Theorists of the international order watch in shock and awe the European Union (EU) slipping into seemingly terminal decline, the United States in flight mode, and Russia and China inexorably encroaching on the space vacated to rechristen a new world order. In his canonical Muqaddimah, the 14th century Arab polymath Ibn Khaldun explained the reasons for and critically examined the patterns of decline and disintegration of great empires. “Diminishing of group spirit” and “adoption of court intrigue as strategy rather than battlefield valour” are listed among the reasons for the decline of empires.
The EU is not an empire but it is a mighty political-economic organisation that is at the moment afflicted by both diminishing group spirit and court intrigue that seems to be pushing it towards a self-inflicted and irreversible decline. The gradual unfolding of political upheaval in the formidable four of the European Union, the United Kingdom, France, Germany and Italy has morphed into a roller coaster ride. It has led to a situation from which the EU has no discernible escape route. Leaderless and directionless, the EU is stuck in perpetual crisis.
Britain, which produced the first ever multinational company—The East India Company in the early 17th century, is seeking refuge in an exit from Europe. Through the June 2016 referendum-approved Brexit, the UK intended to “take back control of its money, trade related laws and custom regulations at the country’s borders”. In the process it struck a body blow at the idea of a collective of nations across continental Europe. To make matters messier, a departing Albion is tormented by a plethora of exit-related domestic as well as international legal and legislative complexities giving the impression that Brexit was a thoughtless, myopic move.
The Brexit referendum forced one Conservative prime minister to resign and another to seek a confidence vote from the Conservative party.
Watching the slow-motion train wreck that is the ongoing Brexit deal and realising in granular detail the real cost of withdrawal, sections of the ruling and opposition Members of Parliament have started a chorus for course correction. These belated endeavours by the MPs to prevent the UK from leaving the Union prompted Liam Fox, secretary of state for international trade, to publicly issue a warning that “MPs could overturn the 2016 referendum vote and steal Brexit from the British people”.
he withdrawal agreement is a legally-binding text comprising 599 pages. It covers the terms and conditions of the UK’s exit from the Union for an estimated £39 billion “divorce” payment to the EU. It also includes provisions for securing the fate of British workers in EU and EU citizens employed in the UK. But the real stumbling block is the physical border with the Republic of Ireland, an EU member. If the deal is approved it will return to haunt Britain.
The 310-mile land border between Northern Ireland and the Irish republic is proving to be the biggest diplomatic hurdle as neither side wants customs posts, checkpoints and surveillance cameras at the border, or to disrupt the free flow of people and materials. To solve this problem Whitehall persuaded the Union to provide a so-called backstop—a kind of insurance policy that there will be no hard border on the island of Ireland, irrespective of the UK’s exit deal. Ironically, the backstop ensures a temporary single customs territory, effectively keeping the whole of the UK in the EU customs union for perpetuity.
Departure precipitated a logjam in Parliament, showing up the legislative branch as clueless, spineless and indecisive procrastinators.
The question whether to remain in or leave the EU has exposed the country’s domestic fault lines and unsteady international commitments. The Brexit referendum forced one Conservative prime minister, David Cameron, to resign after his failure to convince the public to remain in the EU, and pushed another in Theresa May to seek a confidence vote from the Conservative party because of her zeal to facilitate the exit of Britain from the Union. May won the vote 200 to 117, which ensured her leadership and dodged any internal challenge for a year but there is no guarantee that she will not be forced to a trust vote inside the House of Commons. There is plenty of opposition to Brexit in other parties.
It seems Britain’s trade-related advantage is doomed and the promise of the European Union is weakened from within—Brexit or no Brexit. Westminster is gearing up for a self-goal as MPs on both side of the aisle are preparing to defeat May’s hard-won Brexit deal. She is still trying to sell the deal by telling MPs that “the deal is the best the UK can get from the EU and that there is no alternative on offer”. But realising the imminent prospect of defeat in Parliament she delayed the voting, which had been scheduled for December 11, to January 14, 2019.
The resultant deep divisions, both in government and among the people, created by the 2016 plebiscite are refusing to fade away. Indeed, with the passing of time they are actually growing. Legislators and political leaders have failed to bridge the divisions; rather they have contributed to the confusion and chaos by misleading statements and outright falsehoods.
