September 22, 2016 | By Ivo H. Daalder

This Week's Reads – Trends and Trouble at the UN

Russian President Vladimir Putin (R) and U.S. President Barack Obama share a toast during the luncheon at the United Nations General Assembly in New York, September 28, 2015. REUTERS/Mikhail Metzel/RIA Novosti/Pool

World leaders are confronting a host of challenges at the UN General Assembly this week in New York City. Their most immediate task is to keep their citizens safe, a point made clear in the chaotic aftermath of this weekend’s Chelsea neighborhood bombing. They also have urgent crises to resolve abroad, particularly the Syrian civil war—which, this week, erupted in a new wave of violence and resulted in a deadly attack on UN aid convoys.

Along with these immediate concerns, leaders must also grapple with a number of worrisome trends. Chief among these is the growing backlash against globalization, as president Obama highlighted during his address to the UN General Assembly. This has become one of the defining stories of 2016, and is likely to have profound implications for years to come. To understand how this trend is manifesting itself, recall that the biggest global trade deal in history—the Trans-Pacific Partnership—is currently on life support after endless attacks from both political parties in the United States. Or consider the economic and political shock that has resulted from Brexit, and the spillover effects this is having on Britain’s military.

Another related trend can be seen in rising political polarization, notably in the United States and Europe. As Fareed Zakaria notes in a recent column, a key driver of this polarization is identity politics, or tribalism by a different name. This “identity politics” has created new rifts in society—rifts that are much more difficult to bridge than traditional differences on economics and the size of government. To be clear, this is a big problem: increasing polarization has contributed to a crisis in governance, in which public trust in institutions has plummeted and the ability of governments to solve problems has declined.

These disappointing trends notwithstanding, there is still cause for optimism. First, there are global leaders today who are working diligently for a more open and secure world. To take just one example, London Mayor Sadiq Khan (who recently spoke at the Council), is rethinking London’s housing, transport and policing policies in order to improve the city’s community cohesion. Second, there are successful models that demonstrate a way forward. Canada, for example, has shown how a well-crafted immigration system can build a more tolerant, multicultural society.

There is no shortage of problems to address as world leaders gather this week in New York. This week’s reads offer a snapshot of some of the issues and trends that are driving the discussions.

His Grip Still Secure, Bashar al-Assad Smiles as Syria Burns

Ben Hubbard/The New York Times

Ben Hubbard reports from the Middle East that Syrian dictator Bashar al-Assad has created a crushing stalemate in Syria. “The problem is that he cannot win, and at the same time he is not losing,” as one Syria-watcher put it. The recent deal between the US and Russia keeps Assad in power and focuses on destroying his enemies, but the rebels facing him are unlikely to stop fighting as long as he remains in power. However, Assad’s precarious position makes him dependent on foreign powers looking out for their own interests—interests which may not always align in the future.

Put Globalization to Work for Democracies

Dani Rodrik/The New York Times

Dani Rodrik believes the world has pushed economic globalization too far—toward an impractical “hyperglobalization”—which has effectively put democracy to work for the global economy instead of the other way around. He proposes five principles that could tone down globalization and give democracies more control over their own paths to prosperity. While some fear his ideas will encourage protectionism, Rodrik says the larger danger is a populist backlash against hypergloblization. Basing globalization on his defensible democratic principles is its best defense, he says, against the extreme forces that threaten it.

Britain’s Withered Forces Not Fit to Repel All-Out Attack

Sam Jones/Financial Times

Leaked correspondence from British General Sir Richard Barrons to Defense Minister Michael Fallon revealed a comprehensive list of military shortcomings in the event of a conventional assault. Barrons cites reliance on counterterrorism procedures, dwindling government military expenditures, and inadequate manpower reserves as having dangerously limited British defense capabilities. Barrons particularly opposes government funding of a small number of massively expensive projects, which he claims will exaggerate the image of the British Armed Forces while sacrificing its operational substance. Worst of all, he says there is now “almost no capacity left to think and plan strategically” beyond managing details and events.

Sizing up the next Commander-in-Chief

Robert Gates/The Wall Street Journal

Robert Gates lists the growing litany of foreign policy challenges the next US president will face, including China’s cyberattacks and aggression in the South China Sea; Russia’s hostile moves in Crimea, Syria, and the US election; and North Korea and Iran’s nuclear and regional hostilities. He says neither Hillary Clinton nor Donald Trump have done much to give anyone confidence in their ability to deal with these problems. Gates admits the possibility that Clinton could overcome her credibility problem, but says that Trump is “beyond repair” on national security and “unqualified and unfit to be commander-in-chief.”

London Mayor Sadiq Khan: Time to Let Go of Segregation — Globally

Sadiq Khan/The Chicago Tribune

In an op-ed published ahead of his speech to the Chicago Council on Global Affairs, Sadiq Khan, the first Muslim mayor of a major Western capital, reflects upon the similar challenges facing London and Chicago—particularly, the increasing challenges of social integration. He says populations are booming but social integration is not keeping pace. This limits economic growth, feeds extremism and causes mistrust between people. According to Khan, social integration and community cohesion are new areas of public policy that, for the first time ever, are at the top of the agenda for many Western cities—“as they must be.”

It’s No Longer the Economy, Stupid: Our Identity Politics Are Polarizing Us

Fareed Zakaria/The Washington Post

Fareed Zakaria investigates the source of Donald Trump’s support and the causes of populism’s rise across the US and Europe. Drawing from a recent research paper, Zakaria’s says that what divides political parties and voters today is not the left-right divide over economic policy but disagreements about social issues. The divide began with young people in the 1960s embracing a “post-materialist” politics of self-expression, gender, race, and environmentalism, generating a backlash from older voters, particularly men, seeking to reaffirm the values with which they grew up. Economic issues, Zakaria argues, were more easily reconciled than these deep issues of identity, leading to today’s intractable political landscape.

Theresa May, Britain’s Prime Minister, Plays the ‘Brexit’ Waiting Game

Steven Erlanger/The New York Times

Theresa May has not produced a plan for how the United Kingdom will leave the European Union, and there have been mixed messages from her cabinet about when and how a final agreement will take shape. Some expect the UK to retain access to the EU’s single market but regain control over its boarders and immigration, but other EU nations are not likely to uncouple market access from freedom of movement. Erlanger writes that May’s silence risks creating a leadership vacuum or feeding into the economic uncertainty that has hung over Britain since its referendum.

How Canada Got Immigration Right

Jonathon Tepperman/The Wall Street Journal

Tepperman explores the Canadian immigration system as a model for encouraging legal routes to citizenship and building a multicultural society. In the late 1960s, Canada reformed its restrictive, largely racist immigration system into a program based on the potential economic value of applicants. According to Tepperman, Canada’s approach of picking most immigrants based on their ability to make material contributions, and Trudeau’s unilateral declaration of multiculturalism as a priority, today accounts for Canada housing “the most successful immigrant populations in the world.”



The Chicago Council on Global Affairs is an independent, nonpartisan organization that provides insight – and influences the public discourse – on critical global issues. We convene leading global voices and conduct independent research to bring clarity and offer solutions to challenges and opportunities across the globe. The Council is committed to engaging the public and raising global awareness of issues that transcend borders and transform how people, business, and governments engage the world.

The Chicago Council on Global Affairs is an independent, nonpartisan organization. All statements of fact and expressions of opinion in blog posts are the sole responsibility of the individual author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the views of the Council.


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