To advance the goal of viewpoint diversity within the EA movement, I requested that a friend of mine, "Henry", respond to HaydnBelfield's recent post President Trump as a Global Catastrophic Risk. I'm grateful that Henry wrote an extended reply. Henry took a while on his response, and as a result, not many people saw it. So I decided to make it into a top-level post.
I am going to bring a counter-argument from outside the Overton bubble. If I am going to do this, then it’s going to have to be comprehensive counter-narrative, so this is going to be long and full of links.
Judging the totality of Trump vs Clinton’s effect on global catastrophic risk is difficult, but there are several reasons to believe that the election of Trump is good for this category of risk. Trump mitigates several trends that are very bad for geopolitical stability.
First, let’s address Trump’s character.
It’s difficult to judge Trump’s character coming out of one of the most rancorous elections ever, when the entire mainstream media was focused on demonizing him. This was part of Clinton’s campaign strategy.
Scott Adams’ analysis of the election portrays Trump as much more sane. The fact that he kept changing his strategy and eventually won is evidence in favor of his competence and sanity.
A claim from HaydnBelfield's article that I agree with:
I would not place much weight on his statements either for or against nuclear weapon use. We can’t read Trump’s mind. I base my assessment of increased risk on his character, rather than on his policy statements.
I think it’s correct to avoid jumping on the bandwagon of trying to read so much into Trump’s past statements. I think we should also consider that the public picture of Trump’s character in the mainstream media is heavily distorted.
Steve Bannon has been referred to by the media as a white nationalist, because he is a nationalist who is outside the Overton Window. For example, he takes a counterjihad position. His does not identify as a white nationalist:
He absolutely — mockingly — rejects the idea that this is a racial line. "I'm not a white nationalist, I'm a nationalist. I'm an economic nationalist," he tells me. "The globalists gutted the American working class and created a middle class in Asia. The issue now is about Americans looking to not get f—ed over. If we deliver" — by "we" he means the Trump White House — "we'll get 60 percent of the white vote, and 40 percent of the black and Hispanic vote and we'll govern for 50 years. That's what the Democrats missed. They were talking to these people with companies with a $9 billion market cap employing nine people. It's not reality. They lost sight of what the world is about."
“White nationalist” is frequently used as a term of abuse. Unless someone explicitly identifies as a white nationalist, or they explicitly call for a white ethnostate, I think it’s a stretch to call them a white nationalist.
Being an immigration restrictionist and being counterjihad doesn’t necessarily mean being a white nationalist. For instance, you could have someone who believes that all 3rd world immigration should be banned, but Asian immigration is fine. Such a person would not be a white nationalist because they are not trying to create a white ethnostate.
Tabooing charged terms like “white nationalist” would be useful if the goal is to understand his and Trump’s ideology. Lumping in everyone who disagrees with the press as “white nationalists” or “racists” is exactly the attitude that helped cause Trump and Brexit.
Now we can proceed to approaching geopolitics.
Trump and Nuclear Risk
Arguments about Trump’s nuclear risk overly focus on an incredibly biased portrait of his character, and reading into statements he has made in the past.
The character arguments are addressed above. As for his statements in the past, these were made prior to him getting nuclear briefings and access to top military and intelligence personnel. Other world leaders know that he didn’t have access to this perspective on the campaign trail.
Imagining Trump having an itchy trigger finger in some abstract nuclear crisis is the wrong way to approach his risk profile (though it was an excellent argument from Hillary’s campaign).
It's not enough to just consider the conditional probability of p(Trump causes nuclear war | Trump administration faces nuclear war) vs. p(Clinton causes nuclear war | Clinton administration faces nuclear war). You also have to consider p(nuclear war | Trump administration) vs p(nuclear war | Clinton administration). Who is the US most likely to have nuclear war with? Russia. Who is most hostile to Russia? Clinton, by far.
And yet, somehow, many highly intelligent people are convinced that Trump is a nuclear risk, despite him advocating rapprochement with the power that the US is most likely to have a nuclear war with, and despite Clinton taking an extremely hawkish attitude towards Russia and receiving $860 million from defense companies. Meanwhile, in Russia, people are trying to name streets after Trump.
Now, this scenario covers bilateral nuclear crises. What about unilateral nuclear strikes, or “limited” use? The US has enough conventional weapons to defeat non-nuclear foes. And if the other party isn’t nuclear enabled, then there is less pressure on Trump to authorize nuclear strikes and exhibit the itchy trigger finger that some people think he has.
