Jon Talton: Don't underestimate the appeal of "America First," but the risks are big for a region dependent on international commerce and a welcoming spirit.
Nationalism is on the rise beyond the “America First” policies of President Donald Trump.
We see it in Hungary and Poland, and even in the Brexit vote in the United Kingdom. For the first time since the Nazi era, a far-right party won seats in the German Bundestag. A right-wing coalition is running Italy.
Strongmen rule in Russia, China, Turkey — our president admires them.
Nationalism creates a political-feedback loop, particularly when it is tacitly — or overtly — endorsed by the United States, the most powerful nation in the world. No wonder the mindset is increasing in Europe and has become entrenched in Xi Jinping’s China.
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So much for “The End of History.” This 1992 triumphalist book by Francis Fukuyama argued that capitalism, liberalism and globalization were the only viable courses after the Cold War. Fukuyama has since become very worried, and rightly so.
Seattle prospered under the American-led, rules-based international order that emerged after World War II. It went even higher in the post-Cold War era, enjoying a diverse regional economy and, like the Bay Area and Boston, sitting at the pinnacle of Big Tech.
Cosmopolitan, multicultural, tolerant and attracting some of the world’s top talent, we were built for Fukuyama’s End of History.
It’s worth asking what happens if this order is indeed collapsing in the age of Trump? And what happens next?
I always maintained that Asia-facing Seattle was ideally positioned for the Asian Century. Now, I’m not so sure.
In a perceptive essay in New York magazine, Andrew Sullivan wrote that “today’s international order strikes Trump, and always has, as a massive, historic error on the part of the United States.”
Thus his multifront effort to destroy it, from trade wars to casting doubt on NATO.
“There’s nothing in (today’s order) for him to like,” Sullivan wrote.
“It has empowered global elites over national leaders…eroded national sovereignty in favor of commerce and peace…empowered our rivals…spread liberal values contrary to the gut instincts of many ordinary people…led the U.S. to spend trillions on collective security, when we could have used that wealth for our own population or to impose our will by force on others…”
The order has “…enriched the global poor at the expense, as (Trump) sees it, of the American middle class; and it has unleashed unprecedented migration of peoples and the creation of the first truly multicultural, heterogeneous national cultures.”
I quote Sullivan at length because it’s an important window into understanding this momentous shift, especially for people in Seattle’s blue bubble. Millions of Americans agree with Trump, even if many lie to pollsters.
Given this reality, the Puget Sound region and Washington have many potential points of vulnerability if America succumbs to an inward facing and destructive nationalism.
Washington is America’s most trade-dependent state, which translates into most trade vulnerable in a tit-for-tat of tariffs and retaliation. Targets for retaliation range from Boeing to cherries. The former has assiduously cultivated Trump since the election. We’ll see how that works out long-term.
Some farmers may get help from Trump’s cynical $12 billion emergency relief package — for a problem he caused by imposing tariffs and seeing U.S. agricultural products targeted in return. But at best the trade battle won’t grow the pie, and that will even hurt Trump country east of the Cascades. Farmworkers are hard to come by, thanks to Trump’s ICE.
Metro Seattle’s tech giants and even startups have much to lose if exports of services fall. More than that, China could easily withdraw its already shaky copyright protections for software and other tech services.
The Trans-Pacific Partnership would have bolstered such protections among its 12 member nations — and enhanced the liberal American order. But never mind. Both Trump and progressives hated it.
Seattle is welcoming to students, workers, entrepreneurs and tourists from around the globe. But this, too, is in danger with Trump administration travel bans, tougher immigration rules and his damage to America’s reputation in other countries.
Also, Trumpian nationalism isn’t coherent for the entire nation — a complex, continental empire with many needs and competing interests, many of them with global reach. It’s for the president’s biases (e.g. coal) and his base of red states. Beyond the risks to trade, global supply chains and human connections, cities such as Seattle face hostility from the federal government. This can range from cutting infrastructure funds to retaliating for offering immigrants sanctuary.
Let’s concede that worst-case scenarios rarely happen. Executives are confident, at least about the short run. Stock prices are generally rising, goosed by Republican tax cuts. Job creation continues, even if most wages are stagnant. Seattle remains the construction crane capital of the nation.
It’s possible that the mid-term elections could give Democrats control of at least one house of Congress, tempering Trump’s ambitions on the way to defeating him in 2020. But given gerrymandering, vote suppression and Kremlin meddling, this is far from assured.
And even if Trump is halted, what of his nationalist movement? Has the “elite status quo” so failed both the right and the left that the toothpaste can’t be put back in the tube?
Nothing lasts forever. The American-led order has spread prosperity and prevented a direct war among major powers for seven decades. Pax Americana is still 30 years younger than Pax Britannica — which ended catastrophically in 1914 with the Great War — but it’s been a long run.
The problem is that we know where nationalism leads in the modern era. Nazi Germany, fascist Italy and militaristic Imperial Japan were nationalist enterprises. The Americans who wanted to keep the country out of World War II, some of them overtly pro-Nazi, used the slogan “America First.”
This is why, out of the ashes, American statesmen constructed global institutions for collective security and prosperity. These were perpetuated and enhanced under Democrats and Republicans.
I don’t have all the answers. In a stunning op-ed in Financial Times, the British political scientist Mark Leonard said his conversations with officials and intellectuals in Beijing show a China that’s impressed by Trump.
Many he spoke with were “awed by his skill as a strategist and tactician.” This is especially true in his “creative destruction” of existing institutions from NAFTA to NATO.
I am not making this up. While we “smug West Coast elites” thought Trump didn’t have the attention span for checkers, he’s been playing three-dimensional chess. If Leonard is right.
But the end result is still destruction. And even if it doesn’t result in Sino-American war, the outcome won’t make America great again. Sinister forces are gathering, sometimes empowered by average people who are frustrated and anxious and disoriented by a firehose of misinformation.
Cities such as Seattle would be collateral damage to a much larger cataclysm.