"Trump"-eting failure: The Donald, the Middle East and globalisation
It might seem a stretch of the imagination to associate the Middle East with the rise and hopefully the demise of Donald Trump. His only repeated reference to the region is the indirect one of the threat to ban Muslims from America.
This is but one of his many offensive proposals, of which building a wall on the Mexican border is possibly the most notorious. That barrier would be directed not against Muslims or Middle Easterners, but against Christian Hispanics.
Despite his scattergun approach, there is a central theme to his bizarre utterances. It is that the world, not the US, is responsible for the difficulties Americans face. Whether they are Muslims, Mexicans, free-loading Europeans or duplicitous Chinese, foreigners of virtually any sort menace Americans, be it by stealing jobs from them or committing terrorist acts against them.
Stripped of inflammatory rhetoric, the core of his argument is that globalisation is responsible for America's decline. He is far from being alone in this diagnosis. Politicians in developed, emerging and stagnating third world countries alike express similar views. Like neoliberalism, which similarly flourished in the wake of the collapse of the Soviet Union, globalisation is now commonly seen as a scourge, eroding national economies, societies and polities.
The charge is partially true. Globalisation's acceleration from the late 1980s has been associated with growing inequality within countries virtually throughout the world. Inequality in turn is the driver of discontent among the downwardly mobile in the developed world and those elsewhere whose hopes for upward mobility have been shattered. Economic frustration provides fertile ground for Trump's and others' chauvinistic diagnoses of problems, coupled with simplistic cures for them.
Theirs is a one-eyed, overly negative view of the impacts of globalisation, which on the positive side include growing equality between rich and poor nations since the late 1980s. Moreover, until it began to slow in the wake of the 2008 global financial crisis, globalisation had made possible rapid rates of economic growth in both rich and poor countries, rates that had not been achieved previously nor equaled since.
|Globalisation is damned when it accelerates and, illogically, also when it decelerates|
The cultural globalisation that paralleled its economic counterpart also had numerous beneficial, if attenuated effects. Increasing intercultural awareness underpinned the spread of democratic norms and practices, including those embodied in domestic transitions from authoritarianism, and in emerging international institutions, such as the International Criminal Court.
Donald Trump and his ilk have, in other words, given globalisation an unfair reputation. He and his equivalents elsewhere, including the swelling cadres of right wingers among European politicians, typically oppose domestic fiscal measures, especially higher taxes on the wealthy, that would reduce, even reverse the trend of growing inequality. Similarly, they have opposed social programs intended to address the negative educational, health and welfare consequences of inequality. So instead of assuming responsibility for what they have wrought, the Trumps of the world have found it politically expedient to blame foreigners and the impersonal force of globalisation.
As globalisation has slowed over the past several years it paradoxically has been increasingly blamed for domestic ills. This is due in large part to the fact that as globalization has slowed, it has dampened the rate of world economic growth, adding thereby to problems caused initially by intensifying domestic inequality. Globalisation is damned when it accelerates and, illogically, also when it decelerates.
|The Middle East was never an ardently globalising region, in part because of the widely held interpretation of globalisation as neo-colonialism|
Regrettably Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders both echo Trump's indictment of globalisation, pledging to arrest and even reverse it by imposing new protectionist measures. This is the easy, but wrong way out. The hard but right way, which both Trump and Clinton are unable to countenance, is to stand up to domestic vested interests which have benefitted disproportionately from national wealth generated by globalisation. That wealth should instead be used to assist the economically marginalised, to better to prepare themselves for competing in the global marketplace.
So how is the Middle East related to Trump's scapegoating of globalisation? Curiously, many Middle Easterners share his view. The Middle East was never an ardently globalising region, in part because of the widely held interpretation of globalisation as neo-colonialism; and in part because incumbent elites have not wanted to reform their closed political economies that generate the rents through which they maintain political control.
So at best the Middle East, other than a few standouts led by Dubai, was a reluctant globaliser, much like Trump promises for America if he is elected.
|The Middle East, in other words, was less well equipped than the US to confront the challenges of globalisation, so has benefitted less from it and suffered yet more from global economic stagnation|
Moreover, once globalisation slowed, thus dragging down rates of economic growth, the relatively de-globalised Middle East was paradoxically among the regions worst affected. The Arab Spring came some three years after globalisation began to slow and can be attributed partly to the economic consequences of that deceleration. The region has not recovered economically since then, nor is it likely to any time soon.
The Middle East, in other words, was less well equipped than the US to confront the challenges of globalisation, so has benefitted less from it and suffered yet more from global economic stagnation. Objectively it has more reason to be anti-globalization than does the US.
|Like many Middle Eastern politicians, such as Egypt's President Sisi, Trump espouses chauvinist nationalism as the cure all to the nation’s ills|
The final and most important point about globalisation and the Middle East is that this region has contributed more to its slowing than any other. Globalisation depends upon a conducive global political environment as it requires an atmosphere of bargaining, give and take among nations. Conflict is the very nemesis of it. The Middle East is once again a battleground between regional and global forces - infested with violent extremists operating in non-governed spaces opened up by state collapse. This is to say nothing of exporting refugees and terrorism to the rest of the world. It has contributed more than its share to the souring of the world's political climate, hence to slowing globalisation.
Trump is, in other words, in the same camp as the Middle East when it comes to globalisation. They both are at best reluctant globalisers, at worst virulent critics of it. Like many Middle Eastern politicians, such as Egypt's President Sisi, Trump espouses chauvinist nationalism as the cure all to the nation's ills.
|For Trump's America and for the Middle East, the real truth is that both would benefit from more, rather than less globalisation|
For Trump's America and for the Middle East, the real truth is that both would benefit from more, rather than less globalisation. So long as political elites craft domestic policies that protect their citizens vulnerable to globalisation while assisting them and others to take advantage of the opportunities it provides, they and their countries can benefit hugely from an increased pace of global economic and other interactions.
But neither Trump nor most Middle Eastern political leaders have the political capacities or will to guide their nations through the inevitable economic turbulence globalisation creates. Both instead prefer to blame the other and to urge their long suffering citizens to do so as well.
Robert Springborg is Visiting Professor in the Department of War Studies, King's College London, and non-resident Research Fellow of the Italian Institute of International Affairs. Until October, 2013, he was Professor of National Security Affairs at the Naval Postgraduate School and Program Manager for the Middle East for the Center for Civil-Military Relations.
From 2002 until 2008 he held the MBI Al Jaber Chair in Middle East Studies at the School of Oriental and African Studies in London, where he also served as Director of the London Middle East Institute. Before taking up that Chair he was Director of the American Research Center in Egypt.
Opinions expressed in this article remain those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of The New Arab, its editorial board or staff.