Hang out in any Silicon Valley café and the word “disruption” is sure to be uttered at a nearby table. It is the keyword to unlock funding for forward-leaning ideas and the approach toward cutting out the middle man in transactions, leaving behind the inefficiencies in mediation, and burying the slow-to-change and inertia-bound in industry. Disruption is everything and everyone wants a piece of it. Including the American people.
Disruption has hit every industry, from car transportation services to hotel lodging. 2016 brought it to foreign policy when a tried, tested and predictable former secretary of state was turned down for her star turn at the U.S. presidency in favor of a bull in the china shop disruptive agent of anti-globalist chaos and firm believer in realism’s international anarchy.
As in every case of disruptive change, there are decided winners (Uber, Airbnb) and clear losers (taxis, hotels) and a lot of people out of work and scratching their heads because they didn’t see what just hit them. A lot of the political foreign policy establishment is still scratching their heads wondering what is going on and at what cost. It is a reckoning that is difficult to make because the change is so profound, ongoing and extremely risky. But to deny that it is taking place is as short-sighted and self-serving as print newspapers that believed in and relied upon the unalterable truth of a business model that delivered 30 percent profit margins mainly from display and classified advertising. Until Craigslist ate their lunch.
Global change was occurring during the last few administrations — not so much from a U.S. policy perspective, but in the relative power of states. China was becoming richer and richer, Russia more stealthily assertive, Syria more bloody, Iran more confident. The changes were occurring in an environment where America’s allies were being instructed to follow a predictable U.S-led foreign policy and military alliance that privileged open trade, provided an American security umbrella, and pushed for human rights in a dynamic world that was becoming increasingly illiberal, nationalistic and closed.
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Enter the shamelessly, unbridled and unpredictable New York self-promoter and media-savvy master of the insult and branded outrage, crafting and managing his cliffhanging control of the grand disruptive message. Made for TV, certainly, but also suited to the times. The message reflected selective portions of perceived truths about unsolved immigration challenges, unfair trade practices, and unanswered economic questions. The political establishment had punted on many of these issues for years, finding only incremental solutions in a highly charged partisan system that slowed progress and stopped action.
The system itself, responding both to the regular two-year election cycle and increasingly hyperventilating social media noise, appeared more gummed-up and broken than ever. For every touted success — such as Obamacare — there was a seemingly equal failure — the health care website debacle. A public wracked with economic insecurity and fearful of employment prospects was both less attentive to nuanced understanding and open to amplified voices of dissent and cynicism. The 2016 presidential race delivered the loudest and most unrestrained voice of disruption and biggest personage of persuasion. “I am your voice,” said he. That voice is now shouting even louder at the world.
If domestic politics seemed moribund, predictable, and unmoving — serving only the privileged and promoting the pusillanimous — then international forums were seen as distanced and aloof fraternities of the frothy elite. Images of Davos Man and Geneva-based summits dominated the consciousness of the disadvantaged and distraught back home. The language of the global elite was subtle, slow-moving, and, ultimately, prevaricating and compromising. It was rarely, if ever, directly confrontational. It never named the problem or blamed the responsible party. It was always performed in an obsequious manner of accommodation. To casual and citizen observers, it all seemed like a kind of exercise called out as “appeasement” by the impatient and impractical. It was seen as a globalist approach fed by arcane practice and disinterested professionals and it was ripe for disruption by a newly empowered and social media-informed democratic populace vulnerable to simplified narratives and armed with the aggressive means to blow-up the international status quo.
2018 is the result. A new and newly styled American president who no longer conforms to established international norms, threatens the deployment of the world’s deadliest weaponry, demands the rebalancing of trade, and asks only for personal adulation and a few crumbs of the potential profits for himself, his family and his friends. Is it any different than any other disruptive system that is brought online, funded, and fully-functioning as the disruptive driver it was promised and intended to be? He just wants to move fast, break things, and make a little money in the process.
Iran, South Korea, China, Israel, Saudi Arabia, NATO … the list goes on of those nations and institutions that are in the throes of new trade, military, alliance, and economic relationships with the United States. The clear winners of this disruption are still being determined. The losers may only find out after the fact. Regardless of how one thinks about Donald J. Trump politically or personally, he has disrupted the world.