Originally posted just over three years ago as a reflection on 2017, a difficult year, this post seems more germane than ever.
(Originally posted December 2017)
I was asked the other day in conversation with a friend, what was the best thing about this year? She had earlier said the best thing was the collapse of Donald Trump’s opinion poll ratings. After a little thought, I said, perhaps perversely, the best thing about the year was Donald Trump’s presidency because it has led to a steep decline in American prestige – or as people like to say today, soft power – and has marked the reemergence of a multi-polar world.
In July 2016 I predicted Donald Trump’s election victory and his diplomatic defeat. In Donald Trump and America’s Wounded Pride, I wrote:
“The country is in decay, and it is lashing out like a wounded giant. But the giant is in an iron cage of its own making – all the declamations of pride, all the wild gestures, the threats, the desperation make no difference, and only damage the giant more. This wild, violent, bleeding, insulting and falling giant is what scares the world. But I suspect the world will do well as American falls, even if its desperate pride provokes more conflicts in the world. Trump will truly bring America into its darkest hour.”
Perhaps this was too pessimistic vision. The American economy appears to be rebounding, and that may renew American confidence and American leadership. But, the institutional weaknesses of America are too great, and this late blooming may repeat Eliot’s line that “April is the cruellest month.” Indeed, the wild erratic conduct of Trump as President are the epitome of those weak institutions. America is without doubt, in my view, an unravelling empire.
So, what have we seen in 2017 that suggests the emergence of a multi-polar world? Obviously, China has grown in wealth, power and assertiveness. Xi Jinping has launched diplomatic and economic initiatives that look a lot like a new form of empire: the One Road initiative, the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank, the beachhead islands of the South China Sea. It has strengthened ties with countries of South East Asia, like Cambodia and The Philippines, that have reasons to resent the American Empire. It has even emerged as a spokesperson for an alternative form of international order with a changed system of global economic governance:
“we should develop a model of fair and equitable governance in keeping with the trend of the times. As the Chinese saying goes, people with petty shrewdness attend to trivial matters, while people with vision attend to governance of institutions. There is a growing call from the international community for reforming the global economic governance system, which is a pressing task for us. Only when it adapts to new dynamics in the international economic architecture can the global governance system sustain global growth.” Xi Jinping, Speech at Davos January 2017
China opens its arms and welcomes others aboard the “express train” of China’s development; America turns inward and surly, muttering how the rules are not fair, and it must make itself great again.
In Syria and Iraq Islamic State has been defeated territorially; and surely the decisive player in this defeat has been Russia in its backing of Assad and its preparedness to act where America cowered. It was in Munich in 2007 – ten years ago – that Vladimir Putin spoke out against the unipolar globalised world, dominated by American law, firms and culture, and became a single voice galvanising the rebirth of other centres of power.
We are seeing a greater and greater disdain for the basic principles of international law. And independent legal norms are, as a matter of fact, coming increasingly closer to one state’s legal system. One state and, of course, first and foremost the United States, has overstepped its national borders in every way. This is visible in the economic, political, cultural and educational policies it imposes on other nations. Well, who likes this? Who is happy about this?
In 2015 Putin went on to challenge the conceit of American foreign policy – that it is the World’s Policeman, the Indispensable Nation, the fomentor of its model whatever the consequences – in a speech to the United Nations that asked:
“I cannot help asking those who have caused the situation, do you realize now what you’ve done? But I am afraid no one is going to answer that. Indeed, policies based on self-conceit and belief in one’s exceptionality and impunity have never been abandoned.”
Is it any wonder that the American foreign policy and security establishment are in hysterical overdrive about the threat that Russia poses to America. The Secretary of Defence and other top officials claim Russia is the greatest threat to US security. In truth, America is engaged in a heated ideological war against the power that declares an end to its unipolar vision of security.
Putin and Jinping do not espouse the same model of development, but they represent the death throes of Western dominance. However, we have also seen more diplomatically assertive European countries. As Britain collapses into nostalgia for the empire on which the sun would never set, Germany and France have shown more diplomatic initiative. Chancellor Merkel took responsibility for the Syrian refugee crisis in a way that shamed America’s conceited, insular inaction. President Macron has maneuvered France into the position of peace broker in the Middle East, following Trump’s recent petulant, bear-baiting assertion of unilateral diplomacy: the relocation of the US embassy to Jerusalem.
There are no doubt many more examples. But I am no expert in international affairs. I only believe that a multi-polar world is a better, safer place to live in, yet still carries many risks. It is, however, surely the most profound shift in politics and culture that I have observed this year.
And it recalls the book I read at the outset of the year, John Darwin’s After Tamerlane. Darwin doubts the belief in a great transformation that provides an integrated culture. The history of Eurasia, which he so masterfully recounts, shows that the diffusion of so many social and cultural practices across its many states “failed to induce a common view of modernity or of what it was to be ‘modern.’” (p. 505)
The past patterns of trade and conquest, diaspora and migration that have pushed and pulled distant regions together and shaped their cultures and politics have been exceptionally complex. Their effect has been not to homogenize the world, but to keep it diverse. By contrast, the magnetic force of the global economy has been too erratic thus far, and too unevenly felt, to impose the cooperative behaviour and cultural fusion to which theorists of free trade have often looked forward.” (p. 505)
America, and its dreams of itself as the indispensable nation, have fallen, like so many empires of the past, into the shadow of Tamerlane’s failure.
Image source: Russia Insider