The new world disorder is under way while speculation about what President Trump would do has given way to a spate of executive orders. The cocktail of reactionary withdrawal from previous commitments (Trump + Brexit is imposing a change of guard on international relationships, leaving the northern hemisphere turned upside down.
The neoliberal economic and geostrategic consensus has broken down and left in its wake an ocean of uncertainty. The Trump administration has shown itself hostile to European integration and has moved close to Putin. Xi Jinping “saved” the Davos forum and has become the standard-bearer of globalization. A wave of protectionist nativism could lead to trade wars with serious consequences. 2017 is the year with the greatest political risk since the end of World War II (Ian Bremmer).
Between American decisionism and Russian authoritarianism
The USA is starting a new era with shades of isolation and unilateralism. This compromises the Atlantic Alliance, the centre of gravity of the twentieth century. A new “special relationship” with post-Brexit Great Britain is sought while fantasizing over the end of the Euro and calling the EU a “vehicle” for Germany. It looks down on supranational organizations, the safeguards of multilateralism, while at the same time escalating tensions with China that may end in triggering the greatest danger the world now faces.
Internally, its democracy is beginning a new chapter based on Schmitt’s Dezisionismus. A sovereign power that does not respond to legal norms or rational discussion. Without checks and balances, without judges or press. In the field of economics, trade barriers are foreseen. Care must be taken as, what do these targets (Mexico, Germany and China) of the new President all have in common? They are great exporting powers. The hostility of the White House is a reflection of one of its greatest weaknesses: its current account deficit. And also one of the greatest global macroeconomic imbalances. Once again, economy and international relations are intertwined.
Putin’s Russia feels strong and has reason to do so. After a gradual loss of domination over the strategic ‘rimland’ (Spykman), Russia has shown that is prepared to do anything, even cyberattacks, to maintain its position. All of its latest moves in the Caucasus, Ukraine or Syria have led to an increase in its influence. Putin’s authoritarianism has masked its economic problems and it seems that the electoral results in the Western world are a fortune smiling in his favour.
And Putin also now hopes that, with an American administration that is more than favourable, trade sanctions will be eased or even lifted. Trump and Putin speak the same language and their connections are more than evident. But be careful, the USA may be using the Kremlin against the Asian giant, just as Kissinger did in the opposite direction during the Cold War. A new anchor to hold down, in this case, the Chinese ascent. Trump is a dangerous character – folkloric and ridiculous, yet it would be wise not to dismiss everything he does as stupid.
The Pacific Ocean warms up and the Middle East burns
China is indeed the great obsession of the new incumbent in the Oval Office. A giant that has risen to the top of the global economy, massively accumulating gold and a strategic investor in Africa, central Asia and Latin America. It now does not merely wish to accept the rules, it wants to dictate them. Its caution has given way to the initial stages of imposing its own Truman Doctrine in the Pacific; something that the USA does not seem prepared to accept and they can count on their historical allies in the region: South Korea and Japan.
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American-Japanese relations are going through a second honeymoon. The Abe-Trump pairing has common interests, China, but they speak different languages. To understand why getting close to Trump is not perceived in Tokyo as a threat, one must look at their internal politics. Japan is a homogenous country, without immigration, an extreme right or a reactionary impulse, and, unlike Europe, does not have members of International Trumpists in their parliament.
The future of the wider Middle Eastern conflict and the re-incorporation of the Iranian pivot (Kaplan) to the international scene are still up in the air. It is not yet known if Russia will be able to modify the rhetoric from Washington in this area. The political-religious competition between Iran and Saudi Arabia explains to a large degree conflicts that are currently unresolved: Yemen, Iraq and Syria. The US may be tempted to use one of these proxy wars, in Yemen, for reasserting its power in the area along with its Saudi partner.
Meanwhile, a new Ottoman Turkey has consolidated itself as a powerful regional actor, and those implicated in Assad’s military victory, Russia, Iran and Hezbollah, will decide the future of the country. An isolated Israel, nonetheless delighted with the new Commander-in-chief, will continue a policy of illegal settlements, thus making the two-state solution impossible. A region in flames and undergoing profound transformation, continuing to distort the future of Europe.
Europe facing its toughest test
The old continent can see these changing international relations as a party to which it has not been invited. Fragmented, terrified and left without the Atlantic umbrella, suffering the worst hangover after the Great Recession, and all in a year of electoral heart-attack. The biggest risk is that a great Troika made up of Washington, Moscow and Beijing will find a new international balance ignoring Europe.
At the same time, as Europeans, we have the opportunity to occupy an enormous hole in a world looking for reference and left by a retreating USA. We could take on the role of defending Enlightenment values: rule of law, democracy, tolerance and open societies. These continue to be attractive and enlightening values, but even the best ideas need to be defended. That is why the EU must restore its undermined social model, equipping it with a shield in terms of security and defence. We need to activate a flexible Europe, through enhanced cooperation, to unblock the process of integration and end the paralyzing tug of war between capitals.
It is more vital than ever to look for allies who share our vision of the world: laws, dialogue and multilateralism. Our relations with Latin America and Canada take on a new significance. It would suit us to find a new equilibrium with Russia and strengthen ties with China. We will also need to pay special attention to the candidacy for German Chancellor of the social democrat and pro-European Martin Schulz. His victory would have a huge impact on the hegemonic power of the continent.
With the decisionism of Trump, the authoritarianism of Putin and the state capitalism of Xi Jinping, Europe has the obligation to protect its legacy: liberal democracy and a market with a human face. Individual freedom and social protection. Preserving the political dimension and reconstructing the social dimension of the Enlightenment project. That is the natural ground of social democracy: an intelligent humanism that confronts the return to the tribe, the walls and the scapegoats.
We know since the History of the Peloponnesian War that human conduct is guided by self-interest, fear and defence of honour. It seems that international relations are returning to their origins. Yet we must not forget that geopolitics contain latent ideological wars. It is still to be decided if we will have a world ordered by the pride of hubris or the force of reason.
This is an abridged, edited version of a post that originally appeared in Spanish on the Política Exterior blog.
Javier López has been a Spanish member of the European Parliament since 2014. He is chair of its delegation to the Euro-Latin American Parliamentary Assembly and a member of the Committee on Environment, Public Health and Food Safety.