The UK was the second largest contributor to the EU budget after Germany as per 2018 figures. Its departure from the Union precipitated a logjam in Parliament, showing up the decision-making legislative branch as clueless, spineless and indecisive procrastinators and has sown confusion and resentment among the population through their self-serving spin. It’s been a drawn-out process that is gradually sucking the life out of the Union by the encouragement it provides to other recalcitrant members unhappy with the Brussels imperative, especially those of the right wing persuasion such as Hungary and Poland, the two largest after the big four. Taken together with the chaos caused by the refugee influx of the last two years and the consequent rise of anti-immigrant feeling, Brexit has led to a marked decline in confidence in the European Union. It is seen as a waning force, opening up the prospect of an unstable world order that makes a lot of nations nervous.
ermany, with a €19.587 billion contribution to the EU budget, is considered the engine behind the EU’s global influence as a unified trade block. Inside the EU, its presence is pervasive and all-encompassing. For the past 13 years, Angela Merkel, who became Germany’s Chancellor in 2005, has not only dominated the politics of the European Union but also spearheaded the organisation on global platforms as a symbol of steadiness and continuity. Germany sends as many as 96 members to the 751-member European Parliament. On October 29, 2018, suddenly, the strongest woman of Europe announced her own obituary, saying that she would not seek re-election as chief of her ruling Christian Democratic Union (CDU). She further asserted that she would not contest a fifth term for the office of Chancellor in 2021. These announcements have further diminished hopes for a revival of the EU’s international standing and upset political stability within the union.
Angela Merkel’s troubles could be traced to her bold decision to accept one million refugees from wartorn Middle East and North Africa during the migrant crisis which began in 2015.
Merkel’s voluntary acceptance of lame-duck head of state status comes at a time when Europe is facing the worst kind of disagreements on a majority of economic-political issues since the end of the Second World War. Consensus on a host of matters is evaporating on a daily basis.
Her weakening hold on Germany’s politics has been happening for some time. During the 2017 federal elections her centre-right party CDU scored just 33 per cent of the vote, the worst ever vote share since 1949. About a year later, on October 14, 2018, the CDU and its coalition partners suffered a shock in the state elections of Bavaria. Although the Christian Social Union (CSU), a CDU coalition partner hung on to power, the CDU-CSU combine lost a total vote share of around 10 per cent. It was worse a fortnight later, on October 28 in the state election for Hesse. The CDU and its electoral partner the Social Democratic Party (SPD) lost 20 per cent vote share. Hesse is home to the financial capital Frankfurt. Although CDU managed to hang on to power the moral authority to propel strong measures is lacking.
Angela Merkel’s troubles could be traced to her bold decision to accept one million refugees from wartorn Middle East and North Africa during the migrant crisis which began in 2015. Her humane approach was applauded, but mostly outside Germany. Inside the country, it was not so well received and coming on the tail of already waning party authority and resentment in the European Union of her refugee decision, she began to lose support to anti-immigrant right-wing populist detractors in the elections. The series of bruising electoral losses prompted the Chancellor to announce that she would not contest the party leadership nor seek another term as chancellor.
Merkel, who had held the CDU chair since 2000, could not even save her right-hand man Volker Kauder as parliamentary group leader of the CDU/CSU in the Bundestag. Volker Kauder, who had held the position from 2005, lost to Ralph Brinkhaus in a secret ballot for the party post. The German people’s disapproval of Merkel and discontent among conservative lawmakers has diminished her capacity to lead the European Union. Shorn of German leadership the organisation has slipped into into a downward spiral to the dismay of its supporters. There is even talk of the union’s eventual disintegration. Merkel’s self-imposed vanishing act has not just dealt a blow to the EU. It has handed Russia and China an advantage in the struggle for primacy.
he EU’s other natural leader, France, has its own problems. President Emmanuel Macron, who showed at the G-7 Summit held in Canada in June that he had the potential to be the leader of a new world order, is under siege over his taxation policy. At the G-7 summit, when the unpredictable US President Donald Trump sniped at the EU and Canada over tariffs on steel and aluminium, Macron replied that “International co-operation cannot be dictated by fits of anger and throwaway remarks.” It was a fitting riposte to the incoherence and inconsistency of the US president and his pledge to keep the EU a significant player in the global order was a welcome show of restraint and maturity.
Macron won the 2017 presidential election on the promise of a revolution in job creation. Little more than a year later, he ignited a public outcry and his approval ratings are in the basement.
Not long after, Macron’s own policies and leadership style came under fierce attack from the “gilets jaunes” (yellow vests), French citizens coming out in a series of massive protests against the government’s decision to raise the tax on fuel. On November 24, I was at the Arc de Triomphe overlooking the spectacular Champs-Elysées in Paris when an unusual demonstration of anger against Macron’s taxation policy swept the street. The protesters coined a term for the revolt—“yellow vests” because the initial participants were mostly motorists who are required to keep the fluorescent jackets in their vehicles for emergencies. They have been protesting the fuel tax by wearing high-visibility jackets. Higher fuel taxes were merely the catalyst, however. The gilets jaunes have broader grievances over the high cost of living.
