In 1972 the Israeli psychologist, Amos Tversky, speaking to a group of historians in New York pointed out that “all too often, we find ourselves unable to predict what will happen; yet after the fact we explain what did happen with a great deal of confidence.”
I am sure in ten years’ time historians will look back on the next few years and interpret them with that confidence but at the moment we have to accept that Tversky and his colleague Daniel Kahneman were right that the human mind fools itself, persuades us we understand things that we don’t and as such this flaw in our reasoning “leads us to believe that there is a less uncertain world than there actually is” and thus “the outcome must have been determined in advance and we should have been able to predict it”.
At the moment reeling from the BREXIT result in the UK there is genuine puzzlement about Donald Trump, however there is also a sense in which maybe the World and in particular Europe needs Donald Trump.
The post war World has been dominated by the United States of America yet visibly for the last twenty years it has been a power that is gradually being overtaken not only by China but also by other rising economies such as India, Nigeria, Brazil, Turkey to mention just a few. In threatening or offering, depending on your viewpoint, to reshape international relations Donald Trump is probably facing up to the real challenge of our age. In Europe we have depended since the Second World War on the Americans for our security yet we have never been prepared to pay for it, the United States spends three point three per cent of its GDP on defence expenditure, far ahead of most of Europe, indeed only five European NATO members have reached the two per cent which was the target set at a summit some years ago. In the Baltic region, which is probably the most threatened from Russia, only Estonia reaches two per cent with Latvia and Lithuania, which regularly plead that they want help with defence, spending just one point one per cent each of their GDP on defending themselves. It is little wonder that President Trump feels that those who wish to be defended should at least show some commitment to helping themselves, after all why should the tax payers of say Michigan pay three times as much as the tax payers of Latvia when it is Latvia that is under much more threat than Michigan.
President Trump also looks at Europe and sees many unsolved points of tension, it seems that European countries are very fond of falling out with Russia but not of following through, so if he wants to reset relations this should be welcomed and the most positive resetting he could do is to say to European nations “pay for your own quarrels”.
However, he will face a lot of battles in the United States, one reason defence expenditure is so high is because of the congressional procedure which actually encourages public expenditure. Although we see America as being a great capitalist country in fact the way expenditure is determined in Washington owes more to the pork barrel than anything else, Congressmen scramble with each other to get public spending, and that often means defence spending, into their districts. So new President Trump will certainly face difficulties on his home front but nonetheless many of his foreign policy initiatives are at least worth trying out.
Another point often overlooked is the way in which power is distributed in Washington. If one is to read the European press you would believe that whatever Trump said will happen yet it is worth reflecting as President Obama leaves office that one of his campaign pledges was to shut Guantanamo Bay within his first year of office, as he leaves office it is not only still open but Donald Trump sees a further use for it for incarcerating various terrorists.
What of the rest of the Trump agenda, well in Britain the educated elite are horrified at the prospect of Trump but the fact is that he won a democratic election, middle America feels as dissatisfied as working class Britain did in the BREXIT referendum. If President Trump can get a major public works programme under way he will undoubtedly deliver on his promise to middle America to create jobs, in some ways his plans are not dissimilar to those of Franklin D Roosevelt.
Finally, what of his defeated opponent. Hilary Clinton was not an attractive candidate, she and the Democratic machine elbowed out of the way every other possible challenger apart from Bernie Sanders and he in the end was defeated more by the Democratic Party machine than by the votes on the ground. In Britain the prospect of a Clinton presidency was barely more acceptable than a Trump one, she appealed to certain areas of the Liberal middle class but had little grip on the imaginations of anyone else.
So when in eight years’ time (and it probably will be eight years) we look back on the Trump presidency I am sure that everything he does will be able to be predicted but for the moment it really can’t. Just as Obama promised to close Guantanamo Bay and won a Nobel Peace Prize when he had only been in office a matter of months, there is little to look at from the Obama presidency other than Obama Care which by the time it got onto the Statute Book had been heavily watered down in favour of the private insurance companies, not to mention the every powerful American medical establishment which seems to have as good a lobbying power in Washington as the defence industry. One of President Trumps first acts has been to send to congress a plan to abandon the system.
President Trump will find his policy choices restricted by a Congress and Senate that likes to have its own way and in particular a Senate which will be very fond of tripping up his nominees during the various hearings that are going to take place. What will be interesting to see is the extent to which President Trump can appeal over the heads of the House of Representatives and the Senate in the same way the Roosevelt managed throughout much of his presidency. The first problem he will face with this strategy is that Vice President Mike Pence is not even in the same league as FDR’s first Vice President Sam Rayburn.
"View from the House of Lords" is written by Lord Richard Balfe of Dulwich, the Conservative Party Envoy to the Trades Union and Cooperative Movement, who was appointed to the House of Lords in 2013. He served as a Labour Member of the European Parliament for more than twenty years. Lord Balfe takes a keen interest in New Zealand affairs and has been a regular visitor.