June 15, 2017 | By Ivo H. Daalder

This Week's Reads - A Tale of Two Elections


The scene could have been written by Charles Dickens. Just as the two leaders began their joint statement on Tuesday, a gust of wind kicked up. The British prime minister’s papers were scattered across the lawn, while the French president’s notes remained neat and orderly on the lectern. Theresa May was surprised and flustered. Emmanuel Macron was calm and in control. The moment lasted just a few seconds, but it was an apt metaphor for how the two leaders fared in their recent elections. It was also a succinct expression of where Europe appears to be headed in the year ahead.

For Theresa May, it is the worst of times. In April, the prime minister called for an election intended to secure a big majority and a mandate to negotiate a hard Brexit, which would have pulled the United Kingdom from full access to the single EU market. Yet when all the votes were counted last week, May’s party failed to win an outright majority and was left scrambling to form a coalition. The prime minister reportedly concluded that the whole affair was a “mess.”

Martin Wolf, the chief economics commentator for the Financial Times, had even harsher words. “This foolish process has now set the United Kingdom on a path to a chaotic exit,” he wrote this week.

Now, without a mandate for hard Brexit, the options for British leaders have narrowed to either no deal with the European Union – the “chaotic exit” Wolf describes – or a soft Brexit. The latter would mean the United Kingdom accepting many of the European Union’s terms in negotiations in exchange for a longer period in which Britain could remain within the customs union and single market. Either way, the situation for Britain is far from ideal. The most enthusiasm Wolf could muster for a soft Brexit was to call it “relatively manageable.” Yet when the alternative is chaos. . . .

The hope now is that major EU countries, France among them, might further help the United Kingdom clean up its “mess” by choosing not to impose too harsh of conditions on Britain during the split. So far, though, there is little evidence that the European Unio is willing to soften its approach to the negotiations.

Meanwhile, for Emmanuel Macron in France, it is the best of times. Not only did Macron win the presidency on May 7, but his party, La République en Marche, also dominated the first round of parliamentary elections last Sunday. The party is expected to gain 400-450 seats of the National Assembly’s 577 seats in the next round. Gérard Araud, the French ambassador to the United States, captured the significance of the moment on his Twitter account. “The French political system is going through a revolution,” he wrote, “a 39y old president unknown 3y ago and a majority party created a few months ago.” Araud went on to say that the rise of En Marche, which draws heavily from first-time politicians, has begun nothing less than “the renewal of the political class.”

Indeed, Macron’s victory, and the collapse of Marine Le Pen’s National Front, suggests a new and encouraging direction in European politics. We are seeing the start of a move away from populism and strident nationalism, and toward a dynamic centrism that is unapologetic about supporting the European Union. Paired with encouraging economic news – the eurozone unemployment rate is at its lowest point in a hundred months – the new direction might even be called the start of a European revival. Of course, many of Europe’s long-term problems remain. Yet a stronger France that is committed to the European Union and partnered with Germany would prove to be a powerful engine for the European project – with or without the United Kingdom.

Encouraging signs in Europe come not a moment too soon. As many of This Week’s Reads show, the United States is preoccupied with events in other areas of the world.

The Headless Superpower

Ross Douthat/The New York Times

The United States has a history of tamping down regional skirmishes before they escalate into full-blown conflicts. It is an advantage of being the sole global hegemon. Yet the basic structure of Pax Americana, writes Ross Douthat in the New York Times, is called into question when the figure at the top does not play the traditional role. President Trump’s recent trip to Saudi Arabia, for example, seems merely to have given a Saudi-led group of states license to isolate Qatar, Douthat writes. What we have now is a contest between America’s long-standing military advantage and its geopolitical and institutional habits on one side, and a president who seems keen on fomenting uncertainty, disruption, and misdirection on the other. 

Post-Election Chaos Promises Britain Brexit Salvation

Philip Stephens/Financial Times

The Conservative Party’s poor showing in the recent election has brought Britain to the brink of chaos. Yet, writes Philip Stephens in the Financial Times, “Sometimes there can be salvation in chaos.” The best May can hope for now is a weak coalition government supporting her as she negotiates Britain’s exit from the European Union. Germany and France will likely set harsh terms for continued access to the common market. May, Stephens writes, “has one chance left to redeem herself in the twilight of her premiership. She could seek a cross-party consensus on the terms of a soft Brexit that leaves Britain in the European Economic Area.” 

Trudeau Decides It’s Just Not Worth Appeasing Trump in Foreign-Policy Shift

John Ibbitson/The Globe and Mail

Last week, Canadian Foreign Affairs Minister Chrystia Freeland gave a speech that did not mention US President Donald Trump by name. However, writes John Ibbitson in the Globe and Mail, “practically every line was informed by the crisis of his rogue presidency.” The speech was a full-throated call before the House of Commons for Canada to preserve multilateral institutions and the Western alliance in the era of “America First.” Ottawa and other capitals must step up since Canada’s southern neighbor has come, Freeland explained, “to question the very worth of its mantle of global leadership.” Welcome to the Trudeau Doctrine, Ibbitson concludes from Freeland’s speech.

