Kevin Sullivan is a senior editor for RealClearPolitics. Follow him on Twitter @kevinbsullivan. This piece is part of a special RCW series on America’s role in the world during the Trump administration.
2016 proved to be a challenging year for globalists. The stunning summertime decision by Britons to leave the European Union, coupled with the equally unexpected election in the United States of Donald Trump as president, cast doubts on long-cherished assumptions about the pace of global interdependence and prosperity.
President Trump moved quickly during his first week in office to make good on foreign policy pledges made during his campaign, and is, to some experts, determined to unravel an international order that the president and his supporters feel has long left the working people of the world behind.
“Trump believes that America gets a raw deal from the liberal international order it helped to create and has led since World War II,” explains Brookings Institution fellow Thomas Wright, and he “seeks nothing less than ending the U.S.-led liberal order and freeing America from its international commitments.”
So here we are, witnessing a steady global stride toward revanchism and ultranationalism -- but are we actually bearing witness to the birth of an altogether new world order?
While the merits of open markets and multilateral institutions fail to resonate across much of the Western world, the same cannot be said of developing countries throughout much of Asia, Africa, and Latin America. In fact, the true story behind the current pause in the globalist moment is that it has in many regards become a victim of its own successes.
By practically every available metric -- poverty, prosperity, education, and life expectancy, just to name a few -- the world has become a safer, healthier, and happier place. This is true notwithstanding the crises and atrocities that fill our Facebook feeds and television screens. The increased interdependence and convergence of not only markets, but of mores and modern ways of thinking -- what philosopher Peter Singer referred to, and scholar Steven Pinker later popularized, as the “escalator of reason” -- have undoubtedly contributed to what amounts to a net gain for mankind.
Such gains have been fleeting and far less tangible across many of the heartland communities of the West that once fueled globalization’s rise, however. And while the global middle class continues to rise, working-class voters in places like Ohio and Shropshire are now having their doubts.
“The problem in the 21st century is that the beneficiaries of globalization -- the middle class in emerging economies and the elites in advanced countries -- are no longer strong enough to alone shape the political reform of domestic and global institutions,” suggests economist Homi Kharas. “[T]he middle class in advanced economies is now even in retreat, causing many to become skeptical about whether further globalization is serving their best interests.”
The Politics of Western Pessimism
This global move toward the middle has clearly had a negative effect on working communities across the Western world, and these disenfranchised working-classes therefore take a dimmer view of the future than their counterparts in the developing world. In a 2014 Pew Research Center poll, 65 percent of respondents from advanced economies doubted that their children would be better off financially than themselves.
The conditions were therefore ripe in the West for the nationalist firebrands of 2016. But their timing couldn’t have been worse. For as the West and the East exchange wealth for doubt, geopolitical rivals like China and Russia are quickly moving to exploit the apparent void in global leadership. The inability of the international community to solve the disastrous civil war in Syria, and the European Union’s subsequent failure to address the refugee crisis stemming from it, have placed a strain on the psyche and sense of security in a West that needed just one final push toward retrenchment and isolation.
“Given the rise of other countries with enough power to shrug off U.S. pressure … this moment was inevitable,” writes political scientist Ian Bremmer. “America will remain the sole superpower for the foreseeable future … But Trump's election marks an irreversible break with the past, one with global implications.”
Russia -- wielding its U.N. Security Council veto, its still formidable military, and a sizeable nuclear arsenal -- will continue to exploit the insecurity and vacillation afflicting many of the world’s multilateral institutions, and it will likewise persist in playing its hand masterfully for the foreseeable future. Its role in the Syrian civil war and its 2014 annexation of Crimea stand as blatant examples of Russian disregard for the international system. A moribund worldwide order presents the Kremlin with ample opportunity to manipulate the postwar system in order to secure its immediate interests.
China, too, has been working in recent years to create alternate institutional power centers like the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank and the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership designed to challenge Western entities like the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund. Its aggressive behavior in the South China Sea, and its disinterest in the preservation of international maritime norms, should also worry anyone interested in preserving the global institutions of the postwar world.
There is however far more to the Asia story than just that, and much of it is highly encouraging. Western observers often dwell on what divides greater Asia, while simultaneously downplaying the forces that pull the region together. But traditional U.S. allies like Japan and South Korea may soon find themselves reluctantly cozying up to geopolitical rival Beijing should the Trump administration make good on its threats to scale back trade and security commitments in the region.
“The thought of Beijing and Tokyo standing together to defend free trade against Washington might seem surreal -- but in the great geopolitical reshuffling, it may now be a reasonable course of action,” writes Japan-based journalist William Sposato.
Although the United States and the European powers will remain atop the global food chain for many more years to come, this shift eastward in influence, wealth, and power will likely represent, as Singaporean academic and diplomat Kishore Mahbubani argues, the first transition of global dominance to a non-Western power in two centuries. However, unlike past imperial transfers, this one needn’t be violent or mutually exclusive, and in all likelihood will not be. The answer, he argues, is more multilateralism.
