The World Five Years Hence
Meditations by one of the West’s leading geokrats on the present transitions and future turning points
GB: Where will Italy be, politically, five years from now?
JW: It could be where many other countries in Western Europe are – that is, with populist parties in power or with very powerful positions in a coalition government. Given the failure of the constitutional referendum in Italy, there will still be, five years from now, much discussion about the cracks in the Italian political system, the difficulty of forming long-term governments, and what this all means for the creation of public policy in difficult times. Certainly the logic behind parts of what was on the table during the referendum had to do with modernizing parts of the Italian economy and making it easier to put structural changes in place. Five years from now, some believe that Italy may not be in the Eurozone. I am not one of those people. But that is probably more for political than economic reasons. As one of the original members of the European Community, it would take a lot for other member states not to support Italy remaining in the Eurozone. Still, five years hence, Italy’s leadership on some of the common European problems may be less prominent, which would be a shame. Matteo Renzi has also left the political scene for now. He is down but certainly not out. He is a very gifted politician and may well come back in another form.
GB: Where will Europe be five years from now?
JW: Five years from now, Europe will either have taken on the very, very deep issues that lie at the heart of the EU – not just Brexit, which is obviously the most pressing issue – or it will be facing what people call variable geometry, involving different levels of engagement with the EU instead of one big, common institution. Major questions like monetary union, immigration policy and the management of migration will either be tackled in a collective way or we will see the development of a core and a periphery to the EU. My sense is that this is one of the most troubling decades for Europe since the interwar period. Populations will therefore have to become much more political in order to address the populist challenge that we are going to see unfold in 2017 in big elections in France and the Netherlands. Indeed, it is hard to predict the future, but it could well go in a very dark direction, where Europe is really struggling to uphold the values that are at the heart of the European project.
The notion of a trans-Atlantic community was already fading before Trump. What we saw over the last five to eight years was a move from a trans-Atlantic community to a partnership, and a partnership is really different.
The other part to consider is whether Europe will still be the key partner for the US five years from now. While Donald Trump is making significant noises about wanting to have a different relationship with Europe – one that is much more transactional – I believe that the notion of a trans-Atlantic community was already fading before Trump. What we saw over the last five to eight years was a move from a trans-Atlantic community to a partnership, and a partnership is really different. A partnership is far more transactional. I therefore see, over the next five years, a continuation of that move from a community to a far more transactional relationship. And this transition could be quite dramatic under Trump. We do not know, for example, how seriously to take his musings about NATO, and how they will translate into concrete changes in funding and policy.
GB: Can you characterize the populist movements in Europe, including in Italy? What is driving them?
JW: There are two dynamics that are critical here. One is common to all liberal democracies – namely a profound disillusionment with the representative democratic system and the belief on the part of electorates that those who represent them in their institutions have not necessarily had their interests at heart. There may be a belief in these electorates that their representatives have become more beholden to a transnational interest, in the case of anti-EU sentiment, or to corporate interests or the interests of the wealthy. In some sense, then, this is a very democratic push-back against the perception that there has not been sufficient attention paid to the decline in citizens’ relative living standards. We are not talking, in all cases, about absolute poverty but indeed about relative inequality inside these countries.
The second dynamic is a fear that is engendered by the very rapid movement of people. It is not the absolute numbers themselves that have always been so decisive, but rather the speed of the change – the velocity of the influx – and the degree to which populations have bought into this notion that this somehow represents a direct threat to them in terms of security (although the data do not support that, despite individual incidents) or through economic losses incurred in the context of a zero-sum game as more immigrants come in.
These two dynamics have come together and are overlain by a mantra of control – that is, as we saw in the British referendum but also in electoral discourses on the Continent, the people need to take back control. They need to take control of their destiny. As national communities, they have given away too much to those who are distant and far away, and to elite policy-makers more generally. That emotion is very human and very natural. There is nothing wrong with it. The desire to take back control is quite hard to argue against. And it has been a very powerful sentiment that the populists have used to increase their fortunes.
GB: Where will the UK be five years from now – still in Europe, out of Europe, or in some purgatory in between?
