Steve Clemons is Washington Editor-at-Large of The Atlantic. He regularly appears on MSNBC and is a widely known and respected political and economic commentator in the United States. He is Senior Fellow and Founder of the America Strategy Programme and the New America Foundation, and served as as Senior Policy Advisor on Economic and International Affairs to New Mexico Senator Jeff Bingaman and was the first Executive Director of the Nixon Center. Jericho‘s co-editor, John Bartlett, caught up with him at the Institute for New Economic Thinking’s (INET) 2017 conference in Edinburgh.


As a journalist and editor yourself, how do you assess the trajectory of modern journalism? Where do you see the media ending up after four – or eight – years of outlets either being glorified or vilified by the president of the United States?

First of all, Trump is right in saying that he was driving the ratings during the campaign. That’s totally true. Having said that, the things he has been saying about the media are demonstrably wrong and incorrect. The New York Times is not failing, the Washington Post is not failing, The Atlantic, which I represent here, is not failing. Serious journalism is booming because people feel that their democratic institutions and their rights are under threat.

We are seeing big surges across journalistic platforms, be they print, online or podcasts. At the same time, part of the media terrain means we see the rise of things like Breitbart – more narrow-cast, politically-driven media. I hesitate to call it ‘media’, sometimes, because it acts more like a political machine, but they are also part of the terrain.

There was a time in American history, in the late 18th century, when an industry of scandalmongers and pamphleteers would make it their aim to write recklessly about one another. Over time we worked away from that, and we set new norms that corrected the problem. I feel like we are back in that era now, where there’s a lot of scandalmongering going on and falsehoods being cast around. However, traditional, fact-based, objective, critical journalism is proving to be very resilient regardless.

I don’t think this is just a function of Trump, either – it is happening globally. One of my concerns has been the state of journalism everywhere in the world. What I really lament is that Trump’s dismissal and disdain for serious journalism is sending a very dangerous message to Turkey, Egypt and other countries that don’t have as much protection for journalists.

It used to be the case that we would go out of our way to demonstrate, particularly with our diplomacy, the sanctity of high-quality journalism abroad. We can’t make that claim anymore. Journalists are in danger all around the world, in part because of the collapse of trust and leadership on Trump’s behalf, but also because of the attacks that he’s been waging against the media.

steve clemons the atlantic editor
Steve Clemons is a respected political commentator both in the US and internationally. Photo credit: Steve Clemons.

The president’s visceral attacks are always big news in the UK. But it’s also true that things in the US don’t always make sense to those on the outside looking in. Do you see it as the responsibility of the US media to make the country’s politics and culture understood abroad?

It is the role and responsibility of the media to explain all of these issues, and to do so from a 360-degree perspective. On the immigration debate, for instance, I think the US needs a sound, sober and sensible policy. But that’s not really the issue here in my opinion.

We have a significant number of people who have come into the country who are not legally documented. That has created a complexity because they have become part of US society in many cases, they have families and jobs, and the truth is that they represent a part of our workforce that we wouldn’t otherwise have. That’s the dirty secret of the immigration debate: a lot of people on the right in the Republican Party want to pretend that they’ll be able to get rid of those people, which they won’t. They politically animate something that’s about racism, not immigration.

So, I think it’s very important to tell the story of immigration. There are a lot of players in this policy debate that don’t necessarily want something that works. This is because the problem of illegal aliens animates the passions of right-wing nationalist zealots who associate Americanism with being white and privileged. What we are struggling with in the US is a very nasty form of virulent nationalism and racism that is underneath a lot of the policy debates going on.

So, while I agree that we need to have a fully-fledged discussion on all of these issues, we also need not to be duped about what is really going on. We have not been able to fix this problem on either the right or the left because we like screaming about the problem, not fixing it.

Border management is very fixable, and the irony is that Mexico is getting old – people aren’t coming over any more. There is no problem today of people coming across the border into the US, except in small dramatic moments in which people come across in a truck, and they’re usually not from Mexico anyway – they’re from further south and are trying to escape drug wars.

But it’s not the volume. In fact, it has created a real problem for the US that we don’t have the workers in labour-intensive industries, particularly agriculture, that we need. So, what is happening is that some of the developing nations are getting old before they get rich. As they get old, they’re not trying to migrate to places like the US anymore.

While the US remains a big player on the macroeconomic stage, NAFTA is on its last legs and the TPP has been consigned to history. If the US keeps going along its path of introspective, ‘America first’ protectionism, where do you see this leading?

It’s a really serious problem. The US has been the king of the hill in global trade and economic deal making; and now it is kicking down its own hill. It’s totally irrational, and the UK did the same with Brexit in my view.

The broader side of being connected to the rest of the world, whatever that looks like, is that you can make deals. This is where I do agree with Trump. But ripping yourself out of the TPP was a huge gift to China and a huge gift to a lot of the US’ allies in the region. It sent a signal that we are going to matter less in Asia than we did before. That’s just a fact – it can’t be undone.

I’m not a big fan of Vladimir Putin in Russia, but one of his big goals is to drive a wedge between the US and its Western European allies. Well guess what – that’s happening. We are allowing wedges to appear between our interests and those of the UK, Germany and France. That is tragic, and if it’s not reversed in the next presidential administration it’s going to result in a diminishment of America’s power in the world. The US will still have assets around the world, but it’s going to be without purpose and without partners, and I think that that is really sad.

We are seeing the end of an era of US-led initiatives dealing with global problems, at least under Trump. So, if he is re-elected in four years, I think that that game is over. The change will define the rise of China, and the US will have moved into a backseat role.

