If it weren’t quite so serious it would be funny. A man who styles himself as a champion of the common people, who he claims have been shamefully neglected by out-of-touch, uncaring elites, plans to stuff his cabinet with billionaires.
The nomination of Rex Tillerson, chief executive of ExxonMobil, as America’s next secretary of state is the culmination of an alarming pattern that threatens to overturn the postwar international order and entrench an unelected oligarchy with no record of – or obvious interest in – public service.
Even those of us who feared the worst from a Trump presidency have been astounded by a series of changes that for once merit the adjective seismic. At least Tillerson, whose name is only familiar to those who read the business section of the papers, is not a former general. Trump’s first cabinet will look slightly less like a military junta as a consequence.
Tillerson has no experience of international diplomacy of the conventional sort. This is not to say he’s not well-connected, though. Among his friends and business associates is none other than Vladimir Putin. Given the CIA thinks Russian skullduggery tried to influence the recent US election, one might think this would immediately disqualify Tillerson for this office – or any other government position for that matter.
Perhaps it will. Even some prominent Republicans like John McCain and Marco Rubio have cast doubts on his qualifications and credibility, so it’s possible Tillerson won’t get through what is likely to be a bruising confirmation hearing.
But, then again, he just might. No-one thought Donald Trump would become president, after all, so why should we be surprised if another “decisive dealmaker with unparalleled business experience” becomes America’s foreign minister? Trump has done his bit by dismissing criticism of Russia and suggesting the CIA is partisan and incompetent.
Without wanting to sound too alarmist and conspiratorial – although what passes for political reality these days needs little embellishment in that regard – are we about to see a remarkable coming together of transnational business interests?
This may not be as fanciful as it might seem. Tillerson already has a well-established and mutually beneficial business relationship with the Russian government. His putative boss has extensive global business interests, which he is likely to “leverage” via the presidency.
Call me old-fashioned, but this is starting to look a bit like the emergence of what the Marxists used to call a global ruling class.
The great irony of the Trump presidency may be to unambiguously confirm what some of us have long suspected: that global elites have far more in common with each other than they do with the people of the countries they come from and sometimes claim to represent. It is striking that Xi Jinping is off to Davos to hobnob with the global plutocracy for the first time next year, for example.
This is not so surprising. The billionaires who make up China’s rising capitalist class also have more in common with their counterparts in the West – their membership of the Communist Party notwithstanding. The sort of “transactional approach” to international politics that team Trump seems to be intent on developing might suit China’s authoritarian oligarchs just as well as it does Russia’s.
This might give ideas about the pacifying impact of economic interdependence a real shot in the arm, but not in the way we imagined. Why would global elites want to go to war when they can come to some sort of mutually agreeable – and enriching – deal?
The other great potential advantage of the Trump presidency from the perspective of global business elites is that a little authoritarian transnational co-operation might be able to put a stop to all this endless bleating about human rights and democracy. Surely Trump can make a deal with the Chinese over the status of Taiwan and Hong Kong, too, for that matter?
Fanciful and absurd, right? I certainly hope so.
And yet when democracy is in retreat or under intense pressure around the world, and when the incoming US government shows little interest in providing leadership, much less a plausible role model for the rest of the world, even the improbable needs to be considered.
The absence of democracy is no impediment to economic development and wealth creation, as China so vividly demonstrates. Dealing effectively with unpleasant autocrats with no respect for human rights may not be so difficult with practical types like Trump and Tillerson in charge.
After all, if you can’t beat them …
Authors: Mark Beeson, Professor of International Politics, University of Western Australia