A Fragmented West in a Post-Western World

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Trump's victory further weakens the West in global affairs. With the United States now in retreat and the emergence of a global leadership vacuum, Beijing faces a world of opportunities.

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Donald Trump's stunning election victory has generated a global panic without precedent in the internet age, leading to a myriad of analyses about implications for the United States (e.g., Teju Cole's powerful A Time for Refusal) and the world (e.g., How the West may soon be lost, by Martin Wolf). Yet in order to make sense of what a Trump presidency really means, it is necessary to analyze consequences individually to assess their likelihood and articulate ways to respond to them.

1) Implications for US democracy   

On a domestic level, many believe the election of Donald Trump poses a real threat to the strength of US institutions and to its democracy as a whole. In addition to weakening the social fabric of US society and viciously attacking any non-white minorities, boasting about sexual assault against women and mocking disabled people, Trump's systematic verbal attacks on the judiciary, threats to prosecute journalists and allusions to voter fraud significantly undermined democratic culture in the United States. Even if Trump toned down his rhetoric and governed in a moderate fashion, the campaign has deepened divides and the United States will take time to "bind wounds", as the President-elect himself put it after his victory. And yet, despite the massive damage done, US democracy is likely to survive, considering the strengths of its institutions and a complex set of checks and balances. 

2) Implications for democracy on a global scale

Both governments and citizens across the world had hoped US voters would punish Trump on November 8. While the campaign has already negatively affected US soft power, Trump's election victory will further reduce the attractiveness of the United States across the board. While soft power is hard to measure and depends on many things other than the government, one initial consequence will be a greater difficulty to make the case for democracy elsewhere in the world. It is worth noting that Brexit and Trump did not take place in small countries with limited visibility. Rather, they occurred in the world's two oldest and most mature democracies, which — despite all criticism — played a tremendously important role for democracy across the world.

At a time of multiplying global challenges and a shift of power to the Asia-Pacific region, Brexit and Trump are harmful to Western strategic interests as they reduce its political weight and its capacity to shape global affairs in a Post-Western World. The rise of "post-truth" and identity politics threatens to undermine the West's key advantage vis-à-vis a rising China: its noisy but ultimately moderate and stability-producing democracy, its embrace of diversity and globalization, and its capacity to integrate migrants from all over the world.

Democracies are now seen as creating more unpredictability than authoritarian regimes. The longer such a scenario prevails, the more difficult it will be to convince other countries that defending democratic governance around the world is both morally and strategically advantageous. In the same way, the stronger anti-Islam currents become in Western democracies, the harder it will be to claim the moral high ground and criticize governments in China, Myanmar and elsewhere for the way they treat their religious minorities.

Populists in control of governments in Washington and London are likely to empower similar politicians elsewhere. The most immediate impact could become visible in France, where Marine Le Pen is a strong contender for the presidency. Her victory would most likely mean the end of the European Union, and thus a complete fracturing of the Western alliance created after World War II. 

3) Implications for global order

Several analysts point out that Trump's isolationism will be the end of today's global order. As Stevens writes,

The US-designed global system has been unravelling for some time. It will not survive the withdrawal of American leadership. The financial crash of 2008, income stagnation, austerity and disenchantment with free trade has buried the liberal economic consensus. Now Mr Trump has pledged to dismantle the political pillars of the old order. (...)  the dangers will now come thick and fast. How much of a free Europe can survive the withdrawal of the US security umbrella? Will Russia be allowed to restore its influence over formerly communist states in eastern and central Europe? Will rising states in the east and south now look to authoritarianism rather than democracy as a model for their societies? Who will keep the peace in the East and South China seas? How safe or stable is a world organised around the interests of, and conflicts between, a handful of great powers?

Several of these concerns are valid, and President Trump could become a source of global instability if his staff will allow him to take foreign policy decisions. Yet we must be careful not to be trapped by a parochial Western-centric narrative that blindly assumes that only Western powers can take the lead and provide global public goods. For more than a century, an extreme concentration of economic power allowed the West, despite representing a small minority of the world’s population, to initiate, legitimize, and successfully advocate policy in the economic or security realm. To most observers, non-Western actors hardly, if ever, played any constructive role in the management of global affairs.

Our Western-centric world view thus leads us to underappreciate not only the role non-Western actors have played in the past and play in contemporary international politics, but also the constructive role they are likely to play in the future. With powers such as China providing ever more global public goods, post-Western order will not necessarily be more violent or unstable than today’s global order.

Rising powers—led by China—are already quietly crafting the initial building blocks of what we may call a “parallel order” that will initially complement and at some point possibly replace today’s international institutions. This order is already in the making; it includes, among others, institutions such as the BRICS-led New Development Bank and the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank (to complement the World Bank), Universal Credit Rating Group (to complement Moody’s and S&P), China Union Pay (to complement Mastercard and Visa), CIPS (to complement SWIFT), the BRICS (to complement the G7), and many other initiatives.

In the past days, China has taken a highly constructive approach. As the Financial Times recognized,

In a sign of how far the world has shifted in recognising the need to tackle global warming, Beijing — once seen as an obstructive force in UN climate talks — is now leading the push for progress by responding to fears that Mr Trump would pull the US out of the landmark accord.

As the West falters, new partnerships will emerge, adapting to the shift of power. For example, as the US and Europe are seen as less influential by Delhi and Tokyo, their ties have prospered

A similar dynamic will become evident in other areas. China already provides more UN peacekeepers than all the other P5 combined. It created several new development banks to help Asia update its infrastructure. We can expect Chinese global leadership in many different areas.

On Friday, in response to a tweet I posted with the leaders of the permanent members of the UN Security Council in the eventuality of a Le Pen victory in France, the overwhelming response was shock and despair. But a sizeable number of twitteratis pointed out that Xi Jinping was the P5 leader most committed to globalization, and that China would be essential to avoid a wave of protectionism. With the United States now on the retreat and the world looking for leadership, China faces a world of opportunities — we can only hope Beijing is aware of its responsibilities.

BeFunky Collage

Western hegemony is so deeply rooted and ubiquitous that we think of it as somehow natural, reducing our capacity to objectively assess the consequences of its decline. Fears about a post-Western chaos are misguided in part because the past and present systems are far less Western than is generally assumed (the world order already contains many rules and norms that emerged as a product of clashing Western and non-Western ideas). And while the transition to genuine multipolarity—not only economically but also militarily and regarding agenda-setting capacity—will be disconcerting to many, it may be, in the end, far more democratic than any previous order in global history, allowing greater levels of genuine dialogue, broader spread of knowledge, and more innovative and effective ways to address global challenges in the coming decades.

Read also:

The Post-Western World and the Rise of a Parallel Order

The Goa Declaration: An analysis

The Political Economy of China’s New Silk Road

Photo credit : пресс-служба президента России