Instability appears to be the order of the day, whether in the United States or in Europe. Traditional politics, of the kind practiced in Western democracies for decades after World War II, is on shaky ground nearly everywhere, struggling to find the point of equilibrium that can satisfy populations fractured by economic, cultural and social changes.
In Britain, Prime Minister Theresa May clings to power as she struggles to win support among skeptical members of her Conservative Party — and others — for a Brexit deal with the European Union. In France, President Emmanuel Macron, flying high a year ago after his election, is in retreat, chastened by a series of violent demonstrations against his reform agenda. In Germany, Angela Merkel will step down as leader of the Christian Democrats this month, though remaining as chancellor, in an acknowledgment of the decline in support for her party and frustrations with her leadership.
In the United States, meanwhile, an already divided country faces the prospect of more unrest as special counsel Robert S. Mueller III moves toward the conclusion of his investigation, with the prospect of hearings — and even the possibility of the start of impeachment proceedings — in the new Democratic-controlled House that could further destabilize the Trump presidency ahead of the 2020 elections.
Richard Haass, president of the Council on Foreign Relations, summed up the state of affairs this week in a Tuesday morning tweet. “A bad day as far as politics for what we used to call the West: political chaos over Brexit in the UK, political capitulation in France that will not satisfy anyone or settle anything, and a political crisis in the United States that continues to grow in breadth and depth alike.”
The dividing lines in this new world of unrest are no longer simply those along a left-right continuum, with conservatives pitted against liberals. Those battles still exist, here and elsewhere, but increasingly the forces of destabilization are coming from other angles and other directions. They are driven by what Ivo H. Daalder, president of the Chicago Council on Global Affairs and U.S. ambassador to NATO under President Barack Obama, described as “a population that is increasingly upset with how 20, 30, 40 years of globalization have changed the internal dynamics of society.”
This has taken forms that are changing politics, political alliances and policies here and abroad: a growing divide between cosmopolitan and non-cosmopolitan populations; deepening cultural differences between urban and rural parts of society; widening differences among those favoring a society more open and welcoming to immigrants and those favoring closed borders and turning inward and taking care of the home front.
In this country, the urban-rural split has become one of the largest and one of the fastest-growing divisions among the electorate. In Britain, the narrow victory for those citizens who called for breaking away from the European Union in the Brexit referendum was fueled by parts of the country outside major urban centers. In France, Macron has been under assault by demonstrators from rural areas and small towns protesting his fuel tax, among other measures, that would disproportionately affect them and their lifestyles.
There is another commonality to what has been seen in country after country, which is that the protests and political rebellion are organic rather than led by traditional groups or acknowledged leaders. Brexit caught political leaders by surprise. Donald Trump’s victory in 2016 was unforeseen in large part because it was from the bottom up and aimed at the establishments of both parties.
Bronwen Maddox, director of the Institute for Government in London, described a confluence of factors that has put governments and elected leaders on the defensive, from growing demands or expectations for services, to tight public finances, to rising mistrust of leaders and institutions. But she said that the answers to the problems that have sparked the rebellions and the protests — withdrawal from the European Union dictated by the Brexit referendum in 2016, for example — “are not the answers to their problems.”
Mistakes by those in power have contributed to the conditions that have sparked this rising populism. May’s predecessor, David Cameron, thought that a Brexit referendum would, once and for all, end the debate within his party over Europe. It ended up as a spectacular miscalculation. Merkel produced a backlash against her power and policies after she opened her country in response to a refugee crisis in the Middle East.
Macron came to office with little governing experience and having created a new party of the center whose members similarly lacked experience. For a time, he took on the role of chief advocate for internationalism and a united and vibrant Europe, in opposition to President Trump’s “America First.” For that he won praise from many quarters. But he made the elemental mistake of neglecting the people at home. He has heard them now.
European leaders, and others, think the United States under Trump has contributed to the instability among Western democracies. “We couldn’t solve all these problems, but we could try to be part of the solution,” Daalder said of the United States. “There is this sense on the part of European leaders that they’re standing there all by themselves . . . not looking at international solutions but national ones. That’s the fear about things coming apart.”
Rather than seeking to strengthen alliances, as past presidents have done, Trump has attacked them, from NATO to the E.U. to the Paris climate agreement, the Iran nuclear agreement and multilateral trade agreements.
Last week, as this country was saying goodbye to former president George H.W. Bush, an ardent defender of the postwar world order, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo was in Brussels, where he defended the president’s policies and challenged the role of existing organizations from the United Nations and the E.U. to the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund.
Trump, he said, “sees the world as it is, not as we wish it to be,” and he added that the president’s policies were helping to return the United States “to its traditional, central leadership role in the world.” That prompted a rejoinder from the Financial Times editorial board, which described the Trump doctrine as “belligerent unilateralism,” and added, “The U.S. has become weaker and the world more disorderly, as a consequence.”
But the world was becoming increasingly disorderly before Trump became president, and he probably was elected because of that disorder. Instability and unrest are now commonplace, testing the strength of elected leaders and creating fertile ground for those in reaction. As Maddox put it, “This is a difficult time to run a modern democracy.”
Haass underscored that there are differences between the issues driving the discontent in Britain vs. those in France. But overall, he said, disarray afflicts domestic politics of those and many other countries, and the international order is equally unsettled. “Both domestically and internationally, we know what we’re moving away from,” he said. “There’s no sense what we’re moving toward.”