4 Years Later: President Trump and Global Catastrophic Risk

by HaydnBelfield9 min read25th Oct 20209 comments

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Nuclear WeaponsClimate ChangeAI GovernanceGlobal GovernanceCoronavirusExistential RiskBiosecurity
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Four years ago on 18 November 2016 I posted a piece called President Trump as a Global Catastrophic Risk in which I argued:

“Because of his character, his stated policies, and uncertainty about what he will do as President, Trump likely increases the risk of a global catastrophe. He likely increases two general risks, or drivers of risk: increased international tension and a rise of authoritarianism. He also likely increases four specific risks: climate change, nuclear war, pandemics and risks from emerging technologies.”

Four long years later, in this post I review some of the claims in that piece. Unfortunately, I find that many of these concerns have indeed been borne out. A global catastrophe is typically thought of as an event with hundreds of millions of deaths, possibly 10% of the global population. That has not come to pass, but the risk of that has increased. The risk that has been highlighted most visibly is of course a pandemic, but I am as concerned about the backwards progress on nuclear weapons and climate change.

Trump has increased global catastrophic risk over the last four years. But he could increase it even further in a second term. He would continue to increase international tensions, encourage authoritarians, block action on climate change, allow the last major nuclear agreement with Russia to end, mishandle the risks from emerging technologies, and poorly manage another - possibly even worse - pandemic.

Causes

I suggested that the risk increases were driven by Trump’s character, policies, and the uncertainty about his actions.

“Donald Trump seems to have a worrying character. He seems temperamental, volatile and unpredictable. He also seems thin-skinned and to have a big ego. He seems to have a short attention span and little willingness to pay attention. He has clear authoritarian tendencies. He has a past of somewhat shady business dealings and political donations - he is currently on trial for fraud. He has also been accused of sexual assault and of racial discrimination.”

The worries about his character have been proven true. As many have said, the Presidency ‘doesn’t change your character, it reveals it’.

Carlos Lozada’s recently reviewed 150 non-fiction books on the Trump administration, which he calls ‘chaos chronicles’, including: Fire and Fury, Fear, Rage, A Very Stable Genius, Holding the Line, Team of Vipers, Audience of One, Devil’s Bargain, A Warning, A Higher Loyalty: Truth, Lies, and Leadership, Disloyal, American Carnage, The Toddler in Chief, Trumpocalypse, True Crimes and Misdemeanors, The Fifth Risk, and Unmaking the Presidency. His conclusion was that: “It seems clear that many of the president’s senior advisers, especially those in the national security realm, are extremely concerned with his erratic nature, his relative ignorance, his inability to learn, as well as what they consider his dangerous views.”

Trump’s stated policies have made the global catastrophic risk situation worse, as I will discuss below. 

We faced some uncertainty in 2016. Almost uniquely in US history, someone with no political or military experience had become President. It was unclear what would happen - I noted that “it could be that the real risk of Trump is low. We will find out more over the course of the next few years.” We have now found out.

We face new uncertainties over the next four years. Trump has been even less clear than in 2016 as to his policy platform - what he would do on domestic and foreign policy. Trump’s character flaws will likely worsen. He is now 74, and there are legitimate concerns about his health (especially following his infection with COVID-19) and general capability. The Presidency is a tiring, exhausting job (even if 60% of Trump’s day is ‘executive time’): years of pressure and deadlines, isolated from the real world. In his second term he would be freed from the incentives to try and be reelected, and vindicated by a 2020 election he was expected to lose, one would expect Trump to lean into his prejudices and intuitions even more. 

Overall then, Trump’s character and policies (and uncertainty about those) are the key drivers of increasing global catastrophic risk, and these would likely worsen in a second term.

General risks

Increased instability

Trump’s protectionism, isolationism and indifference to authoritarianism has undermined the three pillars of the postwar liberal global order: trade, security alliances and liberal democratic values. The result has been increased international instability, increased international tensions, and decreased international cooperation.