The Missile Shield
There are additional dimensions of US-Russia relations that need to be considered to evaluate Trump. Currently the US and Russia are in a very bad situation for nuclear risk.
The short version is that the US is putting anti-ballistic missile systems in Romania called “Aegis Ashore”, but the Russians are very unhappy about this, and claim that those missile systems could be used to launch cruise missiles from within striking range of Russia, which would violate a treaty. China is unhappy, too. The US claims that their missile deployments are to defend against Iran, but Russia, of course, doesn’t believe these assurances.
Putin’s response is to say “how do we know what missile is in there?” Russia is working on a new generation of weapons to defeat the US missile shields. It’s almost as if we are in the middle of a Cold War arms race.
Clinton would have poured gasoline on this tense situation. Trump is much more likely to de-escalate it.
The Migrant Crisis
The next factor we need to consider to evaluate Trump is actually not even in the US, it’s in Europe. The migrant crisis is an extremely destabilizing factor to Europe.
The best way to evaluate the migrant crisis is to look at what’s happening on the ground. It’s such a disaster that I think even the most diehard utilitarians and open borders advocates have to admit that it has failed.
Europe is a morass of ethnic conflict, terrorism, sexual violence, rising nationalist militias, and jihadism. There is a growing risk that European countries will fall into civil war. Civil war in Europe would be a catastrophic risk that could go global. To justify this claim, I’m going to have to go into detail and paint a picture where we are in a very different world than how it looks inside the media filter bubble.
There are numerous recent statements about civil war and unrest in Europe by European security chiefs and heads of state: France intelligence chief, UK former MI6 chief, Norway security chief, Polish counter-terrorism expert, Hungarian Prime Minister.
Law and order in Europe is breaking down. In Rotherham, UK, 1400 girls were molested by Muslim immigrants, and the city and police tried to cover it up out of racial sensitivities (all documented in mainstream press). On New Year’s Eve 2015, thousands of German women were groped by Muslim immigrants and subjected to taharrush.
And then of course, there have been the recent jihadist attacks. Vanity Fair comments:
The great fear that swept through the Continent focused on the threat from within, from suburbs such as Molenbeek, in Brussels, and St. Denis, just outside Paris’s Périphérique, and urgent questions were asked. How come the jihadists of November 13 were allowed to move so freely across the Schengen area to carry out their atrocities? How had the intelligence agencies failed to spot them? The silence that meets these questions says one thing: Europe cannot protect its citizens, let alone defend its borders.
If you want to see some data, this article has section compiling official government statistics to demonstrate the scale of the crime (it also has a large amount of data on Muslim opinion polls). I highly recommend it for anyone who wants to understand the situation.
In reaction to the crime, some Europeans are forming militia groups, like the Soldiers of Odin in Finland. In Norway, Islamists announced that they would form the Soldiers of Allah in response. Muslim morality patrols have popped up in many European countries, harassing women and gays on the streets (see 60 minutes report).
Migrant jihadists and organized crime have been funneling large shipments of weapons into the EU from the former Yugoslavia. Italian police seized a truck with 800 shotguns en route from Turkey to Belgium. You have to wonder how many other such shipments got through. Such an arms cache would allow Islamic militant groups to launch multi-site attacks even bigger than Paris.
Europe is a powder keg. The evidence of crime and elevated ethnic conflict cannot be explained away, though the mainstream media does try. You can look at footage and see for yourself what Europe has become (content warning: sexual violence). The mainstream media claims that Muslim no-go zones don’t exist, but you can watch the experience of this film crew and judge for yourself whether you would want to go to this zone. These scenes will be a shock to anyone who hasn’t been following the migrant crisis already. But once you put these sights together with the crime stats, the Rotherham / Cologne sexual assaults, and the terrorist attacks, it’s extremely obvious what is going on, and that the mainstream media isn’t accurately representing it.
I suspect that this is not the world that open borders advocates had in mind.
EU governments have failed to address the problems of the migrant crisis. EU elites have a perverse incentive to encourage mass migration, because the immigrants, once granted citizenship, will vote for the leftist parties who give them entry and welfare. Consider this like a sort of “global gerrymandering.” The mainstream media covers up the problems, and university professors concoct elaborate humanitarian rationalizations. The establishment’s callous attitudes to their own populations fuels nationalist, restrictionist groups like UKIP, the National Front, and the alt right. Eastern European countries like Hungary, Poland, Slovakia, and the Czech Republic have built fences.
