Earlier this week, we witnessed the third “Brexit” moment of 2016. Five months after Britain’s vote to leave the European Union, and one month after the election of Donald Trump, Italy voted on Sunday to reject a major constitutional reform package. This effectively ended the tenure of Prime Minister Matteo Renzi and threw the country into political turmoil. As I discussed with Charlie Rose this week, these three consecutive political earthquakes all lead to an unavoidable conclusion: the post-World War II liberal order is breaking down, giving way to a new global disorder.
The signs of this breakdown are all around. In Europe, Italy’s referendum may portend its eventual exit from the European Union. France’s elections in May could produce its most right-wing, nationalistic government in decades. Next year’s elections in Germany and the Netherlands will also take place at a time of rising nationalism and anti-European Union fervor. If the populist-nationalist wave continues to engulf the continent, 2017 could mark the end of the European Union as we know it.
In Asia, too, the US-led order is cracking. The economic linchpin of America’s engagement with Asia was to be the Trans-Pacific Partnership, but President-Elect Trump has vowed to abandon it. Now it appears that many US allies in Asia are turning to a Chinese alternative to the TPP, one that departs markedly from the American vision of trade. Indeed, China’s new and rising economic clout has made it more confident and capable in challenging the United States order on a number of fronts. While it is unclear how Donald Trump intends to deal with this challenge, his recent call with Taiwan hints at a potentially more confrontational US-China relationship and a more uncertain presence in Asia.
In response to this new geopolitical landscape, some have called for a complete overhaul in American foreign policy. John Mearsheimer, for instance, writes in the National Interest that it’s time for the United States to adopt a “realist” foreign policy—one that emphasizes US interests and a balance of power rather than US values and a liberal global order. He stresses, as realists often do, that American foreign policy should focus on the world as it is, rather than as it might be. I think this view is misguided.
The US-led liberal order has been overwhelmingly in America’s self-interest—institutions such as NATO, the IMF, and the WTO have allowed Americans to trade and prosper at a time of unprecedented world peace. Or, as Robert Kagan once wrote, the last 70 years have offered Americans and others something of a reprieve from the world “as it is.”
In short, I believe that American leadership is essential in this new era and that the liberal world order is still worth defending. The path forward looks daunting, but there are openings that can and should be seized upon. America should work to strengthen its Atlantic partnerships through renewed trade and investment negotiations. It should take advantage of the weakening of OPEC to create new investment environments and promote energy security for its friends and allies. And, lastly, it should work to reassure its allies, particularly in East Asia and the Baltics, that the United States is a reliable guarantor of security.
This week’s reads shed light on the coming challenges to the US-led world order, and discuss some of the potential paths forward.
Ian Buruma/The New York Times Magazine
The election of Donald Trump in the United States and the success of the Brexit movement in the United Kingdom are accelerating the disintegration of the Western world order, writes Ian Buruma in The New York Times Magazine. Fueled by the notion of Anglo-American exceptionalism, populist strains in both countries seek to restore an imagined past of national superiority and radical economic liberalism. In doing so, both Trump supporters and Brexiteers invoke rhetoric against a perceived “international elite” and undermine the stability provided by the United States and the European Union since the end of the Second World War.
John J. Mearsheimer/The National Interest
John J. Mearsheimer offers some advice to the incoming Trump administration, saying it should adopt a “realist” foreign policy in favor of the discredited strategy of liberal hegemony. He says President-elect Trump should take a narrow approach to international relations, focusing on maintaining the balance of power in three key regions: Europe, East Asia, and the Persian Gulf. Additionally, respect for national sovereignty and promotion of regional solutions for problems like fundamentalism and terrorism should be key aspects of this realist foreign policy.
Robert J. Lieber/The National Interest
Robert J. Lieber counters the notion that the incoming Trump administration should adopt John Mearsheimer’s version of “realist” foreign policy. United States engagement in the world is essential to sustaining the international order and upholding its national security interests, but he says the “realism” that Mearsheimer advocates for is a policy of unproductive disengagement. Instead, he urges the next administration to move decisively to counter hostile powers like Russia and Iran and actively promote liberal democratic values across the globe.
Alissa J. Rubin/The New York Times
In a stunning loss for Italian Prime Minister Matteo Renzi, voters rejected his proposals to reform the constitution to better integrate the country into the European Union. The failure of the referendum represents an existential threat to the European Union, Italy being a founding member of the organization. Populist upsets in Italy, as well as in the recent Brexit vote, are ominous hints at how elections in Germany, France, and the Netherlands could play out next year. Across Europe, voters are expressing their rage by rejecting political elites and economic stagnation in a populist upsurge that could continue for years to come.