For example, on trade, Trump pulled out of the Trans-Pacific Partnership, replaced NAFTA with the United States-Mexico-Canada Agreement (USMCA) and raised tensions with the EU. Most importantly, he started a trade war with China, which has had the predicted effects on bilateral tensions.

However, things could get worse over another four years. Trump has not pulled out of NATO or withdrawn from other security alliances, but could carry through on his threats in a second term. As discussed in the nuclear section below, a renewed arms race is possible.

The counterargument  I considered in 2016 was that Trump: “is a dealmaker, and when he is President there will be lower international tensions with other countries, especially Russia and China.” However I did and do not find this counter-argument persuasive. International tensions have not decreased, especially with Russia and China. He has broken more deals than he has made.

Authoritarianism

Authoritarians in democratic countries have been emboldened by Trump.

Over the last four years we have seen the continued rise of the authoritarian far-right across Europe. In the 2017 French Presidential elections, Le Pen received 34% of the vote. In the 2017 German federal election the AfD became the third-largest party. In Spain’s November 2019 election, Vox received 15% of the vote. However it can be seen most clearly in the rise of Salvini in Italy - following the 2018 general election, in which he led the largest party, he spent a year as Deputy Prime Minister.

This pattern is also borne out on the EU’s borders. In Turkey, Erdogan continued oppression of the opposition has worsened. In Israel, Netanyahu clings to power despite three inconclusive elections (2019-2020) and an ongoing corruption case. However, current protests in Belarus are encouraging.

Modi was reelected in the 2019 election in the world’s largest democracy, India. He has proven willing to break down institutional safeguards and disregard the rights of minorities and the opposition.

How much this can be attributed directly to Trump is unclear. The general rise of right-wing populism has many causes from social media to income inequality. However, Trump had a clear ‘demonstration effect’ - that his election was possible. Unlike previous Presidents who might have at least criticised these authoritarians, Trump has been silent or encouraging. Moreover, people associated with the Trump campaign - most notably Steve Bannon - have collaborated closely with European authoritarians.

In 2016, I noted that “authoritarians in authoritarian countries – especially China and Russia – are reportedly celebrating his win.” Over the last four years authoritarians have become more repressive, most notably in Hong-Kong and Xinjiang. Overall, Freedom House found that 2019 was the 14th consecutive year of decline in global freedom. In both democratic and authoritarian countries, things could get worse over another four years.

On the situation in the US itself, I said:

There is some small risk that Trump takes the US down an authoritarian, anti-democratic route. He seems to have little regard for constitutional restraints. In office, signs of him actually trying to subvert democracy could be attempting to extend his term limits, or undermine free and fair elections. However I doubt whether Trump would even want to set some sort of dictatorship. If he were to try, he would likely face strong opposition from Republicans, the states and the courts. 

I continue to believe that a military dictatorship, coup or Trump outlasting his term limits is unlikely. There have been a number of books published on this subject over recent years: How Democracy Ends, How Democracies Die, The People vs. Democracy and On Tyranny to name but a few.

However, I understated how antidemocratic the system could be without it becoming a dictatorship. In particular, I underestimated how committed to minority rule and voter suppression many Republican politicians at all levels are.

This has become increasingly clear following Justice Ginsburg’s death. Trump recently stated that “I think it's very important that we have nine justices because I think [the election] will end up in the Supreme Court". This raises the real possibility of a minority-rule Senate appointing a minority-rule Supreme Court that will hand the election to someone who again lost the popular vote - and perhaps the electoral college.

Specific risks

Climate Change

Trump has increased global catastrophic risk from climate change. He followed through on his campaign promises on climate - withdrawing from the Paris Agreement and replacing the Clean Power Plan with the much weaker “Affordable Clean Energy (ACE) rule”.

The US’ withdrawal has slowed momentum, but not collapsed the Agreement. Indeed we may be able to make up for this temporary break. Optimism on this subject can be drawn from continued technological improvements such as the drastic reductions in solar and battery prices, the vocal support for climate action across the West, and political commitments, especially by the EU. Nevertheless, momentum has dramatically slowed at a crucial time.

