Philip Stephens, chief political commentator at The Financial Times, offers an analysis of Trump’s America, a fractured Europe and the changing dynamics of global power.
“When you look around, there is chaos all around us,” begins Stephens, reflecting on a modern world fraught with geopolitical disorder. “Where do we start? Do we look at Vladimir Putin, and his propensity for murder in foreign countries? Do we start with the conflicts in Syria and Yemen, which seem to have been going on for years? Or, do we start with China’s current ambitions in the South China Sea?”. According to the commentator, the difficulty lies in collating these threads of chaos together to make sense of the whole. Quoting Ernest Hemingway in ‘The Sun Also Rises’, Stephens describes the factors reshaping global relations as occurring “gradually, and then suddenly”.
For Stephens, the allusion to Hemingway is apt: “We all knew 20 years ago that China, India, Brazil and other economies of the world were changing, with an increasing likelihood of them joining the global stage,” he remembers. “Now, it’s all happened. The world I grew up in belonged to the West and was built around the literal state of the North Atlantic. If the 20th century was the Atlantic century, the 21st century will be the Eurasian century: power has shifted southwards and eastwards, and it’s not coming back,” he admits, describing a transformed global hierarchy where the maps of power have been redrawn.
A hegemony disturbed
Recent global events have forced the UK to re-evaluate its role in Europe and across the world; a once powerful role considered sacrosanct and incorruptible. Stephens refers to Fukayama’s ‘The End of History’, which suggested that communism’s defeat would signal a ‘final victory’ for Western liberal order, where open markets, free trade and globalisation would foster a new sense of institutionalised economic interdependence. “It also meant, in the political sense, that the rest of the world was open to Western values. They would look at Europe’s success and emulate us. Nationalism was to be replaced with internationalism, and conflicts were to be resolved by negotiation,” he explains, describing post-Soviet prophecies which failed in their realisation. “There was always something vainglorious in those predications. However, to a degree, they did seem true for a while”.
Indeed, many of the events which followed the collapse of the Berlin Wall suggested that Fukayama was correct in his predictions. Globalisation accelerated rapidly post-1990, as did the spread of democracy and international law across former communist states in eastern and central Europe. “A sense that the days in which we fought and invaded each other had passed, and we would develop rules and institutions to safeguard this new order. Over all this sat the United States, in what you would call the ‘benign hegemony’,” says Stephens, who moves quickly to address the historically-mistaken prediction of a westward-looking Russia, fully invested in the foundations of democracy and the free market. Indeed, he maintains that the same expectations were had of China: “We thought that China would look at the global system from which it was prospering and want to become a stakeholder. As we now know, things haven’t worked out like that”.
“Brexit taught us about the divides in the nations of our Union. When Trump denounces globalism and promotes the sense that power has been lost to other nations and societal elites, I think he is speaking for people in our society as well.”
The collapse of communism did not lead to the Russian and Chinese democracies envisaged by Fukayama. Stephens looks towards Putin’s Russia, one which looks “like a country from the 19th century, rather than one from the 21st century”. “The Russian State is dangerous in decline. It retains its power with its vast nuclear arsenal and willingness to use its military,” the journalist explains, before offering an analysis of China which similarly contradicts assertions made in ‘The End of History’. “After a period described as a ‘century of humiliation’ under western tutelage, China have decided that they want to be a great power in their own terms, rather than signing up to a system created by the US and Europe,” he claims, before drawing attention to the latest entrants to the European Union. “We are seeing a backlash in countries like Poland, Hungary and Slovakia, who are rebelling on the concept of sharing sovereignty with the EU, just as we have in the UK”.
Whilst global disruption has, to an extent, been catalysed by the UK’s departure from the European Union, he suggests that the most momentous changes have been guaranteed by the election of Donald Trump as President of the United States. “The United States has turned against its own creation. The US leadership built after WWII and the Cold War rested on institutions like the World Bank, the World Trade Organisation and the International Monetary Fund, as well as alliances forged in NATO and bilateral security agreements with Japan and South Korea”. However, a Trump-led administration has rejected those foundations of leadership: according to the commentator, there has been a gradual movement to the post-1945 period, “where bigger countries said what was happening, and the smaller countries had to follow along”. For Stephens, “19th century power-politics” is experiencing a renaissance.
It is the political unrest within the United Kingdom and Europe which Stephens highlights as another “megatrend” currently reshaping global relations. “You could call it populism, you could call it nationalism. However, if you look closely at the movements that propelled Trump to power and led lots of people to support Brexit, we are seeing a rejection of the liberal order within our own society,” he explains. All these events emphasise the growing gulf between the cosmopolitan elite and the broader electorate: “Brexit taught us about the divides in the nations of our Union. When Trump denounces globalism and promotes the sense that power has been lost to other nations and societal elites, I think he is speaking for people in our society as well.”
In a world of transformed international relations, businesses must learn to adapt in more nationalistic, unstable environments, according to Stephens: “If I must give a message to businesses, they must think about risk and not be frightened by it. They must learn to think about how a flare-up between the US and Iran may flare up their own business, and how they can cope with it”. Whilst issuing caution to the world of business, he also highlights that in comparison to past years, stock and financial markets are at historically high levels. “Business seems to be shaking off much of the bad geopolitical news. So, the optimist in me says that business will consider these new geopolitical risks and adapt their own risk profiles accordingly.”
Such optimism has not been reserved for Brexit – a move criticised by the journalist as “a bad idea”. Speaking ahead of the November publication of a draft Withdrawal Bill, he claims that the real practical decisions behind the move will be taken post-departure. “The political statement to accompany the treaty won’t say whether we will be more like Canada or Norway. It will say we will be in the Customs Union for an indefinite period. It won’t say how long for, or to which extent we will stay in the single market for goods.
“I am sorry to say that this conclusion will be the beginning of the process and not the end, so as well as the big political risks out there, you have the double uncertainty of not knowing where we are going with the EU for the next few years”, he concludes.