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Politics

The dangers of change done Trump's way

A single US leader could transform the superpower and the global order

HIROYUKI KOTAKE, Nikkei Washington bureau chief | North America

WASHINGTON -- Donald Trump says he set out to write his inaugural address late last year with Reagan, Nixon and JFK in mind. He took particular inspiration from Ronald Reagan, no doubt seeing something of himself in the leader who held up a vision of a strong America, both economically and militarily, to a dispirited nation facing a deep recession and the Soviet threat.

Like Reagan, the new U.S. president has promised to restore greatness to a superpower beset by problems inside and out. The rest of the world, like it or not, has to live with the rising tension created by this maverick's inflammatory and inward-looking brand of change.

Trump's economic policy proposals should not be underestimated. The stock market has welcomed the prospect of bold tax cuts, infrastructure spending and deregulation. Investing legend George Soros is said to have lost nearly $1 billion by misreading the turn.

"If [Trump] can keep building that mood of confidence so that private-sector investment goes up," historian Niall Ferguson told the Nikkei Asian Review last month, "then I think there's a chance we get out of the secular stagnation trap and into higher growth." That would likely spell good news for the nearly 200 million people thought to be unemployed worldwide.

But if Trump means what he says about "America First" and rejects globalization, the damage would be profound. Trade and currency wars with China, mass deportation of Mexican immigrants and other extreme scenarios would risk not only slower U.S. growth but also a lastingly smaller global economy.

In today's world, more than 200 million migrants cross national borders every year. Trade in goods comes to nearly $100 billion a day; foreign exchange transactions, more than 50 times that. One may rightly ask whether it is even possible for a nation to wall itself off from such an era of interconnection, or control these flows of people, goods and money. For all his verbal interventions on corporate activity or the dollar, Trump hardly seems qualified to allocate money and resources better than free markets can.

Meanwhile, the new U.S. president's emphasis on national interests over ideals, and unilateralism over internationalism, portends a paradigm shift in U.S. foreign and national security policy. 

Trump says he wants Japan and European allies to pay more for their U.S. military protection. He seems willing to use the "One China" policy as a bargaining chip for winning concessions on trade and currency matters from Beijing. That is the problem with seeing everything through an economic lens, says Thomas Wright of the Brookings Institution.

The U.S. has contributed to global peace and prosperity in the postwar era by renouncing isolationism and serving as a defender of free markets and democracy. But it may take only a single American leader to grossly transform the superpower and the international order it worked to build.

U.S. political scientist Ian Bremmer warns that the world may be heading into the most unstable political environment in the postwar era. Change done Trump's unorthodox way could prove dangerous indeed.

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