However, things could get worse over another four years. The Agreement is likely to continue, with the first ‘global stocktake’ of collective progress on emissions due in 2023. But sustaining progress without the world’s leading power will be hard. Moreover, four more years of domestic inaction on climate from the biggest per-capita emitter would limit global efforts.

Nuclear war

Trump has increased global catastrophic risk from nuclear weapons. This can be split into the risk of use, failure to reduce stockpiles, and proliferation.

The sole good news is that there has not been any use of nuclear weapons. We have not faced a “Cuban Missile-style crisis with Russia”, and there has not been any “limited” (or tactical/battlefield) use of nuclear weapons. We should not be complacent as the history of nuclear weapons is littered with close calls and crises.

However, I would argue we are in the worst nuclear situation since at least the end of the Cold War. Trump has withdrawn from almost all the nuclear treaties: the Iran Deal, the INT (Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty), and the Open Skies Treaty. Trump officials have discussed resuming nuclear testing, which would break the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty (signed but not ratified by the US). The New Start Treaty is the only significant arms control treaty left, and that expires automatically in 2021 if it is not extended. Trump has suggested he will not extend it.

The second risk is that “Trump could fail to continue the path of previous Presidents in reducing stockpiles”. Trump has become the first President since Nixon not to cut the number of nuclear warheads the US possesses. This is itself a catastrophic failure. But it could get worse; there is a real possibility of a new arms race with Russia and an increase in the size of the arsenal. Functionally the ‘modernisation’ of the nuclear arsenal has made those weapons more destructive. Furthermore, new technology such as the use of machine learning in early warning systems is potentially destabilising nuclear deterrence.

The third risk is nuclear proliferation. Despite very visible talks, North Korea has not slowed its nuclear program at all. Trump’s withdrawal from the Iran Deal has led to the resumption of uranium enrichment. Given a further four years, both countries could progress much further - which could spark proliferation across their respective regions.

We should not expect this to go ‘back to normal’ if Trump leaves. In a number of conversations I have had with nuclear arms control experts, they have said there is no going back to normal. Trump has shown that progress can be undone and that the US can break its commitments. In the view of some I spoke to, trust is now permanently broken, and countries will adopt a policy of ‘hedging’ from now on.

Pandemics

Trump has increased global catastrophic risk from pandemics. 

The update on this particular risk will be unfortunately familiar for many. I will quote the 2016 post in detail:

“First there is likely to be less international cooperation. Monitoring and preparing for pandemics relies on extensive international coordination and trust. Trump seems less willing than other Presidents to participate meaningfully in cooperative systems like the World Health Organisation. Additionally, the US is likely to give less international aid. This would mean less help to build up developing world health systems and developing world disease monitoring systems.

Second Trump is seemingly inconsistent, volatile, and does not respect scientific conclusions. He reacted poorly to the Ebola outbreak – exaggerating fears and proposing populist solutions. He seems to not respect science, as is also shown by his climate change position. He might, for example, react to reports of an emerging disease in ways that raised the risk of global catastrophe, for example by mandating that most vaccines produced for the disease be kept in the US, rather than used to prevent the early spread.”

Much of this came to pass: Trump has contributed to less international cooperation on pandemics, and he has reacted poorly to the COVID-19 pandemic. 

As part of a general withdrawal from developing world health systems and developing world disease monitoring systems, Trump withdrew CDC officials from a Wuhan lab, which could have provided a crucial early warning. He ignored the pandemic plan prepared by the Obama Administration, and did not write one of his own. Trump did not prevent the early spread of COVID-19 within the US, holding off on lockdown thus allowing it to spread unchecked for those crucial weeks and months. Trump withdrew from the World Health Organisation, and has refused to join the international effort to develop and distribute vaccines.