JW: I have come to believe that Brexit is very real. I do not say this from a normative perspective, meaning that this is what should be the outcome of all of this. I do actually believe that the British government misplayed its hand at a couple of stages – primarily prior to the referendum itself, by not clarifying the role of referenda in a constitutional democracy in which there are many institutions that have to share power. Still, Brexit is real. I do think that the UK will be out of the EU five years from now, and I do think that it will also be out of the single market. That does not mean, of course, that there could not have been other alternatives. The politicians had room. As much as I admire British institutions, British history and British values, I see this as a dark period. One of the most troubling aspects of the referendum and its aftermath has been the degree to which not just the tabloids, but also elected officials have gone after the judiciary in the UK. That is a very dangerous game. There has been a very worrying erosion of the balance of institutions that make up a contemporary democracy. As such, I do see the UK’s institutional balance – its mixed system – in a weaker place in five years’ time. The damage done by the referendum, in that respect, cannot be completely unravelled. It seems as if decision-makers made a move to do something – like hold a referendum – without properly considering what the process itself would do. They focussed instead on what the result would be. And yet the case of the UK referendum is so interesting because it has shown us – and especially political figures – what the process for such an event can do to a modern democracy. It can unleash very powerful, destabilizing forces – forces that cannot fully or easily be put back into the bottle. These forces include xenophobia, anti-immigrant attacks, the discourse of the tabloids, the attacks on the judiciary, and so on. All of these are corrosive.
The case of the UK referendum is so interesting because it has shown us what the process for such an event can do to a modern democracy. It can unleash very powerful, destabilizing forces – forces that cannot fully or easily be put back into the bottle.
The question of whether the British union itself will still exist five years from now is a really interesting one. My initial hypothesis after the referendum was that Scotland would go next. But now I am a little more circumspect about that. I am not certain that this will happen in the next five years. The politics of this issue are playing out a little bit differently. The area to watch is Northern Ireland because the impact of Brexit on Ireland – North and South – including through the possible creation of a new border, was underappreciated. We now have a political crisis in Ireland, with Martin McGuinness having resigned.
Let me add one final point about Brexit. I think that British higher education and universities will be diminished – and this for two reasons. First, all of the university development plans have been based on high numbers of European students coming for study in the UK. Second, there will be a huge impact on British research funding. There is already an impact in terms of researchers on the Continent being told that they should not collaborate with UK researchers. Of course, the UK today builds very little. There is very little manufacturing. Instead, the economy is all about services, and education is a major service sector in the UK economy. This is troubling. The one good thing that might come out of this is that elite British universities like Oxford, Cambridge and LSE may finally become properly global. They have always talked about becoming truly global, but they have not had to do it to date, or have otherwise attempted to do so in a half-hearted way.
GB: Where will the US be in two years’ time?
JW: It is hard to know. It very much depends on the strength of America’s checks and balances. Obviously, the composition of the Supreme Court is going to change. What we need to remember is that the election was actually very close. So there is still a massive constituency with a different set of political goals and political values. If things go in a healthy direction, we will see the US showing signs of what a democracy should do in a period like this. There will be peaceful and frequent protests, and perhaps civil disobedience in some cases. We could, of course, see other forms of attempts to resist inequality and injustice or to influence change, including mass strikes or violence.
It is also possible that the political parties in the US will use this whole train wreck of an election as a wake-up call to reorient reform. But that is harder to see at this point. I was hoping to see in the US what we see in other liberal democracies – that is, some form of party realignment or shakeup in the party system. Right now, however, I am not sure that this will be the outcome. The Democrats may essentially say that they have demographics on their side. They may conclude that they simply have to have a better candidate and a better machine. As for the Republicans, they do not have to learn the hard lessons that they should have learned. They created the monster. Some of this may result in people disengaging from the American political process altogether. Those who speak the loudest in four years’ time will win again.
Much will also depend on the behaviour of Congress. We have seen this already with the sanctions on Russia, with Senator John McCain and others coming forward saying, roughly, “This is what we in Congress want to see happen. Never mind what the executive branch believes about what our relationship to it should be.” Bref, if the checks and balances in the US work in a robust fashion, then we will not see a 180-degree turn in American politics. Instead, we will see something that is much more incremental.
Having said this, the checks and balances do not extend everywhere. In trade, for instance, we can safely predict a broad push toward greater protectionism – that is, a re-evaluation and possible pulling out of NAFTA. We will, on the other hand, see a much more transactional relationship with Europe and a call for greater burden-sharing.
Trump will try very hard to create a great-power condominium with Putin. Will this condominium include China as well? The Chinese dimension is really harder to predict. It is not impossible to imagine some forms of cooperation, despite some of the theatrical moves in respect of Taiwan. But it is clear that the US will try to move toward a much less liberal internationalist agenda.
GB: Do you see contradictions between the professed positive disposition of President Trump toward Russia and the antipathy toward China?
