December 22, 2016 | By Ivo H. Daalder

This Week's Reads - Reflections on 2016

This was a year of global upheaval. From the rise of Donald Trump and the upending of American politics, to Brexit and the unraveling of the European Union, 2016 was defined by the repeat arrival of the unthinkable. Now, as the year comes to a close, it is a good time to reflect on what we’ve learned and what we should expect in the coming year.

One lesson is clear: The political earthquakes of the last year have been about much more than Donald Trump, Nigel Farage, or any single individual—rather, there are some fundamental, structural shifts taking place.

The first shift is the breakdown of democratic politics. Indeed, across the West there has been a wholesale loss of public trust in democratic institutions and in electoral processes. A recent survey from Gallup shows that American trust in key US institutions is at historic lows. Similar attitudes of distrust can be seen across Europe. This will prove to be a major challenge for governance in 2017 and is likely to worsen as our new “post-truth” politics becomes normalized.

As a result of this democratic breakdown, more and more Western citizens are embracing the view that democratic political systems are a bad way to run a country. This raises the troubling possibility that future generations will turn to increasingly illiberal governments and practices. Equally troubling, as Steven Levitsky and Daniel Ziblatt argue in The New York Times, many of the institutional safeguards that protect our democracy—from the news media to the party electoral system—are eroding at an alarming rate.

Add to this another major trend: the growing power and allure of nationalist groups. Nationalism was a key feature of the US election, wherein Donald Trump made appeals to “Make America Great Again” and put “America First.” A similar nationalist fervor is spreading across Europe, where political parties such as Poland’s Law and Justice Party and the Sweden Democrats promise to turn their countries inward. In 2017, two critical elections will play out in Germany and France, where far-right nationalist parties pose serious challenges.

What are the consequences of these structural changes? For the United States, one result is likely to be a more limited global leadership role. That will mean reduced resources for shared challenges such as climate change, global pandemics, and refugee crises. For China and Russia, this may lead to more opportunities to disrupt and challenge the US-led order in Asia and Europe. And for the broader rules-based international system, these shifts, if left unchecked, could spell disaster.

In sum, the new year, much like 2016, is unlikely to be boring. This Week’s Reads reflect on some of the biggest political trends of the past year and provide some perspectives on some of the challenges we can expect in 2017.

Trump’s Team of Rivals, Riven by Distrust

Thomas Wright/Foreign Policy

“Understanding Donald Trump’s foreign policy is truly an exercise in separating the signal from the noise,” writes Thomas Wright in this major Foreign Policy feature on the president-elect’s national security cabinet picks. Wright sees Steve Bannon, Mike Flynn, Jim Mattis, and Rex Tillerson as splitting the incoming administration into three factions – the America Firsters, the religious warriors, and the traditionalists – which may distrust but also need each other. The coming power struggle will have significant effects on US foreign policy.

With Trump, the US Foreign Policy Framework is at Risk

Robert Zoellick/Financial Times

The long-time US international engagement framework born out of World War II is at risk and could bring on a larger geo-political upheaval, writes Robert Zoellick in the FT. With the world awaiting signals from the incoming Trump team for a new US foreign policy framework, the president-elect is likely to be tested and his response needs to reflect “a strategic framework of US interest and leadership.” Zoellick outlines four steps the team could take to weather the coming global uncertainties.

An Intellectual History of Trumpism

David Greenberg/POLITICO

Though Donald Trump has been painted as an egomaniac, showman, and opportunist, many of his policies have deep roots in American politics, writes David Greenberg in an examination of “Trumpism” in POLITICO. On race and immigration, he is going further right; on infrastructure and entitlements, toward the center; and his trade and foreign policy are a significant break with traditional conservatism. Yet despite the seeming incoherence, all trace back to earlier 20th century populism. Having – for the first time in history – a president who embraces these ideas “could mean a rollback of the core tenets of post-New Deal, post-World War II America.”

Is Donald Trump a Threat to Democracy?

Steven Levitsky and Daniel Ziblatt/The New York Times

Past stability is no guarantee of democracy’s survival, warn Steven Levitsky and Daniel Ziblatt – researchers who have spent two decades studying the emergence and breakdown of democracy in Europe and Latin America. Warning signs that America might be in trouble? The rise of anti-democratic politicians into mainstream politics; the erosion of partisan restraint and fair play; and pressure on legitimate opposition. In a crisis, a “president with authoritarian tendencies and institutions that have come unmoored could pose a serious threat to American democracy.”

The Year of the Demagogue: How 2016 Changed Democracy

Lionel Barber/Financial Times

“This year, the establishment was hammered, the experts humbled,” writes Lionel Barber in a year-in-review column for the FT. Brexit and Trump’s election are a “revolutionary moment” as the old left-right divide becomes one between open and closed. Over is Globalization 2.0, the modern era of deregulation, the opening of China, and the launch of the EU. These trends, plus the rise of “post-truth politics,” allowed the rise of demagoguery. “This is not merely populism run rampant,” warns Barber. “It is a denial of politics itself.”

Can We Stop the Politics of Nostalgia that Have Dominated 2016?

Cas Mudde/Newsweek

“The political decisions of 2016 will influence our future for many years, if not decades, to come and yet they were primarily influenced by the past,” writes Cas Mudde, who spoke at the Council’s populism symposium. Trump (and Nigel Farage in the UK) are selling a nostalgia for the 1950 and 60s – a time of plentiful jobs and an Ozzie and Harriet life. This whitewashed past conveniently forgets the progress women and minorities have made and glosses over political fights of the era. Yet until politicians offer an “attractive and convincing forward-looking program,” many will continue to let themselves be seduced by the past.

How Brexit May Not Mean Brexit

Philip Stephens/Financial Times

Faced with the messy process of defining Brexit beyond a simple “in” or “out,” the people may find that they want a closer relationship with the EU than the Leavers intended, Philip Stephens opines in the FT. As the UK is likely to suffer the most from the breakup, it is not “impossible to imagine that a recession would see popular support for Brexit waning fast.” And voters changing their mind would be fine, Stephens argues, because that’s democracy, too.

Heat, Hunger and War Force Africans Onto a ‘Road on Fire’

Somini Sengupta/The New York Times

What motivates the young men and boys of West Africa to “leave home, endure beatings and bribes, board a smuggler’s pickup truck and try to make a living far, far away”? In a stunning New York Times interactive, Somini Sengupta reviews the economic and political pressures – dictatorships, terrorism, but mainly climate change – that propel African migrants to seek a better life. Part of a series of Times interactives on “Carbon’s Casualties.”


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