The risk of man-made pandemics has not been made significantly worse by the Trump administration. While I was worried that Trump was “less hesitant to use or develop biological weapons”, the law and norms around the use or development of biological weapons in the US seem to remain strong. However, the situation remains completely inadequate: the Biological Weapons Convention has a staff of four and a smaller budget than an average McDonalds restaurant. The norms against chemical weapons have been weakened, with the Russian Novichok attacks in the UK in 2018 and on Russia’s leading opposition politician in 2020. 

However, things could get worse over another four years. Though it might seem provocative, and I do not want to minimise the real hurt and loss COVID-19 has caused, as a disease it is far from the worst pandemic we could face. Future natural pandemics could be worse on several dimensions: even more transmissible, even deadlier, even less amenable to medical countermeasures and vaccine development, and with an even longer incubation period. And that is just natural pandemics - deliberately engineered pandemics could be even worse. This will not be the last pandemic we face.

Emerging technologies

Trump has increased global catastrophic risk from emerging technology.

I argued that:

“responsible innovation is likely to require extensive cooperation and goodwill between researchers, companies and countries. If cooperation decreases and tension (and the risk of arms races) increases then we will manage the emergence of these technologies worse”

I would suggest Trump has particularly failed to manage the increasing capabilities of artificial intelligence (AI) properly. There are no significant international arms control or proliferation agreements for AI in defence contexts, either offensive cyber operations or lethal autonomous weapons (LAWS). The US has nothing like the EU’s proposal for mandatory safety checks by independent testing centres for AI systems used in high-risk application areas like transport and health. Alongside the general increase in tensions with China, there has been specific focus on technology. This poorly named ‘tech cold war’ has made cooperation with Chinese researchers and companies harder.

The proliferation and democratisation of new biotechnologies has continued towards a situation where small groups are able to create engineered pandemics. The Obama-era moratorium on ‘gain-of-function’ research was lifted under Trump.

However, things could get worse over another four years. As capabilities increase in both AI and biotechnology, we need cooperation between researchers, companies and governments - both in the US (which leads on R&D) and internationally. Trump is likely to continue not to provide that leadership.

Conclusion

In 2016, I wrote:

“I think it is more likely than not that he will last four years.”

“I think it is more likely than not that he will be the Republican nominee in 2020.”

There were four ways out before the 2020 election: death, impeachment, his not standing again, or the nomination of another candidate. Trump has not died, he stood again, and is the Republican nominee. He was impeached, but Republican Senators acquitted him. Those ways out did not happen.

Trump has increased global catastrophic risk over the last four years, and could increase it even further if he was allowed a second term.

Haydn Belfield is a Research Associate at the University of Cambridge's Centre for the Study of Existential Risk. He is writing in a personal capacity, and his views do not necessarily reflect his employer's.

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9 comments, sorted by Highlighting new comments since Today at 2:37 PM
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I like that you went back and reviewed your predictions. However, this piece could have been better if you had also reviewed the ways in which Trump has been better than you expected. 

For example, under 'Authoritarianism' you list the election of some authoritarian and anti-globalist leaders. But equally there are positive cases - in France Macron, a highly globalist and neoliberal candidate, won the election. Similarly in the UK, the relatively authoritarian May was replaced with the much more libertarian Johnson. This is a far cry from your worries about France exiting the EU and breaking up NATO:

Le Pen wants France to leave the EU, the euro and NATO. Were that to happen I doubt whether the euro or EU would survive in anything like its current form, and NATO would be put further at risk.

Similarly, you listed worries about social progress:

Third, social progress is important. One of the reasons to prevent global catastrophes, aside from saving lives, is to ensure that the future is better than the past. Under the liberal global order the world has had unusually positive scientific, technological, and social progress since WWII. Improvements include the spread of democracy; the rise of tolerance for religious, ideological, and philosophical diversity; the civil rights movement; the rise of women’s equality and feminism; the increase in per capita incomes; and the lowest levels of per capita violence in human history. We should want these trends to continue. We should want the world to move in an anti-authoritarian direction not just because it is safer, but because that is a better future.

