Chronological markers, like the end of a year, are an arbitrary human contrivance, but it’s a useful occasion to take stock. 2019’s end has also brought the end of a decade, so perhaps one can take a longer view.
For the United States, the year gone by has caused concern both within and outside. The year 2019 ended with its president being impeached only for the third time in its two-century-long history. The broader context is even more alarming—the nation is bitterly divided and hyperpolarised.
Outside the US, the United Kingdom, which has just voted for a party to get it out of the European Union, also remains bitterly divided.
Unrest and unhappiness manifested all over the world in loud public protests.
All over Latin America, the Latinoamericano Primavera (Latin American Spring) saw massive public protests in a slew of nations against horrendous inequality, draconian austerity and corrupt political machines.
Democratic activists in Hong Kong fought pitched battles with brutal police; citizens turned out en masse in Indian cities to protest a draconian citizenship law.
In Europe—and beyond—one response to socio-economic distress has been the rise of populist, ultranationalist parties. From Turkey to Hungary to Poland, hypernationalist machismo reigns—with a chilling disdain for such political niceties as freedom of public discourse, independence of the judiciary, press or academia.
Does the US have its act together to forge forward with a path that is mutually beneficial for itself and the rest of the world?
The question may raise the hackles of some readers. Why should the US, a nation with a notoriously insular public, call the shots in global politics? Its past history is peppered with dark, unconscionable involvements. (Guatemala 1954, Indonesia 1964, Vietnam 1955-1975—to pick just a few random examples.)
Well, that’s just the way the world is. Like it or not, the US is the 800-pound gorilla in global affairs. Take the recent nuclear accord with Iran. The US decision to torpedo it has crippled the accord, despite the support of all other parties.
Following the Second World War, the US, the economic powerhouse of the world, became a predominant player in global geopolitics. The World Bank and the International Monetary Fund, launched following the Bretton Woods Conference in New Hampshire in 1944, and the United Nations, founded after a meeting in San Francisco in 1945, established US preeminence.
If there is a lesson to be learned from history, it is that effective global policymaking requires a commitment to multilateralism. All international accords are the fruit of patient, painstaking negotiations conducted with a give-and-take attitude. No party gets all it wants, a painful price is often paid by the parties, yet all is done for a greater good.
Former President Barack Obama’s successful multilateral nuclear accord with Iran is a case in point. Both Iran and the US swallowed some bitter pills, yet the final accord was widely hailed as a landmark achievement towards peace.
The advent of Donald J Trump has upset the apple cart. Like a bull in a china shop, the US president has given diplomacy and multilateralism short shift. One of his more egregious policy decisions was to unilaterally walk out of the accord with Iran, essentially telling the whole world that the US could no longer be trusted to keep its word. Everybody, including the US, agreed that Iran was compliant with the accord.
Trump left Kurdish allies to the tender mercies of Turkey in Syria, got the US into a dangerous trade war with China and egged on Britain to leave the EU. But bluster and threats, Trump and his ilk will discover, only go so far. Contrast the current wrangling with China over trade with the historic commitment the US and China made in 2016 to abide by the Paris climate agreement.
The present Trump administration’s tone reeks of jingoism and arrogance. Its penchant to cozy up with autocrats like Russia’s Vladimir Putin, North Korea’s Kim Il-Jong and Saudi Arabia’s Muhammad bin Salman doesn’t help.
Then there is a key problem of policy. An underlying common thread runs through the diversity of protests all over the world. Globalisation, it turns out, is not all it’s cracked out to be. The protests are a cri de coeur from the masses it has left behind.
There is little sign the Trump administration has the slightest sensitivity to this. In fact, its actions suggest the very opposite. It’s massive tax cuts to the superrich left a huge hole in the US budget, its close aides include lobbyists, investment bankers and CEOs.
Its attitude to climate change brings into sharp relief how far removed the US is from the global mood. While the world watches with alarm the looming environmental catastrophe, Trump has left the Paris accord, fighting and/or undermining all US environmental laws, and going after states like California which attempt to set higher standards.
Given this grim reality, the appearance of an effective, positive US leadership in global affairs in the immediate future has a snowball’s chance in hell. A change of guard in 2020 might make a difference, but that’s far down the road.
So here we are then—the US saddled with a jingoistic, science-denying leader prone to issue a rude juvenile tweet at the slightest provocation when global diplomacy needs tact, finesse and sensitivity. In the meantime, nation after nation in the world is roiled by a public fed up with the gross inequality and corruption in their countries. Amidst this toxic ferment, a slew of silver-tongued demagogues is rising, holding supporters in thrall with a potent brew of xenophobia and intolerance for dissent.
Lord knows it’s not a very pretty picture. The only hope, such as it is, that I draw, is from former Israeli Foreign Minister Abba Eban’s exasperated, resigned observation: “Men and nations behave wisely once they have exhausted all other alternatives.”
Ashfaque Swapan is a contributing editor for Siliconeer, a digital daily for South Asians in the United States.