is making a mess of the nation’s economy. Instructing the central bank, which is no longer independent, to keep interest rates low despite inflation being twice the bank’s target, he called high rates “the mother and father of all evil”. The result was predictable: a slide in the value of the Turkish Lira, a currency with a history of sharp devaluations. To make matters worse, he got into a slanging match with Trump about an imprisoned pastor, resulting in Turkey being slapped with additional tariffs.
Erdoğan began his reign with a policy of having no enemies, but ended up with few friends. He has entered a strange alliance with Vladimir Putin, even buying Russian missiles though Turkey has for decades been a member of the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation. The alliance is peculiar because Russia supports Bashar Al-Assad’s regime in Syria, while Turkey sponsors insurgents determined to topple it. In 2015, Turkish forces shot down a Russian Sukhoi Su-24 fighter they claimed had strayed over the Syrian border into Turkish air space. Putin demanded an apology and imposed harsh sanctions till he got one. Since that clash, the two leaders have become best buddies. The flip demonstrated the capriciousness of strongmen, their intensely personal mode of governance, which is not a good recipe for geopolitical stability.
If Turkey’s citizens handed over excessive power to their President, in Saudi Arabia, a young, ambitious prince has grabbed it for himself. The 32-year-old Mohammad Bin Salman is transforming his nation from an oligarchy to an autocracy. Most dictators are modernisers and social progressives, and MBS, as he is called, is no different. He has granted Saudi women a few rights and speaks of diversifying the economy. This has earned him praise in mainstream media, including an astonishingly obsequious piece from Tom Friedman in The New York Times. While dictators, give or take a Zia-ul-Haq or two, tend to be broadminded about things like liquor, music, clothes and the role of women, they also tend to be expansionist. Saddam Hussein, Muammar Gaddafi, and Hafez Al-Assad destabilised West Asia and North Africa by invading or otherwise attempting to control neighbouring nations. MBS is doing exactly that in Yemen. In the second week of August, a Saudi airstrike killed 40 children travelling in a school bus, the latest atrocity in a long war the Saudis believed they would win easily.
Chances of a global crisis
The rupture that seems likeliest to have serious global ramifications in the near future relates to Saudi Arabia’s longstanding foe, Iran. With an economy overstretched by its support for Yemen’s Houthi rebels, Syria’s Assad, and Lebanon’s Hezbollah, Iran faces a massive crisis thanks to sanctions imposed by Donald Trump. Tehran has drawn closer to Turkey, Russia, China and Qatar, in opposition to the US, Saudi Arabia and Israel.
How these tensions play out depends greatly on China’s attitude. Will Xi Jinping, calculating that Donald Trump is irreversibly weakened, continue to buy Iranian oil despite US sanctions while also standing his ground on trade? Or will he seek an accommodation with the US at the risk of being seen as weak? Xi came to power with a reputation for pragmatism, but has taken an increasingly hard line on Taiwan and control of islands in the South China Sea.
Moderation on China’s part might not avert a serious global crisis. Trump is likely to launch a full-fledged trade war against multiple adversaries or a full-fledged armed war against Iran, no matter what Xi Jinping does. Unfortunately, he has a lot of ammunition left. His approval ratings, instead of plunging to the mid-twenties where his support would come exclusively from his core base of Deplorables, have held up in the forties.
That is because he has turbocharged the US economy with tax cuts, spending increases and deregulation. The moves were uncalled for in an economy that had been growing consistently for nearly a decade, the resulting boost in growth is temporary while the deficits and environmental pollution created in the process will cause long-term problems. For now, though, American workers are feeling reasonably good about their finances, and capital markets are at all-time highs. They provide Trump a buffer against the repercussions of the wars he will launch in his remaining months in office.
Strongmen like Putin, Erdoğan, MBS and Jinping have laid the groundwork for the next global crisis, but it is the madman in the White House who will determine its course.