JW: There is a big contradiction, but for reasons that are largely interpersonal, given Trump’s team and his own experience. Trump believes that Russia is a different type of power, but the evidence does not suggest that this is the case. In fact, the evidence suggests that Russia is much more disruptive to American interests than is China – and particularly in international institutions. Russia has been very disruptive at various points inside the UN; China less so. Beijing picks its spots. It is concerned about certain issues. It is much more predictable.
GB: Will Trump discover this contradiction? If so, when?
JW: This is so personality-driven. Congress will have a lot to say on both of those relationships. But he will discover it early – to be sure.
GB: What are the limits of American power over the next four or five years? What can it do and not do? Which problems can it solve or not solve?
JW: There are quite substantial limits to American power. In terms of economic interests, for example, these require a certain degree of international cooperation. With the recent breakdown of the Trans-Pacific Partnership, with the US walking out after huge international diplomatic investment, there is evidently considerable international disillusionment. This means that the US will now find it difficult to achieve its economic goals in collaboration with similarly large groupings of states. The US will still be able to achieve certain things bilaterally, given the asymmetry of economic strength that it enjoys vis-à-vis certain other states. It may very well do that in a heavy-handed way.
Militarily, what has been interesting about the Obama period is that, even with the world’s largest military, the US has not wanted to exercise, in the post-Iraq and Afghanistan context, that military power. In theory, of course, Trump could behave in the opposite way. But Trump may also feel limited or reluctant in this respect because of beliefs about what American public opinion will bear. Having said that, as we saw with Obama in Libya, Trump does not have to declare war formally or have Congressional approval to take military action.
Whether Trump will use military force or whether he will instead prefer to reach diplomatic bargains over things that he does not believe the US should fight for is yet to be seen. If we roll back the clock on Syria, we can run the counterfactual that under Trump, Washington would never have backed the opposition from the beginning, and would never have given the signal that it wanted a different political system.
Multilaterally – to be sure – we are in a very different and far less collaborative world from the world that Obama had when he came into office.
GB: What has driven the changes in the multilateral context?
JW: Two things were important. One was the Libya intervention, which had a multilateral mandate and required significant diplomatic muscle to implement. A number of states that initially supported that initiative felt or believed afterward that, in the second phase of the intervention, there was an overstepping of the multilateral mandate. This group of states includes not just Russia but also Brazil and a number of European and African states. I do not entirely buy this narrative. There is a lot of looking back and denying that there was support for certain aspects of the Libya intervention.
In the current international context, it would be very difficult to get an agreement of that kind again. We do see continued agreement over peacekeeping and stabilization missions in Mali, in the Central African Republic, and in South Sudan.
The second factor is the change in Russia, which in a certain sense has also emboldened China and others. There is a stronger sense that if there is a kind of Western agenda, including certain interventions, being pushed within the Security Council, then there will be resistance. The multilateral tools may not be there. For example, in the case of Burundi, where 15 years ago there would have been much more cooperation and engagement, it was extremely difficult to get agreement on anything because of the suspicion and lack of willingness to give a mandate to powers.
Of course, on climate change, which requires collective action, the Paris Agreement is one of the bright spots of the last few years. But now we have Trump making noises on that score as well. This makes other major international diplomatic endeavours of that kind much shakier.
GB: How should the new Secretary-General of the UN approach his mandate? What should his goals be?
JW: There clearly is an internal and an external dimension to this. There is an ongoing and pressing need for the UN to operate more effectively than it presently does with the resources that it has – from how it manages human resources to how it mounts field operations, to how it organizes itself to fulfill its core mandates. So the new Secretary-General has to be very squarely focussed on that at a time when there is a greatly diminished willingness by European countries in particular, as well as by the US, to invest funds. Budgets for all of these activities are shrinking.
In terms of the external dimension, we have a conflict context that is much different from even the recent past. There are several protracted conflicts. The average length of a conflict today is greater than it was 20 years ago. You also have situations that are not formally war, but where there is large-scale political violence and large numbers of deaths. The new Secretary-General has to really support the reform efforts that have been launched in respect of peacekeeping, in particular, but also in peace-building. And he must cleverly use the authority that he has – of which there is not an inexhaustible supply. The Secretary-General has very peculiar sources of authority. He has his good offices, his role under the UN Charter, and, of course, his relationships with member states, where he must be seen by them as indispensable.
One of the things that he needs to do – particularly in respect of the Security Council – is to remind member states, and perhaps particularly the P5, of how important it is for the institution to function effectively in order for it to maintain its legitimacy. The argument needs to be made to states to the effect that the longer there is paralysis and a failure to act, the more these institutions will just lose their authority in international affairs. To this end, the Secretary-General must assist in every way that he can to make Security Council decision-making more effective, and to help members reach collective solutions. But again, the world inherited by Antonio Guterres is a very different one from the one into which Ban Ki-moon entered as Secretary-General. That base level of goodwill and cooperation is not there in the way that it was 10 years ago.