I think that is tragic. I’m not calling for it, and it’s something I don’t want to see happen, but you just have to look realistically at the way these relationships work. There’s not a leader in the world today that doesn’t doubt Donald Trump’s solvency as a leader and as a partner. Alliances take a long time to build, but they have not taken long to tear down in the way that Trump has managed to do so.

I am not instinctively anti-Trump; indeed most of my relatives supported him. I’m not a North-eastern establishment guy – there are real problems in the Midwest and the South. People who worked hard and had their homes taken away from them in the 2008-09 financial crisis, or they went off to fight in Afghanistan or Iraq and came back to find that their jobs had been shipped off to India, the Philippines or Pakistan.

The notion that the US was playing the role of global security guarantor and that there were benefits to American families on the economic front, ended about 20 years ago with the end of the Cold War. People were starting to feel like America fought the Cold War and China won, and they were losing out.

I think that there was a failure to address those people that were feeling left behind. To this end, Joe Biden said that the Democratic Party had become a party of snobs. I think that explains a lot of the failures of the Democrats vis a vis a billionaire that came along and began to talk the language of those left behind.

Donald Trump is one of the greatest hypocrites in the world. His policies tend to favour the rich, but his language resonates with the poor, the left behind and the angry. That is the problem.

I think it is solvable politically, but by the time we resolve the politics within the Democratic and Republican parties, then the institutions of government – if they haven’t been too damaged and smoothed down by Trump – are not going to solve the global trust problem. It’s not going to shift back right away, so we’re going to see a diminished US no matter what happens.

The United States seems sure to regress internationally under Trump, but let’s consider cooperation across the rest of the world, where we see the EU going through a rough patch. Is the fact that we are doubting in our international unions a symptom of the US being forced to take a step back on the world stage? Is cooperation salvageable?

It’s a great question. One of the great failures of President Obama was that he came in at a time when the world doubted America’s ability to change things, and he wasn’t able to do so either. We’d had the global financial crisis, and the Iraq war before that showed the US’ military limits.

When you show your limits as a superpower, two things happen: your foes move their agendas forward and your allies won’t count on you as much. I think that the changing behaviour of our allies is one of the biggest reasons for the fragility in the global system today, not just the movements of Iran and North Korea, which I think are actually trivial pieces in this.

But I think that when it comes to figuring out how we are going to deal with this next phase of the global order, we need to work out whether it’s going to be restorable, or if institutions have been so knocked around that they’re irreparable. I also think it is going to depend a lot on whether Trump is re-elected or whether he is going to be impeached – which is very tough to do.

What I thought Obama should have done is looked at the developing countries, particularly in the G20, and drafted a new global social contract. He should have rearranged the UN and created new institutions. That would have ceded a lot of US power, but we would have got credit as having been the drafter of a new deal.

We would have moved away from P5 dominance (the UN Security Council’s five permanent members: China, France, Russia, the United Kingdom and the United States) to include India, Brazil and maybe even Iran. Ultimately, you need your big developing world populations to commit to a social contract of order, stability, markets and some element of liberal ethics – even if it’s fake.

That was doable if we were willing to walk away from the old order and the old institutions. Obama tried to do that in the area of nuclear non-proliferation, but it wasn’t enough, and frankly your publics don’t care about that – or they didn’t then.  It was one of the big mistakes of the Obama team, as it would have had some cushioning effect on what we are seeing now, which is a hard shock in the fall of US power. Many institutions are trying to work out whether they are going to survive it or not.

If these global contracts come undone, it potentially uncovers all of those challenges that were there before that they were covering up. You’re going to have new kinds of conflicts arise, countries like Russia, which are expansionist in their interests, love to divide. You end up in a very messy situation. The world has gone from predictability to everything being ad hoc, where the challenge is different every year.

I think it’s going to be complicated, and I wish I had a better solution. The incentives aren’t there to hold countries together if institutions continue to collapse with nothing to replace them.

It’s interesting that you say all of this in the past tense. Were the two terms of the Obama administration the last chance to achieve this restructuring?

I don’t know, but it’s certainly not going to happen under Trump. By the time someone comes in after him, I think America may look pathetic to a lot of players in the world, so why would you pay attention to a US-led deal at that time?

Can another country step in? Yeah, they can. I just don’t see it being any of the traditional world powers – and certainly not Russia or any of the developing countries – and I can’t see a league of countries coming together because there is such a cacophony of interests. So, I’m not sure, but I kind of doubt it! Who else can do it? Can Emmanuel Macron? Angela Merkel? Theresa May? Sure, go ahead and try.

But the one I do see positioned to do this is Xi Jinping. I was at Davos in 2017 when he turned up and said, “Don’t worry, world, I’m going to keep us together on climate change and protect the liberal market order.” So, it’s China of all countries – this illiberal country – that is positioning itself to be the inheritor of what had traditionally been American leadership on issues like climate change. It seems like China is the only one that can do it, and that’s what Xi Jinping did in Davos this past year which was so shocking.

China is not a promulgator of human rights, nor is it a nation to aspire to look like, but it may nonetheless inherit the responsibility for some of these public goods. It’s not a democratic nation, and that is the real travesty here. Leadership by the great democracies is being questioned today, so we see the rise of illiberal systems orienting themselves as the guarantors and deliverers of these big challenges, and the US role is minimal.

I don’t think we can make this reshuffle now. We have to go through a phase of chaos, and then out of chaos maybe we will get something different, but I think it’s going to be hard. But if Trump’s pugnacious nationalism crowd get soundly beaten and he gets wiped out of these offices in 2018 or 2020, that would send a signal to the rest of the world that America could bounce back. But honestly, I don’t see that happening.

Steve Clemons was talking to John Bartlett at the INET 2017 conference in Edinburgh.


Please enter your comment!
Please enter your name here