With the forced resignation of Boris Johnson and the assassination of Shinzo Abe, the two Group of Seven countries most supportive of the United States and Ukraine have suffered major mishaps. But let us not forget that they are also the two nations that have contributed the most to a century’s worth of disasters for China. The symbolic significance of the two men’s misfortunes is therefore overwhelming. Even though Abe had retired, he was still the leader of the largest faction — the “Abe Faction” — within Japan’s Liberal Democratic Party, and his influence remained extraordinary. After his retirement, he redoubled his efforts to advocate for a revision to Article 9 of the Japanese Constitution (also known as the “Peace Constitution”), thus revealing the militaristic ideology inherited from his war criminal grandfather, Nobusuke Kishi, and fully exposing his concealed anti-centrism during his time in office. His political legacy is that he caused Japan to fall completely in line with U.S. foreign policy.
Johnson has been referred to as “Britain’s Trump.” His middle school teacher once took him to task over his habit of lying, and he was given the sack for fabricating interview answers when he was a journalist, but his fluid prose and his oratorical skills far exceed Donald Trump’s elementary school language abilities. In the end, however, he was driven out of office for his presumptuousness, his lawlessness, his shielding of fellow party members and his failure to address domestic issues.
These two incidents came about so unexpectedly and suddenly that they have become this year’s biggest black swan events.
The loss of a man does not mean major changes to policy, but minor changes will be inevitable. In China, we traditionally like to observe trends, and then see the fate of the nation in light of them. When looking at a situation, we tend to look for sudden events, that is, black swan events, because they are not influenced by people’s subjective will, we do not know why they happen and all that can be said is that fate — or the fate of the nation — is subject to the influence of unseen forces.
If such chance occurrences were random, like lotteries, they would not leave us much room for imagination, nor would they attract our attention, let alone be connected with any trends. However, when such black swan events are concentrated in a certain region or group, they give rise to many associations. This is where we find ourselves at the moment.
In 2016, when Trump was elected president, commentators from around the world called it a black swan event. There is no question that it was a black swan of immense proportions, and that Trump’s emergence completely disrupted the postwar domestic and diplomatic order of the United States. We will not get into that country’s internal affairs, but suffice it to say that last year, having lost the election and refusing to concede defeat, Trump staged a violent coup d’état which, although unsuccessful, reverberates to this day. Recent reports suggest that he may shortly announce his candidacy for the 2024 presidential election, so it is clear that his destructiveness is still very much intact.
On the diplomatic front, as we well know, Trump withdrew the United States from the Trans-Pacific Partnership, the Iran nuclear deal, the Paris climate agreement, the World Health Organization, and others, and he would have withdrawn from NATO had he not been blocked by a powerful establishment. He accused other countries of taking unfair advantage of the United States and then used national security as an excuse to increase tariffs on many countries around the world, whether allies or trading partners, and the multiple trade wars launched against China since March 2018 have been significant contributors to the inflation the United States is currently experiencing. In short, the man’s unorthodox approach has added to the difficulties Joe Biden has faced since taking office.
While the old Chinese saying, “When a nation or family is about to perish, there are sure to be unlucky omens” may be a bit too strong to describe Trump, he was thoroughly bad news for the United States. He applied his habitual bullying tactics from the business world to that of diplomatic relations, causing global discontent and greatly diminishing the goodwill that people internationally generally have toward the United States. Just as the world was wondering how American voters could possibly have elected such an untrustworthy man, COVID-19 — the second black swan — abruptly descended on us. The power of this black swan, coupled with Trump’s inaction, dealt a heavy blow not just to the United States, but to the other six countries in the G-7 as well.
The grim thing about black swan events is that they interact with functioning society, testing that society’s ability to handle them. In the case of COVID-19, its greatest initial victim should have been China. However, for all its flaws, Chinese collectivism was unrivaled in its ability to mobilize the entire population. China contained the virus in the space of two months, making it the least economically devastated major country. But COVID-19 was a targeted attack on the weaknesses of Western liberalism, and we were struck by the fact that there were demonstrations and even violence against the wearing of masks in the United States and in various countries in Europe. Of course, this is a distortion of the concept of freedom, but combined with Trump’s inaction and the dissemination of disinformation, COVID-19 has dealt a heavy blow to the G7 countries.
In 2019, Volodymyr Zelenskyy, a television comedian with no executive experience, like Trump, was elected president of Ukraine. At the time, he could only have been regarded as a black swan of little to no significance, but who would have thought that in 2022 he would become the black swan to turn the tide of the world and possibly be more influential than Trump?
More than four months into the Russian-Ukrainian war, we can clearly see Zelenskyy’s power: not only has he plunged all of Ukraine into misery, but he has also brought suffering to the G-7, the European Union and to NATO countries in Europe. According to the latest data, the G-7 countries are experiencing energy shortages and inflation, prices are rising, economies are in recession, deficits are growing, and the Japanese yen, the pound sterling, and the euro are all depreciating. Germany, Europe’s largest exporter and economy, has posted its first trade deficit in 30 years.
Russia, on the other hand, has made a huge profit, posting a surplus of $53 billion in the first quarter, and China and India have followed suit. Bear in mind that the war between Russia and Ukraine is only halfway through, at best, so there is much room yet for things to evolve.
The fates of Abe and Johnson are highly instructive, as they seem to indicate that the comfort Europe and the United States have enjoyed for centuries may be evolving in a different direction.
The author is a director at Taiwan’s US-China Forum