The protesters were venting their anger over Macron’s tax policy where he eliminated a surtax paid by France’s wealthiest while diminishing the housing subsidy and going ahead with a gradual 23 per cent hike in fuel taxes over the past year. Macron described it as an anti-pollution measure and thought his harsh economic steps would get public support. But other than government servants, Macron’s policy hurt everyone, including people in rural areas and smaller towns.
Macron won the 2017 presidential election on the promise of a revolution in job creation, in revitalising the economy and in improving the social welfare model. Little more than a year later, he ignited a public outcry and his approval ratings are in the basement, at about 25 per cent. Policies like a change in labour laws to ease hiring and firing and tax cuts for companies and the rich in the quest for greater economic growth have led to a confrontation with labour unions.
The full impact of the yellow vests protests is still to be visible but Macron is clearly on the backfoot and was forced to roll back some taxes. He promised to put more money into the pockets of the poorest. In an effort to ease the biggest crisis of his presidency, Macron met former French president Nicolas Sarkozy twice in three weeks in November-December to enlist his help. Sarkozy is under investigation over illegal campaign financing in the 2007 presidential election and for accepting bribes from late Libyan dictator Muammar Gaddafi. But Macron still considers him important because the French President suspects Yellow Vest protests are staged by Sarkozy’s far-right The Republicans party.
The undermining of Macron’s domestic clout has cast a shadow on his capacity to lead the European Union or G-7 in the near future. A vacuum in continental Europe is in the making.
The fourth of the EU’s biggest members, Italy, seems to be in a perpetual war with the Union. The coalition of left-leaning and populist Five-Star Movement and pro-business and nationalist-leaning League is at loggerheads with Brussels on the issue of Italy’s 2019 budget deficit, which cannot exceed 3 per cent of the GDP as per EU standards. The contrasting ideologies of the two parties find common ground in criticising the dictatorial nature of Brussels in enforcing budget austerity. The coalition considers the EU responsible for Italy’s high unemployment among youth, at present more than 30 per cent, and 10 per cent among the overall workforce. The coalition blames the EU for almost everything, from stagnation of Italian capital investment to loss of competitiveness as threats to productivity growth.
Europe looks like a broken continent waiting to collapse under its own weight. The Union’s charisma is melting at frightening speed.
Rome has made a public display of determination to counter Brussels’ coercive strategy against past governments. While EU’s refusal to approve Italy’s budget deficit is based on the calculation that the debt load ranges close to 130 per cent of GDP, greater than any other EU member except Greece at 180 per cent, Italy’s complaint is that the European Commission has allowed Germany, France, and Spain to run deficits in excess of the rules. The European Commission’s rejection of a budget drawn up by an elected government coupled with its unprecedented step of expediting sanctions procedures against Italy has created another Brexit-like impasse. The anti-EU feeling is fuelled by Brussels’ presence and a nation’s inability to choose its own policies.
But as the government faced up to the realities of populism as policy, after months of tortuous negotiations on December 19, its leaders blinked and agreed to EU demands to roll back its unrealistic and rules-flouting budget. Italy agreed to place a spending deficit cap to 2.04 per cent of the gross domestic product. But it has had consequences in the imminent weakening of the EU as Italy’s politicians left no stone unturned in their efforts to tarnish the image of the economic-political organisation of Europe.
Europe looks like a broken continent waiting to collapse under its own weight. What is more alarming is that the Union’s charisma is melting at frightening speed. The journey of Europe from a hard power, which dominated and ruled the world for centuries to a soft power that exports art, culture, diplomacy, philosophy and political economy to the world is entering a new phase. The continent, which taught liberalism, socialism, and republicanism to transform the lives of generations of humans all over the world seeks refuge in protectionism.
iplomats across the globe often admit with bewilderment that to keep tabs on a retreating America’s global role is impossible as President Donald Trump’s twitter account is the only executive decision maker on vital strategic and economic policies. Ever since he entered the White House, as many as 250 officials from various branches of the administration have resigned. The flurry of sudden unannounced changes, which is now a common affair at the White House and cabinet level, is unprecedented in American history. A phenomenal economic-military power for more than seven decades, America’s contemporary retreat through gratuitous insults of allies, unannounced withdrawal from overseas responsibilities, inhuman immigration policies and untenable trade tariff is like committing hara-kiri and leaving the world without a stable centre.
Trump’s unthinking invocation of chaos on vital issues forced Secretary of Defence Jim Mattis to tender his resignation. His temporary successor has no experience in the field of diplomacy or strategic affairs.
