Monday 19 August 2019

US and EU paths make for a more fragmented world

If US president-elect Donald Trump’s utterances are to be believed, the nature of the Nato alliance, which survived the end of the Cold War, could now be in doubt. Photo: Reuters
If US president-elect Donald Trump’s utterances are to be believed, the nature of the Nato alliance, which survived the end of the Cold War, could now be in doubt. Photo: Reuters

Mary Dejevsky

This is not how 2017 was supposed to begin: with an untried and iconoclastic president about to take office in the United States; with the UK preparing for divorce negotiations with the European Union, and with Russia re-established in the Middle East, underwriting an uneasy victory for the ancient regime in Syria.

In Europe, the sense of uncertainty is compounded by elections in the Netherlands, France and Germany. Russia faces perhaps its most sensitive anniversary since the collapse of the Soviet Union - the centenary of the Bolshevik Revolution.

Russian President Vladimir Putin. Photo: Reuters
Russian President Vladimir Putin. Photo: Reuters

Suddenly, the rest of the world looks reassuringly familiar by comparison, if only because volatility there is already factored in.

The 'Arab Spring' has given way to a messy, sometimes violent, autumn, in which regional rivalries have been exacerbated. Barring accidents, Xi Jinping will strengthen his grip on China with the 27th Communist Party Congress set to acclaim him for a second term as general secretary.

India looks destined for more fitfully chaotic growth; Latin America ditto, with the bonus of peace in Colombia.

Cuba will be watched for signs that the passing of Fidel Castro - and the promised retirement of his brother Raul - is bringing long-awaited change. Developments in Africa - justly or not - will be observed warily, largely because of its burgeoning young population and the numbers of people driven for one reason or another to move north.

What is unusual, perhaps unique, about the start of this year is that the international settlement that has remained in place pretty much since 1945 seems to be coming apart, and some big questions are being posed as a consequence.

What has been termed globalisation, and regarded until recently as either inevitable or a universal good, is being challenged.

Nor is the challenge related only to dissatisfaction with the economy; it is about politics, identity and the reassertion of the nation state. Multilateralism of all kinds threatens - or promises, depending on your perspective - to go into reverse.

Donald Trump won the US presidency on a platform of America First, which presupposes the dismantling of multilateral trade agreements and alliances that, in his view, do not work in the US's interest.

He wants to keep the US out of conflicts that are not, in his judgment, in the direct national interest.

To an extent, the post-war doctrine of US exceptionalism always assumed America First, but it came with offers of protection and solidarity, as exemplified in the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (Nato).

If Mr Trump's utterances are to be believed, the nature and structure of this alliance, which survived the end of the Cold War, could now be in doubt. At the very least this means more cost to be borne by the European members.

Further down the line, a lesser US commitment could mean an emboldened Russia, a greater sense of insecurity among the east and central Europeans; alternatively, it could encourage the EU to develop its own defence capability. Atlanticism as we have known it, though, could be on the way out.

But the UK's departure from the European Union - a form of Britain First - also casts doubt on the durability of the EU.

Once hailed as a collegiate model for other regions of the world - and awarded the 2012 Nobel peace prize - the EU depends on the readiness of states to sacrifice a degree of sovereignty for the sake of the common endeavour.

Restoration

The UK always found that difficult; the "new" Europeans are finding it hard, too, not least because the restoration of their own sovereignty is so relatively recent.

But 2017 will also show whether a more militant nationalism, including in France, could threaten, even doom, the common project.

This is not inevitable. The EU could respond to the UK's departure by closing ranks and completing the currency and security unions that London rejected.

But a world without a United States prepared to project its might, and without an EU committed to ever-closer union (or at all), starts to look both more fragmented and more old fashioned in terms of international relations and power centres.

Post-Soviet Russia, and to an extent France, have long favoured what they call a multi-polar world as the arrangement that should have followed the Cold War.

Russia has several times mooted a pan-European security pact. From this sort of thinking would logically follow the reform of the UN and other international structures to include China, India and others on more equal terms.

With hindsight, the Soviet Union's collapse 25 years ago last month marked only Act I of the end of the Cold War, as many of the old hierarchies remained in place.

Could 2017, with Mr Trump, Brexit and a spate of signal European elections, be the year that begins Act II? (© London Independent Service)

Irish Independent

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