Why 2016 was a ma­jor turn­ing point for the world

Old struc­tures, both global and do­mes­tic, are now un­der threat

The Washington Times Daily - - COMMENTARY - By Robert. W. Merry

His­to­ri­ans will look back on 2016 as an in­flec­tion year in world his­tory, per­haps not as mo­men­tous (or vi­o­lent) as the years that fol­low but mark­ing a ma­jor global turn­ing point, when the old or­der of world pol­i­tics could be seen as crum­bling. This dis­in­te­gra­tion ac­tu­ally has been go­ing on for some time, but it was not so read­ily dis­cernible dur­ing the in­ter­ven­ing years as it be­came in 2016.

As we peer into 2017, con­sider some of the old struc­tures, both global and do­mes­tic, now un­der threat.

The Euro­pean Union: This 70-year-old ex­per­i­ment in Euro­pean in­te­gra­tion is buf­feted by a pow­er­ful wave of na­tion­al­ism re­flected in Bri­tain’s Brexit vote and other ris­ing po­lit­i­cal cur­rents in France, Bel­gium, Italy, the Nether­lands and else­where. De­signed to en­sure peace and fos­ter eco­nomic growth among Euro­pean na­tions, the EU has be­come an an­tidemo­cratic bu­reau­cracy dom­i­nated by elites and in­creas­ingly re­moved from, and hos­tile to, tra­di­tional na­tional and cul­tural sen­ti­ments of the Euro­pean peo­ples. The flash­point was im­mi­gra­tion — a grow­ing in­fu­sion of Mus­lims whose as­sim­i­la­tion ap­pears in­creas­ingly ques­tion­able. The EU struc­ture was not sus­tain­able, and it will be se­ri­ously re­formed or dis­man­tled, with the elites them­selves dis­placed. This will en­tail plenty of so­ci­etal dis­rup­tion and per­haps vi­o­lence. Old struc­tures sel­dom die qui­etly.

Asia: When Richard Nixon coaxed China out of its “an­gry iso­la­tion” in 1972, he cre­ated a last­ing struc­ture of sta­bil­ity and peace in the Ori­ent. Amer­ica’s mil­i­tary and eco­nomic dom­i­nance re­mained un­chal­lenged; China joined the world as a na­tion in good stand­ing, po­si­tioned to help fos­ter tremen­dous eco­nomic ac­tiv­ity; and a U.S. net­work of al­liances with Asia’s eco­nom­i­cally pro­gres­sive na­tions (Ja­pan, Hong Kong, Sin­ga­pore, Tai­wan, South Korea and Malaysia) served as a coun­ter­weight to any pos­si­ble Chi­nese threat.

That struc­ture now is break­ing down as China dis­rupts global com­merce with in­tri­cate non-tar­iff trade bar­ri­ers and seeks dom­i­nance over the western Pa­cific, par­tic­u­larly the vast South China Sea. It now claims mar­itime ter­ri­tory that has been viewed as in­ter­na­tional wa­ters by the global com­mu­nity for decades, and it openly in­tim­i­dates its neigh­bors in ef­forts to re­make the area’s mar­itime borders. The ul­ti­mate aim, it seems clear, is to re­move Amer­i­can power from the re­gion and push the United States back to Hawaii so China can ef­fec­tu­ate a re­gional dom­i­nance. This con­sti­tutes a highly un­sta­ble sit­u­a­tion. Ei­ther China backs down; or the United States re­treats from Asia; or hos­til­i­ties even­tu­ally will en­sue.

The Mid­dle East: This is a re­gion of pro­gres­sive con­fla­gra­tion — Sunni ver­sus Shia, Pales­tini­ans ver­sus Is­rael, the geopo­lit­i­cal in­ter­ests of Saudi Ara­bia ver­sus those of Iran. Pres­i­dent Ge­orge W. Bush’s sec­re­tary of state, Con­doleezza Rice, fa­mously crit­i­cized her coun­try for pur­su­ing Mid­dle East sta­bil­ity at the ex­pense of democ­racy — “and we achieved nei­ther,” she said, adding Mr. Bush would pur­sue a dif­fer­ent course of po­lit­i­cal and eco­nomic re­form (democ­racy pro­mo­tion, na­tion build­ing).

Now we have even less re­gional sta­bil­ity and hardly any prospects for democ­racy. Iran’s re­gional in­flu­ence has ex­panded, largely due to Mr. Bush’s 2003 in­va­sion of Iraq and ul­ti­mate desta­bi­liza­tion of that coun­try. This in turn has spurred Saudi Ara­bia into a bru­tal ag­gres­sion against the Iran-sup­ported gov­ern­ment of Ye­men. Iraq’s desta­bi­liza­tion has fos­tered the rise of the Is­lamic State, which is draw­ing Western na­tions into the re­gion, fur­ther ex­ac­er­bat­ing ten­sions be­tween the West and Is­lam. The can­cer of Is­lamist ter­ror­ism is metas­ta­siz­ing through­out the re­gion and spread­ing more and more into Europe. It’s dif­fi­cult to see peace or sta­bil­ity on the Mid­dle East­ern hori­zon.

Amer­ica: The sta­tus quo, rep­re­sented by glob­al­ist think­ing, free trade, and por­ous borders, took a se­ri­ous beat­ing with the elec­tion of Don­ald Trump. The Amer­i­can sta­tus quo, like Europe’s, was not sus­tain­able be­cause too many vot­ers felt be­lea­guered by the glob­al­ist jug­ger­naut, their eco­nomic well­be­ing and their her­itage threat­ened. Alone among 2016 pres­i­den­tial as­pi­rants, Mr. Trump demon­strated con­tempt for the old or­der, in­clud­ing the lack of bor­der se­cu­rity, the shib­bo­leths of free trade, the glob­al­ist con­tempt for na­tion­al­ism, even the old rules of po­lit­i­cal com­port­ment in na­tional elec­tions. Thus he is a prod­uct of his time and of the de­te­ri­o­ra­tion of the old or­der that so many of the elite class have been loath to rec­og­nize or ac­cept.

But will Pres­i­dent-elect Trump, the scourge of the old or­der, man­age to steer a course to­ward some kind of new or­der of sta­bil­ity in do­mes­tic pol­i­tics and global ar­range­ments? Or will he turn out to be an in­stru­ment of creative de­struc­tion, des­tined merely to scrape away the lin­ger­ing rem­nants of the sta­tus quo while leav­ing the world with the task of fash­ion­ing some form of sta­bil­ity out of the en­velop­ing chaos? Will his as­sault on Amer­ica’s po­lit­i­cal sta­tus quo lead to a new coali­tion of elec­toral equi­lib­rium in the coun­try or en­flame its pol­i­tics for years to come? Will his trade poli­cies level the play­ing field of in­ter­na­tional com­merce or throw the global econ­omy into de­cline? Can his recog­ni­tion of China’s me­nac­ing ways lead to a new con­cept of co­ex­is­tence in Asia, or will it ex­ac­er­bate mar­tial ten­sions there?

These ques­tions and many sim­i­lar ones hover over Amer­ica and the world as Mr. Trump pre­pares to as­sume Amer­ica’s lead­er­ship. He didn’t cre­ate the sta­tus quo cri­sis that pulled him up into that lead­er­ship. But he ex­ploited it. Now the ques­tion is whether he can tame the cri­sis — or whether the crush­ing forces of his­tory are sim­ply too pow­er­ful for him or any­one else to sub­due. Robert W. Merry, long­time Washington jour­nal­ist and pub­lish­ing ex­ec­u­tive, is the au­thor of books on Amer­i­can his­tory and for­eign pol­icy.


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