US first lady Melania Trump walks to her motorcade at Joint Base Andrews, Maryland, wearing a jacket with the phrase "I Really Don’t Care. Do U?" on the back, on June 21 2018. Picture: REUTERS
US first lady Melania Trump walks to her motorcade at Joint Base Andrews, Maryland, wearing a jacket with the phrase "I Really Don’t Care. Do U?" on the back, on June 21 2018. Picture: REUTERS

The US’s first lady, Melania Trump, thought it appropriate to don a jacket with the words "I really don’t care. Do u?" on her way to visiting the children of migrants stranded at the border as a consequence of her husband Donald Trump’s inhumane "zero-tolerance" immigration policy.

That policy has been changed, but the sentiments behind it have not. It constitutes a poignant moment in geopolitical history, not least because quite what the first lady meant by wearing the jacket is unfathomable. Her husband claimed it was an attack on the liberal press, but it is more likely it was some kind of personal retaliation. Whatever the case, it was an act of thoughtless and confused nihilism that amply reflects the political moment.

The president of the US in almost every action is conducting himself in stark contrast to not only his opponents but the grand predecessors of his own party.

Of course, we all do care. We care about the strength of the western alliance that once stood for liberty. We care about the US’s role in underpinning global freedom, free trade and rule-based international interaction. We care about the notion of a broad commitment to humanity and liberty that Reagan passionately supported.

"But for now, particularly today, it is good and fitting that we renew our commitment to each other, to our freedom, and to the alliance that protects it," former US president Ronald Reagan said in 1984 on the 40th anniversary of the Normandy invasion.

Today, the message is a little different; it is "I really don’t care" writ large and prominent. How does one answer the first lady’s message? The answer is more complicated than it might appear.

Of course, we all do care. We care about the strength of the western alliance that once stood for liberty. We care about the US’s role in underpinning global freedom, free trade and rule-based international interaction. We care about the notion of a broad commitment to humanity and liberty that Reagan passionately supported. We care about building alliances and strengthening the institutions dedicated to building a common future.

Yet, Trump treats despots with respect and democrats with disdain. He treats old allies with contempt and free trade with suspicion. He claims to put "America first" but his every action plays into the hands of the world’s emerging superpowers, and he carelessly degrades American soft power.

George W Bush was an unpopular president, mainly for launching military action against Iraq on a flimsy pretext in the world’s most conflict-ridden region. But throughout his presidency, emigration applications to live in the US increased and applications for students to study at US universities rose. They are both now declining.

Trump’s actions have caused, inevitably, reactions ranging from a kind of visceral disdain to a more generalised acknowledgement that in the broad sweep of history the US’s declining position is inevitable, and Trump’s fecklessness is a vivid manifestation of this trajectory.

Economist Rudi Dornbusch made the point that "in economics, things take longer to happen than you think they will and then they happen faster than you thought they could".

The key change happened not this week, or this year, or even this decade. It happened in the late 1990s when the Soviet experiment died. The result was a host of changes that spread over the world like a tidal wave, and for the most part, they were just fabulous for humanity. Global poverty began declining and it now stands at roughly half what it was then, an achievement almost unthinkable at the time. The key inventions of the enlightenment including liberty, free trade, the market mechanism for price determination and the free movement of capital have made the past 30 years some of the most glorious in humanity.

But this change has had a surprising and bewildering dark lining to its silver cloud. The glue that held the western alliance together is coming unstuck and in politics, not only in the US but in Europe too, voters are feeling free to make unpredictable, rash, selfish choices that have all the symptoms of childishness on a global scale. Like a baby in a cot, they cry "what about us?" and "surely we come first?". The call comes, ironically, from some of the richest and most pampered people on the planet.

The rest of the world looks on with troubled bemusement, in the way people gawk at a car crash. The picture is so mesmerising, the developing world is failing to ask itself what the longer-term consequences are and what action should be taken.

In the geopolitical landscape, SA is a small player, but it should not underestimate the moment or its modest role. One thing it could do is be a catalyst to discuss the dramatic changes we are seeing around us among medium-sized developing nations. SA’s participation in the Brics organisation is welcome but incomplete and slightly askew.

When these issues do come to a head, as Dornbusch pointed out, they will arrive fast. Best to take some preparatory action as opposed to simply watching the havoc unfold from the stands.

Correction: June 26 2018

An earlier version of this article referred to George HW Bush as launching military action against Iraq.