Can I ruin your dinner party?
ROME — I’ve found lately that I can ruin any dinner party. It’s like magic. Just get me going on Trump or Putin or climate change and I can put a frown on every face and a furrow in every brow. I do weddings and bar mitzvahs, too.
So I thought I’d come to Italy for a little sun and risotto. I made the mistake, though, of spending a few days with Italian government and international experts trying to understand the refugee crisis that is fracturing the European Union, much of which originates in Italy. And guess what? Now I can ruin your dinner party — and breakfast!
Because what you find when you take a close look at the situation here is something profoundly worrying. I was born in 1953 and have been living my entire life inside the community of democracies that came to be known as “the West” and eventually spread to include democracies around the world, such as Japan, Brazil, South Korea and India. At the core of this community were two pillars: the U.S. and the group of European democracies that became the European Union.
“The West” was not just a state of mind. It was an association of countries with shared interests, institutions and values — particularly the values of liberty, democracy, free markets and the rule of law — which made the postWorld War II world, though far from perfect, a steadily more prosperous, free and decent place for more and more people. This community of democracies was also a beacon, a refuge and a magnet for those who wanted to embrace its values but were denied them where they lived.
But the European pillar of this community of democracies has never been more under assault — so much so that for the first time I wonder if this European pillar will actually crumble.
From Italy you can see all the lines of attack: Donald Trump coming from the West, Vladimir Putin from the East and environmental and political disorder from the south — from Africa and the Middle East, where the reckless 2011 French-British-U.S. decision to topple Libyan strongman Moammar Gadhafi, and not stay on to help build a new order in his place, now haunts Italy.
Toppling Gadhafi without building a new order may go down as the single dumbest action the NATO alliance ever took.
It took the lid off Africa, leading to some 600,000 asylum-seekers and migrants flocking to Italy’s shores in recent years, with 300,000 staying there and the rest filtering into other EU nations. This has created wrangles within the bloc over who should absorb how many migrants and has spawned nationalist-populist backlashes in almost every EU country.
Meanwhile, it should come as no surprise that Putin, who has long had a foreign policy goal of weakening and discrediting the EU — in order to diminish it as a vibrant alternative to his kleptocratic, nationalist autocracy or as an inspiration for former Soviet satellites like Ukraine — has encouraged the rise of anti-EU parties in Italy as well as the UK’s Brexit.
Trump actually pressed British Prime Minister Theresa May to make a sharp Brexit from the EU, if she wanted to have a free-trade agreement with the U.S., and he characterized the EU not as a partner on trade but as a “foe.” Trump seems to prefer that the EU fracture so he can try to strike better trade deals with the countries individually. How else to explain these irrational moves?
One of the first foreign visitors to come to Italy to high-five its new government of Euroand NATO-skeptics and anti-immigrant populists was Trump’s former brain, Steve Bannon, who reportedly said of the ruling coalition: “If it works in Italy, it is going to work everywhere. ... It is going to break the backs of the globalists.”
This is such foolish talk. It was the U.S. and what became the EU that took the lead in not only repelling communism but in shaping the rules and catalyzing institutions that managed the key global issues after World War II — like trade, migration, environment and human rights — helping more people around the globe grow out of poverty faster than ever before.
We need the U.S. and the EU — joined by the other Group of 20 nations — to play a similar role today. The change in the pace of change in the climate, globalization and technology has thrown up a whole set of new challenges very fast — extreme weather, cybercrime, cryptocurrencies, social networks, deep fake technologies, self-driving vehicles, artificial intelligence, biological design tools and questions of how to distinguish among refugees, economic migrants and asylum-seekers. These can be managed only through global cooperation and new rules.
If the community of democracies fractures, and we return to a more 19th- and 20th-century great power competition, who will write the new rules for the 21st century? Russia? China? I don’t think so. There will be a global leadership vacuum, a free-for-all, with terrible consequences.
It will be hard enough dealing with these issues with a community of democracies leading the way again, but it will be impossible to do so if Trump, Bannon and Putin, and their fellow travelers, succeed in breaking it up. So sorry to ruin your breakfast, lunch and dinner.