Anne Applebaum/The Washington Post
The British government has entered a period of chaos and indecision with the success of Brexit and accession of Theresa May to the post of prime minister, writes Anne Applebaum in The Washington Post. The questions of what Brexit will mean, whether it will be hard or soft, and which of the impossible “leave” campaign promises should take precedent have divided May’s cabinet. In the absence of a well-organized moderate majority, says Applebaum, the radical minority will dominate, resulting in a divided and inward-looking Britain for years to come.
Stefan Wagstyl/Financial Times
Angela Merkel will soon announce her candidacy to run for a fourth term as German chancellor. The leader of the conservative Christian Democrat party faces challenges stemming from her open refugee policy, the emerging far-right Alternative for Germany, and xenophobic populist strains throughout the Western world. While there is little challenge from the left, conservative MPs are beginning to voice their opposition. The long-time leader of Germany is now expected to take up the mantle as leader of the free world, even as her domestic power base is weakened by far-right opposition and internal division.
Andrew Browne/The Wall Street Journal
Donald Trump’s acceptance of a congratulatory phone call from Taiwanese President Tsai Ing-wen broke with a long tradition of US presidents-elects declining calls from Taiwan’s head of state as part of the “one China” policy. In exchange for strategic and commercial benefits from the Communist government in Beijing, US administrations have refrained from engaging in formal diplomatic relations with the island government. However, the recent contact between Mr. Trump and Ms. Tsai could be cause for a spurned China to test the US commitment to both countries.
Evan Osnos/The New Yorker
The phone conversation between President-elect Donald Trump and Taiwanese President Tsai Ing-wen does not fundamentally change US-Taiwan or US-China relations, but Beijing will regard it as a deeply destabilizing first move for the incoming administration, Evan Osnos writes in The New Yorker. The Chinese government’s overtly mild reaction hides the fact that it now views Trump as an inherently volatile character. This episode shows that he is highly exploitable on many subjects and has surrounded himself with people who are ideologically predisposed to influence Trump’s actions on subjects like the Middle East, healthcare, immigration, and entitlement reform.
James Fallows/The Atlantic
China’s rapid economic growth has given rise to hopes that it would also develop into a more democratic and open society, even as the People’s Republic has regressed to repressive Maoist practices in recent years, writes James Fallows in The Atlantic. Heavy censorship of the Internet and media, repression of civil society, extraterritoriality, crony capitalism, anti-foreignism, and militarism have returned in full force as features of Chinese domestic policy. The incoming US administration will face the so-called “Thucydides Trap,” the possibility of conflict with a rising China, but should continue to seek cooperation on climate and energy efforts.
Nick Butler/Financial Times
OPEC’s recent agreement to cut oil production from January 2016 by 1.2 million barrels per day raised world prices by 10 percent. However, the days of OPEC as a cartel are over, writes Nick Butler in the Financial Times. The cuts will not be implemented; incentives to cheat are high for various reasons, including increased oil production by non-OPEC countries and the fragile security situation in Saudi Arabia. The current price of $50 per barrel is a ceiling, and Butler says OPEC’s ability to change that has evaporated.
Anjli Raval & David Sheppard/Financial Times
Saudi Prince Mohammed bin Salman al-Saud’s plans to diversify his kingdom’s economy away from oil production have been dashed as sub-$50 prices shocked the stock market. Low oil prices have caused the prince to reverse his country’s free market attitude toward the industry and it once again is attempting to influence the global price. The failure to restore economic growth in Saudi Arabia could threaten the royal family’s control of government, which has traditionally been accepted due to steadily growing wealth during their rule.
Adam Entous & Devlin Barrett/The Wall Street Journal
Adam Entous and Devlin Barrett chronicle the decades-long career of decorated American diplomat Robin Raphel and the circumstances that led to an FBI investigation into her suspected espionage activity. Raphel’s traditional approach to diplomacy, as well as the numerous personal contacts she formed over years of work in Pakistan, led to allegations of mishandling classified information that fueled a firestorm of attention from federal law enforcement. Though Raphel was exonerated, her story represents a cautionary tale of the empowerment of law enforcement in the post-9/11 era and the risk of relying on signals intelligence in the place of diplomatic contact.