This situation is getting out of hand and it cannot be swept under the carpet anymore. I understand the humanitarian arguments in favor of accepting refugees, but the current scale and policies are not working. The sensible policy to help refugees would have been to build refugee settlements in Middle-Eastern countries, where refugees could be supported at a fraction of the cost.
There are conceivable scenarios where a civil war breaks out in a European country. Here is just one example:
Mass sexual violence or small-scale jihadist attacks provoke native militia retaliation, resulting in 3-way war between security forces, militia, and jihadists. The jihadists would be armed with AK-47s, grenades, IEDs, and sniper rifles. Emergency services immediately get overwhelmed. See the school siege in Beslan and the 2008 Mumbai attacks for precedent of how dirty it would get.
Jihadists from neighboring European countries stream in and bring trucks of weapons, or start attacks in their own countries and proclaim open jihad across Europe. In this circumstance, nearby countries would be forced to get involved, such as Russia.
Such a scenario could escalate into WWIII, representing a global catastrophic risk. This scenario is speculative, but if you merely make a linear extrapolation of the current crime and sex attacks in Europe, and the current size of jihadist groups and native militias, then at least a local civil war is quite plausible. Even is this scenario is low probability, the expected value is highly negative. And note that the migrants themselves will also suffer in the event of sectarian conflict. What’s the point of “humanitarian” migration if it elevates the possibility of ethnic cleansing in the future? Human tribes have their own histories, religions, and cultures that they are attached to, and you can’t just shift them around the world according to the whims of elites and expect it to work out well.
Now that we are all up to speed on Europe, it’s a lot easier to understand Brexit. What does this European destabilization have to do with Trump?
First, the migrant crisis is a much greater global catastrophic risk than Trump could possibly be. Second, Trump opposes mass migration and increases the chance that nationalist movements will sweep the open-borders, globalist EU governments from power. The original post points out that nationalist powers taking over in Europe would fundamentally change it, which is true. However, the current trajectory of Europe is much worse. It’s better to change those governments now and deal with it, rather than continue on current trends and risk civil wars or religious wars breaking out. Think of European nationalist governments as a safety valve.
Third, Hillary Clinton wanted to greatly increase Syrian refugees and admires Angela Merkel, the architect of Germany’s open door policy. Clinton would have brought the current European situation of ethnic and religious strife to America. The difference is that the US is full of fanatical gun-owners. Mass Muslim immigration to the US would not have ended well. The US dodged a bullet by electing Trump.
Authoritarianism and democracy
If you look at the post-WWII peace and you credit it to democracy and “liberal values”, then you have mistaken correlation for causation.
Historically, it turned out that democracy spread over Europe in the 19th century. In the 20th century, nuclear weapons were developed, enabling MADD. In WWII, the US conquered Europe and covered it with military bases. Worldwide, the US pushes democracy, using its media domination and soft power to install pro-US puppet leaders and acquire client states.
Being a democracy is heavily confounded with being a US client state. The rise of democracies is also confounded by the rise of MADD. These factors make Western democracies look much more stable than they actually are.
What about “kleptocracy”? Again, there are confounds. Non-democratic states are also non-Western states, and have very different cultures. Some cultures are just more nepotistic and have more organized crime than others, and they are going to have corrupt governments regardless of whether they are democratic or not.
If we are going to compare systems of government without context, then I could bring up African democracies. It only makes sense to compare the performance of a system of government within regions.
As a counterfactual, imagine if Britain or France was still a powerful monarchy in the world of MADD. Would a modern Western European monarchy be a mad dog on the world stage? Of course not. It would still been under most of the same incentives as actual Britain and France. Actually, it would probably be a lot saner, because a modern Western European monarchy wouldn’t have any incentive to use mass immigration to pack its electorate in its favor.
With all of these confounds, it’s extremely simplistic to operate under such simplistic associations as “democracy good, authoritarianism bad.” This association is only supported by looking at the post-WWII order and failing to account for US military, nukes, and cultural differences. Statements like “authoritarian countries are dangerous” is absurd propaganda. Is Singapore dangerous? Is Orban’s Hungary dangerous? How about FDR’s dictatorship of America?
Here is a good article to help attain a better understanding of democracies and non-democracies and cut out the propaganda.
