Trump won – to the surprise of many people. Why did the public’s prediction go wrong? It went wrong because many people are still using the logic of the “unconventional age” to think about the changes in the “conventional age.” In a book that the [author] wrote 11 years ago, titled “Moving into the Conventional Age,” [he] predicted that an age of internalization and disappearance of hegemony will soon arrive. In this age, hegemony will be a memory and the world will soon return to the history of many different forms of government.
Hegemony Only Exists as an Unconventional Phenomenon
Throughout human history, the existence of global hegemony has been an unconventional but temporary phenomenon. The advantage that the Western world has over other regions has only become a reality over the last 200 years. Before the 19th century, the world was still dominated by the historical co-existence of East Asia, Middle East, and Europe; and none of the three was viewed as the mainstream culture. Such a state was the norm that society lived by for thousands of years. Different from the second half of the 20th century, with states promoting their own ideologies, the “Conventional Age” has three distinctive characteristics:
The first characteristic is the internalization of political decisions. Many countries adopt pragmatism and empiricism as their political philosophy, thus putting internal affairs and national benefits before everything else, and viewing ideologies and diplomacy as “ornaments” that occasionally affect the decisions of governments.
The second one is the idea of autonomy. Many countries will not be easily constrained by some abstract idea of “mutual benefit”; but instead, they would employ political strategies that tailor toward the needs of their nations and exert their individual concerns during diplomatic interactions.
Third is the desire for regionalization. Because of historical, cultural, and geographical reasons, countries are more used to interacting with those closer to themselves. The interests of nations will have to be reached with those geographically closer; as a result, human politics are dependent on regional politics.
After the financial crisis of 2008, the world has been accelerating its transition to the “Conventional Age.” Today, huge changes have taken place in global economics and the political atmosphere. Even the Western world’s traditional system is losing its grounds to generate wealth and to effectively self-correct errors, leading to the downfall of their hegemony. As the so-called “Third-World” countries continue to develop, the divide of global power is also changing, shifting from the hands of the West to those of the non-West. This brings two enormous effects: The first one is that the Western world formed by America, Europe, and Japan will no longer have its dominant role in global politics and economics; the second one is that people are beginning to speculate that the body of knowledge and institutions that Western countries use to solve political, economic, and social problems (such as democracy, multi-party systems, social welfare, etc.) are showing signs of futility and deterioration. This knowledge and the institutions are no longer applicable to the common public, and using Western culture, values, systems, and morals to light the future has come to an end as well.
‘Trump Phenomenon’ Represents the Return of the Conventional Age
The appearance of the “Trump Phenomenon” and his black swan-like victory amid the media’s harsh criticism symbolize the arrival of the conventional age. Different from Clinton’s continuation of active engagement in foreign affairs and “value-oriented diplomacy,” Trump’s focus is within the United States. He publicizes his plan of internal development, reduction of America’s involvement in foreign affairs, staying away from “value-oriented diplomacy,” and not fighting with China or Russia.
I only care about America, why does the world matter to me – the message that Trump delivered in his campaign makes people think about the America before the arrival of the 20th century, and reveals the weariness and helplessness of the once-superpower state. One can feel that Trump thinks with the premise that America is just an ordinary country rather than the superpower, whereas Clinton holds the lingering view from the unconventional age that America is the sole superpower. Now that a Trump victory has become the reality, it in many ways shows that half of Americans have mentally accepted that the world has returned to the “Conventional Age” and America has returned to the state it has been in for most of the time throughout history. If Trump fulfills his promises during the election, this would mean a huge turnaround for America and its relations with the rest of the world.
If America participates in international politics as a regular country and not as the leader, will this still be the America we know? In the second half of the 20th century, many people have already been used to America as the global leader in the international system and accepted that as obvious. When Trump decides to make America say bye to the world, we will need to adjust our mentality, accept that the world has returned to its conventional age and that America will forfeit its leadership role in many areas. We need to think about how to develop a new international order in a “post-hegemony” world.
After the ‘Exit’ of America, What Will Happen to the World?
The “exit” of America will be both good news and bad news for global politics. The good news is that the America that intervenes in everything around the world will no longer exist; the bad news is, if America gives up its leadership role, the world will have one less provider of public goods. A dominating America is the world’s trouble; an America without global responsibilities will be the world’s loss. In a world with growing international issues and conflicts of interests, the loss of a public good provider could make international politics even more disorderly.
In a foreseeable future, Trump’s America will no longer represent the hope of humanity, and the order formed after World War II will also fall into disarray. In many areas such as the global economy, society, and culture, the world has changed from 70 years ago, and it is natural that many cannot yet adopt such a new reality. Nevertheless, the fall of the old order does not necessarily mean that a new order will come in smoothly. Countries around the world are making political adjustments according to the changes in America, thus bringing new instability into international politics.
How to restore order amid disarray will be the biggest challenge in the arrival of the conventional age today. Whether we could safely endure the dangers following the crash of the old system depends on how well people can adjust their outlooks on the world, refresh their body of knowledge, and make changes to the framework of the system. This will be a very difficult thing to do. As the British economist Keynes, who attended the Paris Peace Conference in 1919 and witnessed the wrongful decision of the politicians of powerful nations, states, “Our social customs and tendencies will never be ahead of changes in material.”* In truth, many problems rose as a result of “the failure of non-material thought”; to solve these problems, “other than thinking a bit more clearly, nothing else is necessary.”*
The author is a professor of international relations and public affairs at Shanghai University and a member of Pangoal Institution.
*Editor’s notes: These quotes, accurately translated, could not be verified.