“One steady secular trend can clearly be observed as we watch the behavior of nation-states. Since the end of World War II, all nation-states have begun to behave more ‘decently’ toward their own citizens and toward their neighboring states,” writes Mahbubani, author of the book The Great Convergence. “This slow and steady improvement is no accident.”
Multilateralism Builds Peace
Mahbubani holds up Southeast Asia as a prime example of how regional cooperation, commerce, and constant dialogue can transform once war-ridden and unstable parts of the world into relatively peaceful and prosperous communities. And although there are red flags even amid this regional renaissance -- Southeast Asian nations have been boosting arms purchases at a disconcerting rate in recent years -- organizations like ASEAN have helped foster a more peaceful Asia premised on jaw-jaw rather than war-war.
These and similar multilateral institutions -- of which the European Union still counts as a success story, in spite of its recent struggles -- could serve as an elixir to the instability and uncertainty of a changing global landscape, but only if leaders and lawmakers in the West show a willingness to strengthen and reform them.
Early indicators from the Trump team are discouraging, however. In his inaugural address, the president made a forceful argument for a different approach to American power and responsibility abroad, declaring that from now on, “it's going to be only America first.”
“We will seek friendship and goodwill with the nations of the world, but we do so with the understanding that it is the right of all nations to put their own interests first,” said the president.
The Trump administration has reportedly been mulling over an executive order to slash contributions to the United Nations by at least 40 percent. Not to be outdone, Trump’s Republican colleagues in Congress are pushing to strip the United Nations and its various humanitarian and development programs of essential funding in retaliation for last year’s Security Council vote against Israeli settlements, and one Alabama congressman has sponsored a bill that would remove the United States from the body entirely.
Much of this is familiar territory. The United Nations has long been a target for criticism and conspiracy mongering in the United States, and the organization has for decades received mixed reviews from Americans. In Trump, however, the skeptics have found a champion.
Speaking in December at a “Thank You” rally in Cincinnati, OH, Trump gave voice to the millions of disenchanted nationalists the world over, pledging to rein in the globalists who would, as they see it, subject the sovereign people of the world to international rules and mores.
"There is no global anthem. No global currency. No certificate of global citizenship. We pledge allegiance to one flag and that flag is the American flag," said Trump to the cheering Ohio audience. “Never again will any one’s interests come before the interest of the American people. It’s not gonna happen again."
Is There Still Hope for Globalism?
None of this augurs well for the future of multilateral cooperation in the Trump era, and for those of us who still cling to the promise of globalism, we too have some soul-searching to do. For if the new nationalists and neo-isolationists too often barter in misinformation or ignorance, the globalists of the world -- the nationless, multiculti claque more at home in Davos than in downtown Akron -- must somehow atone for the disservice done to the working men and women who fueled the engine of globalization, only to be ultimately left behind in its advance.
“If globalists are to regain the public’s trust, they will need to re-examine their own policies,” writes the Wall Street Journal’s Greg Ip. “That globalization’s winners can compensate its losers makes impeccable economic logic, but it rings hollow among those too old to retrain or move. Political capital might be better invested in preserving existing trade pacts, not passing new ones. And trade pacts may be a less effective bulwark against China than military cooperation with those worried about Chinese aggression.”
Indeed, a kind of globalism that both reinforces and improves upon existing institutions and trade deals, while better addressing the concerns of workers and sovereign citizens around the world, could serve to bridge the growing gap between the world’s wealthy and poor, a crisis that one recent World Economic Forum study warned would only continue to fuel polarization and political radicalization if left unaddressed.
However, improving and securing the long-term legitimacy of institutions like the United Nations will require a rethink of the organization -- such as expanding and diversifying the Security Council. Such a move has and will likely continue to meet resistance from not only American lawmakers, but from the other permanent members of the U.N. Security Council.
None of these challenges hold easy solutions, but the choice is a stark if not obvious one. Momentary retreat to retrenchment and nativism may offer a temporary reprieve from the forces of globalization, the shift in income, education, and influence away from the West suggests that a reassessment of the global order is highly overdue. By embracing this shift, and working to improve the legitimacy and authority of existing international institutions, the United States could benefit from the world that it helped design. With a growing global middle class and a more uniform appreciation for the good life, American industry could capitalize on the increasingly bourgeois appetites of a world that is living longer, healthier, and happier lives.
These global strides are, according to global risk analyst Afshin Molavi, largely “geopolitics-proof,” and, if properly acknowledged and harnessed, will ultimately benefit the security and prosperity of the United States.
“An American president who can tap global middle-class hopes will do more to burnish America’s image than billions of dollars spent on public diplomacy,” argues Molavi.
This global middle, well-educated and innovative, will also provide world leaders with ample reservoirs of potential solutions to the many crises facing the planet, such as inequality, terrorism, climate change, and cybersecurity. But this will demand talented diplomacy and patient international cooperation, neither of which is in high abundance these days in the halls of Western power.
Globalization cannot be walled off -- but it can be made better. Its improvement is a job that China is wholly unsuited for, and one that the United States still possesses the capital, power, and prestige to accomplish. For the foreseeable future, however, America appears unlikely and unwilling to take on such responsibility.