The international system for maintaining some order in global politics and the world economy seems in danger of collapsing. It is almost as if every major player is trying to hasten the collapse of the center and to ensure that it does not recover. In major countries, the population is divided into increasingly hostile camps and governments have taken their eyes off their nations’ long-term interests in securing collective security and cooperation. Mistakes of the past are compounded by obsessive dogmatism; partisanship undermines efforts to deal credibly with problems that grow more dangerous by the day.
Nothing highlights this more than what is happening on the political scene in the United States and Britain these days. The presidential campaigns have shown how great the divide is between extremist forces of the left and the right. Donald Trump personifies the defy-all-facts, take-no-prisoners tactics of the Tea Party activists who have gained such influence over the past few years; Hillary Clinton, an expression of the progressive wing of the establishment, had to fight off a tough rival from the populist left, Bernie Sanders. These rifts reflect the hardening of positions at the ends of the political, economic and social spectrum. Barack Obama’s successor will be leading a divided and confused nation at a time when the world needs strong leadership and moral clarity.
Britain, a pillar of the postwar international order, has imploded in a spectacular display of self-abnegation. The referendum result which could lead to the end of the country’s membership of the European Union has shocked the economy and the main political parties. It released powerful, divisive forces that had lain under society’s surface and will be difficult to tame. If that were not enough to force the country into isolation and navel gazing, the release of the Chilcot report into Britain’s role in the US-led invasion of Iraq in 2003 will cause further introversion.
The report, damning as it is, will most likely have much greater implications on the international scene. As military intervention in Libya (when Britain followed France’s lead) later showed, meddling in foreign countries, compounded by the lack of any contingency plans for the day after, can lead to disastrous results. Washington’s reluctance to intervene dynamically in Syria reflects this new caution. Even many observers who had argued against the invasion of Iraq must be concerned that the Chilcot report could paralyze collective military action even when it is necessary. War is a terrible thing, but sometimes it must be waged. Now, which leader will dare argue for use of arms when this may lead to something akin to Tony Blair’s humiliation (if not worse)?
International terrorism is far from defeated, revisionist leadership in many countries is testing borders and agreements, new conflicts and climate change are raising the tide of displaced and refugees across the world. If the system of collective order, deterrence and assistance is undermined by its more powerful members, if it is left to drift, no nation and no person will be safe.