Following the end of the Cold War, the United States experienced its unipolar moment. Liberal democracy and free market capitalism were going to spread across the globe, which would be the “end of history.” However, the illusory assumption that the world was pulling itself closer together came to a crashing stop with the Iraq war and the Great Recession. We discovered there were limits to spreading democracy in the world, and now Iraq and Syria have descended into chaos. We also discovered that the financial recession cracked, perhaps irreparably, the belief that capitalism was the superior economic system. Now, one third of millennials actually believe socialism is a good idea.
The election of Donald Trump on November 8 represents an increasing rejection of this globalized order and a return to the Westphalian notion that nation-states and citizenship are more important than economic and political interconnectedness. The Treaty of Westphalia came about in 1648 following the Thirty Years War and established the modern nation-state system. Now, countries around the world are attempting to buck the neoliberal framework and bring back the nation-state as the center of international relations and foreign policy.
On June 23, the United Kingdom voted on “Brexit,” which led to the downfall of the Cameron premiership and the election of Theresa May. Prime Minister May eloquently laid out the changing understanding of politics in her Conservative Party Conference speech. She noted there was a “quiet revolution” in the country, holding that the British people were no longer going to be ignored by the likes of the European Union and political elites. She argued that the government should support “free markets, but [step] in to repair them when they aren’t working as they should.” And she also explicitly stated, “[I]f you believe you’re a citizen of the world, you’re a citizen of nowhere.”
Countries elsewhere are following this model as well, returning to focus on national interests above interconnectedness.
- Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi has used military intervention in Myanmar, exerting its power in a foreign country, and sought closer ties with country like Iran in order to gain strategic advantages.
- Russian President Vladimir Putin has annexed Crimea, supported insurgents in the Ukraine, sided with Syrian dictator Bashar al-Assad, and developed a new and highly improved nuclear weapon (the RS-28 Sarmat). All of this is meant to demonstrate Russian strength, preserve strategic importance, and retrieve great power status.
- Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe has sought a reinterpretation of their constitution’s “self-defense” doctrine so that the country can send troops abroad outside of collective security agreements.
- South Africa decided to leave the International Criminal Court (an important international institution) because they argue that the ICC “disproportionately focuses on Africa.”
- Continental Europe is seeing the expansion of far right, protectionist, and anti-immigrant parties in France, Austria, and the Netherlands, all places where these parties could take executive power.
Some world leaders, though, are attempting to maintain the liberal international order. German Chancellor Angela Merkel gave a diplomatic rebuke of Donald Trump by saying Germany would work with the United States when the two countries could cooperate on the shared values of freedom, democracy, respect for the rule of law, and the dignity of every person regardless or sexual orientation or national origin.
Donald Trump’s protectionist agenda (opposition to NAFTA and TPP along with an anti-immigration stance) combined with his contempt for international institutions like NATO and the UN and his open commitment to American interests over global norms place him firmly in the growing hostility towards the liberal international order and a return to the Westphalian system.
The central theses of Trump’s agenda—borders and immigration policy matter, national interests should be placed over norms, and free markets have problems—are not incorrect. Many countries and communities have grown frustrated with neoliberalism, international institutions, and globalization and the deleterious consequences they bring. We must contend seriously with these issues and the fact the current world order is giving way to an older version. What we can hope for, then, is that President-elect Trump judiciously applies these principles like Theresa May instead of dangerously applying them like Vladimir Putin.