Can I ruin your din­ner party?

The Hazleton Standard-Speaker - - OPINION - THOMAS FRIEDMAN is a colum­nist with The New York Times.

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.

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