It’s been a long year! This will be the 34th (and final) post that I publish this year. At the beginning of 2016, I began by writing about reconciliation in Thailand, whether the EU was on the verge of breakup and Ted Cruz’s victory in the Iowa caucuses. I could barely have predicted the events that would follow. A lot has happened on all fronts, and this post will serve as the summation of my thinking on the state of global affairs after the tumult of the past twelve months. As always, thank you very much to everyone who’s been following my blog and supporting my work, and see you in 2017!
Standing in a gold-plated elevator, the two men grinned widely for the cameras before the doors closed. This may not have exactly been the image that the fiery populists had wanted to show to the public; they had just spent the previous few months ranting about rigged economies and raging against the elite. But such trivialities hardly mattered to these new masters of the world, standing in a tower that had recently become the new political centre of gravity. They had more than enough reason to smile so happily. A new era had dawned, and it was theirs to enjoy.
Nothing, perhaps, is quite as representative of the upside-down world order that has prevailed this year than the photo of Nigel Farage and Donald Trump standing together in a Trump Tower elevator. One of them, who just a little over a year previously had been derided as a ridiculous celebrity who should return to The Apprentice’s set, had just won the highest office in the United States of America. The other had just completed the work of his life, pulling the United Kingdom out of the European Union and threatening to throw the entire region into utter disorder.
And it is disorder, indeed. But this had not been unpredicted. In his book World Order, Henry Kissinger had warned two years ago that the modern world order was coming to an end:
In the world of geopolitics, the order established and proclaimed as universal by the Western countries stand at a turning point…A quarter century of political and economic crises perceived as produced, or at least abetted by, Western admonitions and practices- along with imploding regional orders, sectarian bloodbaths, terrorism and wars ended on terms short of victory- has thrown into question the optimistic assumptions of the immediate post-Cold War era: that the spread of democracy and free markets would automatically create a just, peaceful and inclusive world.
‘…thrown into question the optimistic assumptions of the immediate post-Cold War era: that the spread of democracy and free markets would automatically create a just, peaceful and inclusive world.” This final sentence indeed encapsulates the world we find ourselves in today. From the victory of Vote Leave to the election of Trump, from the carnage of Aleppo to the antics of Duterte, from the insidious foreign manipulation of Russia to the growing assertiveness of China: the events of this year were the culmination of trends that have been building up and have now exploded in spectacular fashion.
Some people, particularly of the left, have tried to ignore or deny the changes that 2016 has brought about. Overturn Brexit, the Liberal Democrats in the UK say; lobby the Electoral College and deny Trump the presidency, some progressives in the UK have pleaded. But the truth is that this is a brave new world that we will enter in 2017, and every unsatisfied liberal would do well to directly confront the upturning these changes rather than to pretend that they are not happening. Likewise, conservatives attempting to ignore the fact that Trump was elected due in no small part to Russian interference or trying to explain away his novel foreign policy stances are also refusing intentionally to see a changed world.
Let us now examine the global trends that we have saw in 2016 and will continue in 2017.
The Return of Nationalism & the Backlash Against Globalism
“The time of the nation state is back!” proclaimed Marine Le Pen at the Front National party’s conference. She had much reason to be upbeat, of course, in September; polls show that she could win the first round of France’s presidential elections.
What does it mean for France to be on the verge of crowning a far-right nationalist as president? Firstly, it can be viewed as the French public’s validation of Le Pen’s political views. She has said that politics is no longer about left vs right, but rather about nationalism vs globalism. Nationalists are proud of the nation-state, eager to protect strong borders, more inclined towards protectionism and naturally suspicious of immigration; this contrasts with globalists, who value multiculturalism and cosmopolitanism, favour freedom of movement and the removal of international barriers, and so on. By showing such strong support for Front National, no wonder can Le Pen now claim widespread support for the values it espouses. The time of the nation state may indeed be back in France.
But so is the case in the rest of the world. Front National’s high poll numbers are not the only indication of the return of nationalism. UKIP’s propelling of Brexit to victory in the UK, Geert Wilder’s popularity in the Netherlands, local election successes for the Alternative für Deutschland party in Germany, the Freedom Party’s near-triumph in Austria’s presidential race: these are also clear signs. And so is Trump’s victory in the United States.
On one level, this marks the rise of economic nationalism. Some political scientists have rebutted the argument that people voted for Trump or Brexit due to ‘economic anxiety’, but it also undeniable that the economic losses that afflicted the Rust Belt are real. Free trade has those who benefit and those who do not, and when those who do not are large chunks of the electorate, it is not surprising to see the election results reflect this economic anxiety. Protectionism, as decried as it is by economists, resonates with voters. This has propelled a disenfranchised white working class to rebel against what they view as an out-of-touch globalist elite at the ballot box.
Strikingly, however, the nationalism that has taken hold of both continents appear to also be ethnic nationalism, wherein the identity of the nation is identified not only through the abstract concept of the nation-state, but also through racial and ethnic appearance. The “alt-right” in the United States, which heavily supported Donald Trump, has never disguised their white supremacist tendencies; neither has the far right in European politics. Most importantly, however, is that electorates are willingly voting for candidates that espouse such ethnic nationalism. If some thought that President Obama’s victory in 2008 showed we were moving into a post-racial world, they were heavily mistaken.
