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At his farewell address in Chicago earlier this week, President Obama offered a plaintive lament for a world under threat. He hailed the American-led creation of "a post-World War II order with other democracies, an order based not just on military power or national affiliations but built on principles." But, he warned, "that order is now being challenged."
A week before the inauguration of President-elect Donald Trump, who crested to power on a wave of anti-establishment anger in the West, three separate reports offer their own versions of how the liberal status quo is unraveling.
In an annual policy paper, the World Economic Forum, an organization synonymous with the forces of globalization, argued that "rising income and wealth disparity" could perhaps be the greatest driver of global political trends in the years to come. The group suggested that countries in the West could even "embark on a period of de-globalization."
To be sure, such gloomy forecasts aren't new for the organization. Its 2012 iteration of the same report was titled "Seeds of Dystopia." But the uncertainty posed by a Trump presidency, as well as recent political gains by a host of once-fringe, Euroskeptic and anti-immigrant political parties, will shadow the WEF's glitzy conclave next week in Davos, Switzerland, long cast by critics as a beehive of the world's detached, jet-setting elites.
But the populism of the moment isn't just about economic justice. In the United States and elsewhere, anger at elites bubbled up alongside rejections of multiculturalism, hostility to immigrants and contempt for refugees. It left some "liberal" leaders, like German Chancellor Angela Merkel, struggling to defend international norms and obligations in the face of citizens increasingly worried about a loss of sovereignty at home and security threats from afar.
"The combination of economic inequality and political polarization threatens to amplify global risks, fraying the social solidarity on which the legitimacy of our economic and political systems rests,” warned the World Economic Forum.
"Certain politicians are flourishing and even gaining power by portraying rights as protecting only the terrorist suspect or the asylum seeker at the expense of the safety, economic welfare, and cultural preferences of the presumed majority," wrote Roth. "They scapegoat refugees, immigrant communities, and minorities. Truth is a frequent casualty. Nativism, xenophobia, racism, and Islamophobia are on the rise."
Trump’s victory, Roth suggested, was "a vivid illustration of this politics of intolerance."
Roth linked Trump's populism to the politics of established autocrats in other parts of the world, like Russia's Vladimir Putin and Turkey's Recep Tayyip Erdogan.
"The rising tide of populism in the name of a perceived majority has paralleled a new infatuation with strongman rule that was apparent particularly prominently during the US presidential election campaign," wrote Roth. "If all that matters are the declared interests of the majority, the thinking seems to go, why not embrace the autocrat who shows no qualms about asserting his 'majoritarian' vision—self-serving as it may be—and subjugating those who disagree."
Trump's supporters would obviously disagree with Roth's characterization. But the president-elect's blustering performance at a press conference on Wednesday — where he publicly scolded journalists assembled before him — did earn the praise of Erdogan, who congratulated Trump the following day on putting a particular CNN reporter "in his place."
The fraying of the liberal order will have real geopolitical effects. "The next five years will see rising tensions within and between countries," predicts the National Intelligence Council, a unit of the Office of the Director of National Intelligence — that is, an American government agency.
Every four years, intelligence officials at the NIC put out their predictions for the future. The report released this month points to rising nationalism in various parts of the world as economic growth slows and migrant flows continue. That could prompt further conflict, particularly if the strength of grand international blocs or alliances, such as the European Union or NATO, wanes.
The study paints a dark picture of future wars:
"Warring will be less and less confined to the battlefield, and more aimed at disrupting societies. ... Noncombatants will be increasingly targeted, sometimes to pit ethnic, religious, and political groups against one another to disrupt societal cooperation and coexistence within states. Such strategies suggest a trend toward increasingly costly, but less decisive conflicts."
It also points to a rewinding of global politics, to a time when regional powers are in a constant state of struggle and nationalist rulers see “international relations in existential terms.”
For all its incendiary allegations, the controversial intelligence dossier published by BuzzFeed this week about Trump's connections to Russia did offer one bit of cogent analysis: It discussed how Putin aims to “encourage splits and divisions in the Western alliance” so as to foster “a return to 19th-century ‘Great Power’ politics.” Trump, for his part, has repeatedly signaled his disinterest in building a foreign policy on principles and universal values.
"For better and worse, the emerging global landscape is drawing to a close an era of American dominance following the Cold War,” the NIC report argued, bringing us full circle to Obama's concerns. “So, too, perhaps is the rules-based international order that emerged after World War II."
Others caution against such doom and gloom. "Trump will find he likes hanging around the global establishment the way he liked having the Clintons at his wedding," quipped New York Times columnist David Brooks.
Obama, and other Americans who recognize how much their own nation has gained from the "rules-based international order," can only hope that's right.