US and China Can Escape the Thucydides Trap

Huang Jing/The Straits Times

Rising great powers have a habit of ending up at war with falling great powers. Harvard’s Graham Allison has popularized this idea as the "Thucydides Trap." Today, the term is used in thinking about what might happen between China and the United States. But as Huang Jing writes in the Straits Times, war is not inevitable. Institutionalizing a bilateral relationship can allow Beijing and Washington to recognize their common interests, even as they clash in other areas. The result, a form of James Steinberg’s “strategic reassurance,” will at least be a mechanism to quell unintended escalation, making sure that neither nation finds itself on the brink of war inadvertently.

Green Streets: Can Cities Take the Lead on Climate Change?

Pilita Clark/Financial Times

As we explored in the Chicago Forum on Global Cities last week, the commitment by US cities to uphold the Paris climate accord in the wake of President Trump’s decision to pull the United States out was remarkable. Four new books reviewed in this essay in the Financial Times further the idea that cities, rather than nation-states, are the front line in addressing climate change. One book reviewed is Cool Cities: Urban Sovereignty and the Fix for Global Warming by Benjamin Barber, who was a central fixture at prior Global Cities Forums before he passed away earlier this year.

Young Voters Flock to Labour, Spurning Theresa May’s Conservatives in UK Election

Paul Hannon/Wall Street Journal

The big surprise of the UK election – that the Conservatives failed to win an outright majority – has been matched by many smaller surprises once you dig into the polling data. For example, voter turnout was the highest it has been since 1997, writes Paul Hannon in the Wall Street Journal. As well, traditional parties did exceptionally well. Both the Conservatives and Labour increased their share of the vote, reducing the shares of smaller parties like UKIP. Another important trend was clear from the preliminary data: the young favored Jeremy Corbyn’s party, while older Britons went for Theresa May’s. 

The British Election Is a Reminder of the Perils of Too Much Democracy

James Kirchick/The Los Angeles Times

It “offends modern sensibilities” to claim there is “too much democracy,” writes James Kirchick in the Los Angeles Times. He then goes on to do precisely that, pointing to the outcome of Britain’s election last week and to its earlier referendum on EU membership. Neither should have been put to a popular vote. Instead, leaders should represent their constituents, argues Kirchick, not bend to their whims on specific issues. Nor is the problem limited to Britain. California’s habit of holding referendums has stymied its success in the past, he says. “Amidst the global populist insurgency, our duly elected representatives should depend more upon their own judgment and worry less about the uninformed opinion of the masses,” Kirchick concludes.

Crisis in the Gulf: Qatar Faces a Stress Test

Simeon Kerr/Financial Times

Qatar has captured the world’s attention in the last week, and this excellent essay in the Financial Times helps to explain why. “Emboldened by the Trump administration,” writes Simeon Kerr, “Saudi Arabia and three other Arab states launched an air and sea blockade to isolate Qatar.” The Saudi-led group accuses Qatar of backing terrorists and warning up to Iran. Meanwhile, Iran has offered to ship food supplies into Qatar and Turkey is deploying soldiers to its base in the country. President Trump’s apparent support for the Saudi campaign via Twitter has only increased the belief among several Qataris interviewed for the essay that this long-simmering conflict between Riyadh and Doha could boil over at any moment.  

At Last: The Trump Doctrine, Revealed

Constanze Stelzenmüller/Order from Chaos

The recent Wall Street Journal op-ed by the president’s national security and economic advisers is the best thing going in understanding the administration’s worldview, writes Constanze Stelzenmüller. But what it reveals about the Trump Doctrine, she adds, “is terrifying.” The 900-word document doubles down on the view of a zero-sum world, and marks a decisive break in America’s long-standing role of championing the postwar liberal international order. The conclusion is stark: “America First means America First, and not just in America, but everywhere on the globe,” Stelzenmüller writes.

Why the US Shouldn’t Blindly Follow Saudi Arabia

Daniel Benjamin and Steven Simon/Wall Street Journal

President Trump’s embrace of Saudi Arabia should have struck no one by surprise. As a candidate, Trump often criticized President Obama for a “supposed fecklessness and slant toward Iran,” write Daniel Benjamin and Steven Simon in the Wall Street Journal. Yet an uncritical embrace by the forty-fifth president could end up causing more problems than it is worth. Tehran may decide to walk away from its nuclear deal. Washington, through its support of Riyadh, is already embroiled in a disaster in Yemen that could spiral further downward. And the recent skirmishes between Saudi-led states and Qatar only ratchets up the tension in the region. Is it worth it for the White House to so unconditionally support Saudi leaders? No, conclude the authors.


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