If you look over a longer period of time, the rise of democracy encourages ideologically-motivated total war. The French Revolutionary Wars and Napoleonic Wars revived total warfare from its slumber. Total warfare encourages weapons development and full population mobilization. Now we have the 20th century: WWI and WWII, which took total war to a new level. If you only look at the post-WWII world order, you will miss the relationship between democracy, tribal total war, and weapons development, which could be used to portray democracy as a highly risky system of government. This article takes the opposite position from the original post: that it is democracy, not "authoritarianism," that has been driving dangerous weapons development all along.
While the modern establishment claims that democracy is the best thing since sliced bread, and responsible for all the peace and goodness in the world, many of the great thinkers of the past had severe reservations about democracy, and any form of popular government. Henry Maine in Popular Government, 1885:
I state the facts, as matter neither for congratulation nor for lamentation, but simply as materials for opinion. It is manifest that, so far as they go, they do little to support the assumption that popular government has an indefinitely long future before it. Experience rather tends to show that it is characterised by great fragility, and that, since its appearance, all forms of government have become more insecure than they were before.
The convinced partisans of democracy care little for instances which show democratic governments to be unstable. These are merely isolated triumphs of the principle of evil. But the conclusion of the sober student of history will not be of this kind. He will rather note it as a fact, to be considered in the most serious spirit, that since the century during which the Roman Emperors were at the mercy of the Praetorian soldiery, there has been no such insecurity of government as the world has seen since rulers became delegates of the community.
Another quote, attributed to Alexander Fraser Tytler:
A democracy cannot exist as a permanent form of government. It can only exist until the majority discovers it can vote itself largess out of the public treasury. After that, the majority always votes for the candidate promising the most benefits with the result the democracy collapses because of the loose fiscal policy ensuing, always to be followed by a dictatorship, then a monarchy.
And this is the system of government that we should bet the stability of our countries on?
Regardless of whether the readers here find these skeptical theories of democracy persuasive, it should be clear that the virtues of democracy are much more controversial than most New York Times readers believe it to be. Even if I haven’t fully convinced you, you have to admit that currently, most of the people reading this do not have sufficient knowledge to rebut the historical sources I have provided.
If democracy’s benefits are exaggerated, then this error would have serious consequences for catastrophic risk. If the goal is to maximize prestige under the current government, then our policy towards democracy should be to “see no evil,” but if the goal is to actually understand how to run human civilizations in a stable way, we should be more skeptical.
The very election of Trump is evidence that democracy is unstable. If democracy is already overrated and not antifragile, then Trump changing the nature of the US regime doesn’t look so bad, assuming he even succeeds in changing anything. Maybe it’s just what we need. And even if your values disagree with Trump, then you should still be skeptical of democracy, because he was elected.
Trump looks most risky if you think that the status quo was sustainable, but it isn’t. Establishment elites in the West having been waging unnecessary wars abroad, and destroying Western countries by waging economic, cultural, and demographic war against their own middle classes and white working poor in order to reshape the electorate for their needs, while calling anyone who protested a racist or xenophobe. Inside the filter bubble, many intelligent, well-intentioned people—such as EAs—jumped on the bandwagon, believing in the humanitarian and utilitarian rationalizations for these cynical political moves.
Trump is the backlash to this divisive and unsustainable strategy of foreign wars, mass immigration, and domestic culture wars. Clinton would have doubled-down on this policy.
My advice to EAs would be to attain a better understanding of history and geopolitics before flushing money down the drain of partisan politics. Reading the New York Times and the Economist inside the Overton bubble is insufficient due diligence.
The analysis in the original post is based on a Democrat-leaning media, a Democrat-leaning academy, and unsurprisingly comes to the conclusion that EAs should be financially supporting the Democratic Party. Prior to the election, I’ve seen EAs creating a pseudo-quantitative analysis that found that donating to the Clinton campaign had an expected value of $20k per $1 dollar spent, representing the highest impact cause in EA. This is what happens if you accept a political party’s agenda as your priors: you get mugged.
There are many ways a Trump presidency could go wrong, and he definitely isn’t perfect. But despite his flaws, despite his risks, Trump counterbalances some of the biggest global catastrophic risks right now: cold war with Russia, and European civil wars due to the migrant crisis.
The old establishment wasn’t working, and it was never as stable as it was cracked up to be. Continuing those trends would have led to countries falling apart, and even worse leaders than Trump growing out of the ashes. Trump is the kick-in-the-pants for all of us—on every side of the political spectrum—to figure out what’s next.