Many of these things have improved under Trump. For example, a Trump-appointed Supreme Court Justice wrote a decision extending anti-discrimination rights to transsexuals. The US murder rate fell from 5.4 under Obama in 2016 to 5.0 in 2019 (source). The Trump administration is (trying to) promote religious freedom. Per capita income has risen (at least pre-covid).

You spend a lot of time text worrying that Trump might use nuclear weapons:

There are three risks associated with nuclear weapons.

First is simply that Trump uses nuclear weapons – either in a Cuban Missile Crisis situation or in a ‘limited’ way.

...

But he has not done so. In fact, he has generally been quite pacifistic: the Wikipedia list of US Wars does not list a single one starting during his administration, unlike most (all?) previous presidents.

Despite this and your worries about the decline of Pax Americana, in some ways the situation seems better than before. For example, Russia invaded Ukraine during the Obama Administration, despite a US commitment to protect Ukraine. Under Trump I do not think Russia has invaded anywhere.

Similarly, you worried that he might cause other countries might try to get nukes:

Trump has made statements that have been interpreted as encouraging Saudi Arabia to do so. ... Trump has made statements that have been interpreted as encouraging Japan and South Korea to do so.

Again I am not aware of any of these countries acquiring any nuclear weapons, or even making significant progress.

You worried that he might start a public bioweapon program that could undermine the international stigma against their use:

I also think Trump would be less hesitant to use or develop biological weapons. Were he to start developing them – let alone use them – it would strongly undermine norms against them.

To my knowledge he has not done this.

In some cases Trump has been bad, but for the opposite reason than you were worried about! For example you criticized him for supporting travel bans during Ebola:

He reacted poorly to the Ebola outbreak – exaggerating fears and proposing populist solutions.

Given that covid has turned out to be much more dangerous than the WHO initially said, if he had exaggerated fears this time it would have been much more accurate. Similarly travel bans have been extremely effective with regard covid: they have kept New Zealand and Taiwan basically safe, and the lockdowns that have been employed by virtually all governments are basically internal travel bans. To the extent that Trump responded poorly to covid, it was largely by making the same mistakes he criticized obama for.

In some cases Trump has been bad, but for the opposite reason than you were worried about! For example you criticized him for supporting travel bans during Ebola

It's not the opposite reason. The underlying criticism is that Trump's measures were miscalibrated to the magnitude of the problem. If your decision-making process is deeply flawed, as Trump's is, you should expect miscalibration in both directions.

Thanks Pablo, yes its my view too that Trump was miscalibrated and showed poor decision-making on Ebola and COVID-19, because of his populism and disregard for science and international cooperation.

Similarly in the UK, the relatively authoritarian May was replaced with the much more libertarian Johnson. 

I'm not sure everyone would agree that that leadership was a change in a less authoritarian direction. At any rate, I think the default view would be that it says little about global trends in levels of authoritarianism. Also May seems quite different from the leaders and parties that Haydn discusses in that section.

I think it would have been better if you had given an argument for this view, instead of just stating it (since it's likely far from obviously true to most readers).

Thanks Stefan, yes this is my view too: "default view would be that it says little about global trends in levels of authoritarianism". I simply gave a few illustrative examples to underline the wider statistical point, and highlight a few causal mechanisms (e.g. demonstration effect, Bannon's transnational campaigning).

Hi Dale,

Thanks for reading and responding. I certainly tried to review the ways Trump had been better than the worst case scenario: e.g. on nuclear use or bioweapons. Let me respond to a few points you raised (though I think we might continue to disagree!)

Authoritarianism and pandemic response - I'll comment on Pablo and Stefan's comments. However just on social progress, my  point was just 'one of the reasons authoritarianism around the world is bad is it limits social progress' - I didn't make a prediction about how social progress would fare under Trump.

Nuclear use and bioweapons - as I say in the post, there haven't been bioweapons development (that we know of) or nuclear use. However, I don't think its accurate to say this is a 'worry that didn't happen'. My point throughout this post and the last one was that Trump  will/has raised risk.  An increase from a 10% to a 20% chance is a big deal if what we're talking about is a catastrophe, and that an event did not occur does not show that this risk did not increase.