This, rather obviously, signals chaos for the European Union, that most integrated of blocks with its free freedoms and single market; Brexit has already made clear of that. But beyond that concrete consequence, this also spells trouble for the international liberal order. If Henry Kissinger had said that the post-Cold War era had seen visions of a more “just, peaceful and inclusive world”, it is difficult to see how democracies with electorates more fearful, suspicious, and- yes- more racist will contribute to anything but a more divisive world.
What is most important is that policymakers cannot, and must not, ignore this return of nationalism. It is very well for opinion writers in The Guardian to routinely brand Trump voters and Brexiteers as racist bigots because they are scared of the proliferation of terrorism, or for analysts at The Economist to declare that manufacturing jobs will never return to Michigan or northern England. But if governments refuse to confront directly the roots of the backlash against multiculturalism and against economic integration, then extremist nationalists will continue to be empowered by furious electorates. How these problems can be resolved creatively, of course, is a question that remains unresolved. Yet there may be no more pressing a question. Nationalism is an energetic ideology, and it can be a force for good if channelled properly. But an outburst of extremist nationalism is also dangerous, as anyone from Europe in 1914 can tell you.
The Resurgence of Authoritarianism & the Decline of Democracy
It is ironic that, in a year defined by two iconic elections, democracy is experiencing severe decline while authoritarianism is experiencing a renaissance unparalleled since the end of the Cold War.
This decline can be seen in the election, and strengthening of, authoritarian leaders worldwide. Duterte’s victory in the Philippines was one example; Xi Jinping’s fortification of power in China is another. But democratic decay been nowhere been clearer than in the Great Republic itself. First and foremost is Donald Trump’s election victory despite losing the popular vote, the second such occurrence in 16 years. Hillary Clinton’s vote concentrations had not been dispersed well, geographically; she won a huge landslide in California and gained votes in red Texas only to lose swing states by tiny margins. But the delegitimising of Donald Trump’s victory in the eyes of Hillary’s supporters, and subsequent efforts to persuade the Electoral College to dump Trump, has continued to discredit American democratic institutions.
It hardly helped, of course, that while Trump the president-elect seems to have no qualms with America’s electoral system, Trump the candidate had been unprecedented in his violation of American democratic norms. His policies, such as banning Muslims. suggested his nature was authoritarian. He had refused to say whether he would accept the election results: something worthy of a tinpot dictator in a banana republic. He had openly questioned, in numerous speeches, the very sanctity of American democracy itself, repeatedly warning that the result would be “rigged” against him. In addition, the democratisation of information in the 21st century may be, ironically, leading directly to the decline of democracy. The peddling of anti-Clinton fake news was certainly a factor that contributed to her loss
Most important, however, is that Donald Trump had called on Russia to hack his Democratic opponent, and that Russia responded. We do not know- and may never know- the true extent of Vladimir Putin’s involvement in hacking the Democratic National Committee, but there is no doubt that his country was behind the act. For the first time in American history, a foreign power was actively intervening to change the result of an election. As Nicholas Kristof wrote in The New York Times:
Let’s be clear: This was an attack on America, less lethal than a missile but still profoundly damaging to our system. It’s not that Trump and Putin were colluding to steal an election. But if the C.I.A. is right, Russia apparently was trying to elect a president who would be not a puppet exactly but perhaps something of a lap dog — a Russian poodle.
For America’s president to now effectively be a Putin puppet: this would be the supreme irony of all. Putin, the most notorious of the authoritarians, had just got his own authoritarian friend elected as president of the United States, and who is now proceeding to appoint a decidedly pro-Russia cabinet. Additionally, this cabinet would hardly be the one to promote America’s traditional values abroad; do we really expect Rex Tillerson to be pressing for elections in foreign countries? No; instead, America’s foreign policy will now more likely be based on nakedly promoting its interests. The tides have more than turned since the fall of the Soviet Union; the Kremlin must be happy indeed.
And with the US government now in full Republican control with few remaining checks and balances, who knows what will reverse this democratic implosion? And if even the United States, the guardian of world democracy, can succumb to such democratic decline, who is left to prevent the continued rise of authoritarianism?
Final Reflections: The World in 2017
And so we have it: a world in disorder. Confused countries, torn apart between rival nationalist and cosmopolitan factions; decaying democracies, eroded from both outside and within. There has never been a moment when the liberal international order has been so threatened. The optimistic assumptions of the post-Cold War era have indeed been destroyed.
I have written in the past that some people prefer the “people’s history” theory, where the story of history is told from the perspective of the masses. To a point, this is true; it was the masses that voted for Brexit, for instance, or elected Donald Trump. And it will be the masses who determine the winner of France’s and Germany’s presidential elections next year. But to an extraordinary extent, next year will be determined more by the “great men”, the presidents and prime ministers and autocrats who wield power in the world. What will Trump, newly elected, decide to do with his newfound power? Will Putin, with his Syrian gamble bearing its destructive fruit, finally overplay his hand? Will Xi, angered and puzzled by the new American administration’s hostility in the South China Sea, make a world-changing mistake? Will the world continue its slide to greater nationalism and authoritarianism, finally completing the EU’s fall and the abandonment of liberal ideals? Any seemingly small decision now could cause seismic geopolitical shifts.
Multiple forces beyond the control of any single individual have combined to produce this dangerous new era. And it can only be hoped that our leaders know how to navigate it. World order, or indeed world disorder, depends on it.