The Fall of Liberalism?

Le Pen. Duterte. Brexit. Trump.

It might be appropriate to dub 2016, the “year of populism,” as hundreds of millions of voters around the world have forcefully rejected the political institutions and policies that have been the backbone of 20th century liberalism and democracy.

While the motivations and psychology of this global electorate will takes years to analyze, the repercussions of voters’ actions are now beginning to take effect.

President-elect Trump’s intention to withdraw from America’s engagement in international institutions and pivot towards a more isolationist, American-centric foreign policy reflects the sentiments of many Americans: the United States has spent more time worrying about and engaging in the affairs of other countries than dealing with those here at home.

Americans, in light of the Great Recession and a harsh fiscal climate, see engagement with the international community as distracting from domestic development, and another example of America being taken advantage of—or in Trump’s words “losing.” The President-Elect’s demand that NATO members pay their “fair share” before benefiting from collective security under Article 5 shows how populism and skepticism of traditional American liberalist engagement in the international system has manifested itself as a zero sum, realist approach to foreign policy.

Across the pond, in the United Kingdom, voters took a similar stance towards the European Union, questioning Britain’s return on investment for participation in the Union and its expensive membership dues. The Leave Campaign plastered the slogan “we send the EU £350 million a week, let’s fund our NHS instead” on buses, to convince voters that money sent to international organizations is money that ought to be redirected towards domestic political institutions.

Such skepticism of engagement with the international community is not without precedent. In the early 2000s, U.S. House Republicans pushed to withhold vital United Nations membership dues—the United States accounting for almost 1/5 of the organization’s operating budget—until the United Nations made several fiscal and political reforms that more explicitly achieved Republican foreign policy objectives throughout the world.

This penny-pinching approach to international relations is a manifestation of the “maximizationalist” politics that attracted Trump voters in the first place. Trump’s mantra of achieving “better trade deals” for the American people resonates with many who feel left out from the gains, both political and economic, of globalization. Similarly, Theresa May’s emphasis on securing the “best deal possible” while negotiating the exit of the United Kingdom from the European Union under Article 50 highlights the new scrutiny voters have imposed on future participation in any international organizations or trade agreements. Many political operatives consider the landslide Republican victories in America a result of the Democratic Party’s inability to develop a coherent economic argument for voters to embrace progressive policies, both domestic and international.

With the loss of mainstream advocates for Western liberalism in the United States, United Kingdom, Eastern Europe, and soon possibly in France, there remain few world leaders able to defend the necessary expenditures and institutions required for much of the cooperative politics necessary for peace and development.

In an ironic twist, it is likely that German Chancellor Angela Merkel will be last defender of such a world order. Following the American 2016 presidential election, the New York Times dubbed Merkel the “the last powerful defender of Europe and the trans-Atlantic alliance.” Merkel will quickly have to learn how to navigate a post liberal-Obama era to address issues like rising nationalism throughout Europe, a refugee crisis in her own backyard, and Russia’s increasing propensity to intercede in the affairs of its former Eastern Bloc neighbors. She must advance these goals all while maintaining her trademark centrist and pluralist policies.

As 2016 winds down, and new administrations around the world ascend into power, the status quo of global politics is undeniably beginning to change. New players are being thrown into the spotlight, along with those who have traditionally stayed in the background. While our economies and threats are becoming increasing globalized and interconnected, it seems that our politics and ambitions to cooperate are headed in the opposite direction.

Image Source: Wikipedia/Eugène Delacroix

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