GB: Is there a reasonable interpretation of the UN’s mandate that could hold that sometimes not taking action may be the lesser evil? Is that an interpretation that can be brought to bear on some of the world’s theatres?
JW: I have heard this a lot over the last two to three years – that is, that acting is costly and has unintended consequences. The argument holds that because action may have effects that we either cannot see or anticipate, the right thing to do is to do nothing, because at least we do not make the situation worse. Many people say that about the Middle East. There is a strong thread behind this line of argument, but there are two issues that have to be considered against it. The first is that this position assumes that the slate is clean in the sense that there is no prior responsibility for the problems or conflicts being experienced in a theatre. We are not talking necessarily about direct responsibility in all cases, but indeed about actions that may have been taken in the past by states to influence the way that a situation looks today. In such an event, inaction is less palatable. Of course, causal responsibility is a tricky thing, but we should not just assume that these regions fell into the situation in which they find themselves without any external involvement to begin with. You cannot completely atone for the actions of the past, but that does give you more of a reason to be really certain that there are no options that have reasonable prospects of success.
And the second is that there are humanitarian responsibilities – even legal obligations – that must be honoured by states. Where the ‘do no harm’ doctrine can go too far is that even if you may not want to take direct action, there are other humanitarian responsibilities that still need to be exercised and honoured. If we consider the refugee crisis, we can argue that there has been an exacerbation of the humanitarian problem in that the situation created has forced refugees to take treacherous paths to try to leave their respective countries.
GB: How should Canada think of its position in the world, or how can it position itself for effect?
JW: This is a very difficult time in which to be advocating for some of the values that Canada has pushed in the past. This is particularly so when people around the world can rightly say that Western societies themselves need to look in the mirror and at the cracks in their own systems. There needs to be, first and foremost, a great deal of humility in anything that Canada does. And what needs to be driving Canadian policy on a number of global issues is a very hard-headed search for where the common ground is. That does not necessarily mean the lowest common denominator, because that would not honour what the Canadian population would want to see the country doing.
There is still a role for Canada to play in trying to find common positions in multilateral settings. I do not think that paralysis is the rule everywhere, and so Canada should not be disengaging but re-engaging differently. For instance, in peacekeeping, Canada must determine what is the right way to go about this in the present multilateral and conflict contexts. Canada should also use the same lens in respect of any form of development assistance in which it engages. What does Canada want to achieve? For whom? It will need to be far more targeted in its activities. Canadian leaders will need to make the case to the population. And on major global questions like the refugee crisis – which is not a European crisis, but a properly global one – Canada will need to ensure that it is sharing the burden and taking very seriously the idea of burden-sharing.
GB: How seriously are alternatives to democracy being taken in Europe or in other democracies? What are the fixes that need to be made in the democratic scaffolding for it to regain its stature, or to address concrete problems?
JW: That is a big question. Part of the issue we faced over the last decade or so is that there has not been a viable alternative out there. The discrediting of other systems seemed to be complete. There will be this interesting anomaly of China being an economic powerhouse but politically very closed. The Russian idea of sovereign democracy may work in certain limited post-Soviet circles, but it is not an idea that travels – in part because of who is advocating it, but also because it is a very particularist conception of governance.
In terms of improving and strengthening our democratic systems, a key question is how to maintain healthy liberal democracies without predatory capitalism. In fact, that was one of the questions that kept coming up in the Massey Lectures when I was on tour across Canada. A number of people said to me, “You seem to believe liberal democracy is a valuable system, but was it not always inherently problematic because it bred this form of inequality and many of the problems of injustice that we are now seeing?” My answer is, “I do not think it had to.” You can see other jurisdictions where this is not the case. But the answer lies not just in the democratic core, which is really just about how we select rulers or public leaders. It is the institutional mix that goes with this democratic core that is critical.
To be sure, we are already seeing alternatives to this democratic institutional mix – in Hungary, in Russia, in Turkey, and in parts of Africa. These are not liberal democracies. As those models begin to proliferate, that is the challenge of the next decade – to wit, how do we strengthen liberal democracies? If we cannot, there will before long be viable alternatives out there.
Jennifer Welsh is Professor and Chair in International Relations at the European University Institute in Florence, and a Fellow of Somerville College, University of Oxford. She is past Special Adviser to the UN Secretary-General on the Responsibility to Protect. In 2016, she gave the CBC Massey Lectures on The Return of History.