Political debates in Europe and America suddenly seem very poor when compared with the news. Imagination now takes place in the real world. And it all started in those months leading from Brexit to the Trump election.
A global political order that not so long ago seemed destined to live forever proceeded to crumble before our eyes. What is worse, no one has been able to convincingly tell us why or to what purpose. The crumbling could all be temporary, of course, but the problem is that extraordinary events cannot properly be temporary. Once the realm of the possible has been expanded, it is forever expanded.
Much of the distress has to do with the fact that the revolt against some of the basic principles of the global order comes not from the periphery but from the very center of world power. Not from the distant provinces, which wealth and ideas could not reach, but from the capital, or rather from the imperial palace standing at the very center of the capital. Something like that was not supposed to happen.
What was remarkable about the Brexit referendum was that the country that had invented free trade and taken it to the four corners of the world was now refusing to be part of the largest and freest economic bloc ever created. As for Donald Trump, he has come to symbolize a precipitous retreat from the previous American foreign-policy consensus. At times he seems to want to jettison the existing liberal world order and replace it with something else, defined around a strong national idea and appealing to a world of cutthroat competition. He has criticized a political culture that prizes the diffusion of power, hewing tothe belief that without a strong state, citizens will have no one to defend them against other countries. He seems to regard a firm commitment to liberal values as a hindrance to American power. He has promised to pursue what he sees as better trade deals for America, even if that means unraveling the liberal world order as it exists at present. According to Trump, “Americanism, not globalism, will be our credo.”
The global order created after the Second World War had been endangered before, but in the past the threat had come from the outside. Now it seems to be in danger of being abandoned by those who had been responsible for building it and who had always benefited from it. For some, Brexit and Trump have simply been an error of perception: It is true that the countries at the core of the system have to restrain their power and cannot come out on top every time, but over the long term they reap the largest benefits and have the most interest in preserving the system.
As domestic divisions in Europe and the United States became increasingly exposed, relations between elites and a large section of the electorate acquired something of the old, familiar dynamic between Europeans and those inhabiting the rest of the world. They sound like an effort by the rational and enlightened classes to persuade the irrational and the superstitious — professedly in the interest of the latter. Politicians and intellectuals scrambled to explain the bizarre voting behavior through all sorts of economic and psychoanalytic theories, all the while insisting that a new effort at civic education had become urgent. Such messages can only deepen the divisions and alienation.
The truth is that for many in the United Kingdom and the U.S., there is no longer a functioning liberal order. Among the intellectual and the financial elites, beliefs and practices acquired over generations look as solid as ever, but many other people are suffering the impact from forces outside their national borders to which the state is unwilling or unable to respond. While the elites see a well-functioning international system of markets, trade, and the free movement of people, those at the bottom can find only the work of blind forces and competing states in an increasingly chaotic world. Factories are being closed because of competition from China and elsewhere, and the message communicated to workers is that their country is no longer able to compete. Growing numbers of immigrants have a measurable impact on neighborhoods and the provision of public services, predominantly affecting the poor. Finally, terrorists are seen to be capable of striking at will from their bases abroad and cells in Europe and the U.S.
Surprising? Perhaps, but we have seen it all before — in those societies first suffering the impact of European or Western expansion. One historical analogy is with the arrival of European civilization in the Muslim world. Until the 18th century the course of history still seemed to be favoring the great Muslim empires, and the ruling Ottoman, Safavid, or Mughal elites certainly never entertained any other possibility. When the shock arrived, in the form of a string of military defeats and growing trade dependence, no one was prepared. The initial reaction was to wait for the storm to pass while remaining faithful to traditional habits and principles. Two main strands of reaction were eventually considered. First, there was a call to purify Muslim society from later influences and deviations. The origin of the Wahhabi radical reinterpretation of Islam dates from this moment. The second response, moving in the opposite direction, was to try to reform Muslim society, to address its perceived weaknesses and to appropriate some European ideas, at least in the area of military technology.
A similar process took place in China roughly a century later. Determined to open Chinese markets to foreign goods, Britain introduced the habit of opium smoking into the country and later defended its trade through military means, quickly dispatching the poorly equipped Chinese navy. The emperor sued for peace, opened five trade ports to foreigners, and ceded Hong Kong to the British in perpetuity. It was impossible to pretend that the world order as it had been conceived in Beijing since time immemorial could survive the onslaught, but the mandarins spent most of the next few decades doing just that, for their most treasured values prohibited the recognition of any alternative to Chinese civilization.
To understand what the West is becoming, travel to Turkey, Egypt, or Pakistan. These are countries that, while never admitted to the club, were always of enormous strategic importance for Western powers, whose constant involvement created a culture of suspicion and resentment. What has been taking place in the U.S. since the 2016 elections would look strikingly familiar to Turks or Egyptians. Some episode or other of foreign involvement in the democratic process is reported. That is bad enough as far as it goes, but it gets worse. Once the fatal virus of suspicion enters the political bloodstream, it will never leave. Foreign involvement as such becomes a political strategy. The different sides in the political contest will strive to win not by developing better policies but by turning their opponents into traitors and quislings.
If you think the problem is Trump, think again. The forbidden fruit has been bitten. How could we go back? Why would Republicans refrain from lobbing the same accusations of foreign meddling against Democrats in the future? And why would foreign powers not attempt the same tactics again, now that they have seen how easy it is to sow chaos and discord? Trump did not bring this situation with him. He is in fact the product of a new world where voters in the U.S. feel increasingly vulnerable to influences from the outside — influences which can no longer be managed or controlled as they were in the past.
One could speculate endlessly about the root causes of the new situation, but the truth is notably straightforward. Technology — once the preserve of the West — is now universal. In both cases discussed above, the Muslim and Chinese worlds were faced with a new kind of civilization, carrying all the secrets of modern science, which at first must have looked like supernatural powers. The encounter between European and Asian empires in the modern age had a very specific meaning to those involved: the superiority of European technology. Some Asian thinkers or polemicists went so far as to make the intriguing claim that the encounter was not between Asians and Europeans, but rather between Asians and European machines.
We have now entered a new age, one perfectly summarized by saying that Western machines are every day meeting Asian machines. After all, the same tools we have used — and continue to use — to manage and influence the rest of the world are now fully available outside the West. When power and influence flow in all directions at once, the result is, from one point of view, a democratic order where everyone will rule and be ruled at once. From a different point of view, it could be described as a field of forces where every action is a reaction in an endless chain. Countries, peoples, voters, and presidents are ultimately disturbances in a chaotic field.