On nuclear proliferation, you said "I am not aware of any of these countries acquiring any nuclear weapons, or even making significant progress", but as I said in this post, North Korea has advanced their nuclear capabilities and Iran resumed uranium enrichment after Trump pulled out of the Iran Deal.

Thanks again, Haydn

In accordance with the Forum's policy on political posts, I'm keeping this one in "Personal Blog." 

However, I agree with much of this analysis, and I always appreciate it when someone takes the time to look in on a past prediction and evaluate the outcome.

Since I was one of the commenters on the original post, I thought I would take a moment to look back at my own analysis and predictions from four years ago. In the order of the points I brought up then:

  1. I was pleasantly surprised by how well US institutions held up in the first two years of Trump's presidency, but he has steadily eroded the federal government's independence and the power of factions on the center-right who oppose him, and is poised to dramatically accelerate that erosion if he is able to stay in office for a second term. The most worrying development has been the appointment of partisan enablers in key positions at the Department of Justice (Bill Barr) and the Office of the Director of National Intelligence (John Ratcliffe), which has given Trump some ability to twist the national security apparatus for his personal gain. Reportedly Trump wants to fire FBI director Chris Wray, CIA director Gina Haspel, and Defense Secretary Mark Esper after the election for not being sufficiently loyal to him, which will cement his grip on those agencies and make it possible for him to directly order persecution of political opponents.
  2. My biggest whiff of the past four years was not seeing the House of Representatives as winnable for Democrats in 2018. The national suburban realignment in voting patterns caught me by surprise, and I also expected to see more foreign interference in the 2018 midterms than apparently took place. However, having Democratic control of the House turned out not to be as much of a check on Trump as I'd hoped since he successfully used the previous two years to consolidate his control over Republican elected officials, expand his base within the party, and purge disloyal aides from his inner circle. These factors made it possible for him to survive impeachment and showed him that he could pretty much do whatever he wanted going forward and not get punished for it.
  3. I correctly predicted that Senate Republicans would end the filibuster, although they did so only for judicial nominees.
  4. Since 2016, there has been a big increase in focus on state legislative races on the progressive organizing side, in line with my recommendation. Democrats have made significant gains since then at the state level.
  5. There has actually been a big decline in rural,  white working-class support for Trump since 2016, although this seems to be more the result of Trump's policy failures, especially on healthcare and COVID, than progressive organizing. I consider this a failure on the part of the left (although not so much on the part of Democrats) since we have allowed ourselves to be used as propaganda by bad faith actors on the right time and again rather than seeking to bridge differences and create understanding back when it wasn't too late.

Overall, for me descent into authoritarianism and climate change are the two biggest reasons to resist a second Trump term, and I think Haydn underestimates both of these. On authoritarianism, while I agree that a military coup is unlikely, I think that abuses of power to punish political opponents in a second term are a virtual certainty, leading to greatly increased chance of sustained civil unrest in the short term and long-term damage to the the quality of governance and discourse in the United States. And on climate change, the Environmental Protection Agency and Department of the Interior under Trump have not simply been inactive, they have been feverishly rolling back regulations designed to control air pollution and preserve forested lands. There are other issues (like Supreme Court nominees) where Trump's positions are not appreciably different from what a generic Republican's would be, but on those two fronts in particular I see him as dramatically, uniquely bad for the US and the world and meriting the GCR label.

Hi Ian, 

Thanks for the update on your predictions! Really interesting points about the political landscape.

On your point 1 + authoritarianism, I agree with lots of your points. I think four years ago a lot of us (including me!) were worried about Trump and personal/presidential undermining of the rule of law/norms/democracy, enabled by the Republicans; when we should have been as worried about a general minoritarian push from McConnell and the rest of the Republicans, enabled by Trump.

On climate change, my intention wasn't to imply stasis/inaction over rolling back - I do agree things have gotten worse, and your examples of the EPA and the Dept of the Interior make that case well.