At the G-7 summit in June, Trump categorically announced his disagreements on the tariff issue and gratuitously insulted his host Canada and the other five participating powers. In the midst of a difficult war in Syria, on December 19, Trump suddenly ordered the withdrawal of American troops from the battlefields of Syria. While he pressed the point that the US military had achieved its goal of defeating the Islamic State and al-Qaeda militants in Syria, there is hardly any taker even within his own administration for this view. But Trump has received congratulatory message from an unlikely adversary—Russian President Vladimir Putin, who called the decision to withdraw from Syria a “correct” step.
In September 2018, he consented to the appointment of Zalmay Khalilzad as the special envoy for Afghanistan to initiate a peace process with the fighting Taliban and other stakeholders. But before Khalilzad could even understand the ground situation, on December 21, Trump ordered the military to start withdrawing roughly 7,000 of the 14,000 US troops from Afghanistan in coming months. The abrupt decision to end the American presence in the 17-year-old war stunned top defence officials inside his administration and sparked competitive apoplexy among the Afghan officials.
Trump’s unthinking invocation of chaos on vital global order issues forced his Secretary of Defence Jim Mattis to tender his resignation on 20 December 2018. He said he would hand the baton to his successor at the end of February 2019. But the President pre-empted him by telling him he could leave on January 1. His temporary successor Patrick Shanahan, a former Boeing executive, has no experience in the field of diplomacy or strategic affairs. As for the President himself, foreign policy in a thousand tweets makes it impossible to find a discernible pattern or even thread in the undertaking.
A retreating US is effectively offering Russia and China the role of global leaders on a platter.
For the past few decades, especially after the Cold War, despite many errors on the subject of military intervention, the US has been a stabilising force with the professed goal of establishing a world order. Its strength was enhanced by joining forces with allies and partners in its global missions. Additionally, other than maintaining military-technological superiority over all nations, US capacity was directly proportionate to its relations with partners and allies.
In any case, even if relations with partners and allies deteriorate, the US remains indispensable to the free world. But the precipitate retreat from its global role effectively undercuts its influence. In his lengthy resignation letter Mattis explained that without strong alliances and showing respect to allies it would be hard for America to “protect our interests or serve that role effectively”. He said “the armed forces of the United States should not be the policeman of the world” but America “must use all the tools of American power to provide for the common defense”
Mattis lamented the fact that despite the unwavering support of NATO’s 29 democracies who demonstrated their commitment to the US after 9/11, the US had failed to maintain the gain. He also said the “defeat-ISIS coalition of 74 nations” led by the US is the strongest proof of its role as a leader. It is this architecture Trump is unwittingly or deliberately dismantling with his highly incendiary stream-of-consciousness tweeting. How far it goes and how long its lasts is not clear but the US retreat from its own rule-based world order is a present day reality. Mattis identified Trump’s refusal to respect alliances and allies as the reason for US inability “to advance an international order that is most conducive to our security, prosperity and values”. A retreating US is effectively offering Russia and China the role of global leaders on a platter.
he rise of China as an economic power is breathtaking and unparalleled in history. In the last few years, moreover, its strategic outreach has grown exponentially. Chinese policy, especially the wealth-propelled strategic outmanoeuvring of rivals is in direct confrontation with US interests in Asia, Africa, Latin America and other parts of the world. But in the face of a retreating America, Sino-US tensions are turning into a predetermined primacy for China.
A communist society with an authoritarian model of governance, China wants to shape the world to fit its ends. In recent years, China has increased its presence across strategic sectors like information technology and defence production. It has acquired assets along vital land and marine trade routes on a scale outperforming all competitors. As many countries accept infusions of Chinese money, it has been able to gain veto authority over the recipient nations’ “economic, diplomatic, and security decisions—to promote its own interests at the expense of their neighbours, America and American allies.”
China’s calculated disregard for basic human rights and international opinion was on full display when Meng Hongwei, the first Chinese head of Interpol, was arrested in Beijing in September 2018. His appointment in 2016 was recommended by the Xi Jinping regime and was a source of national pride. China has been trying to gain top positions in key international organisations as part of its global dominance. But the contradictions were exposed when Meng was detained as investigations began into acts of alleged corruption.
Unlike other such cases, Meng’s wife lives outside China in the safe surrounding of Lyon to speak about Beijing’s opaque charges and arbitrary detentions. Regardless of the damage to its reputation, the Xi administration forced Meng to send his resignation to Interpol headquarters. Meng obliged without delay. But his representatives emphasised that Interpol accepted an unsigned resignation letter without any evidence of his consent. The affair is a textbook case of Chinese authoritarianism, disregard of rule-based order and a clear refusal to accept international norms.
Russia is rising from the dust and smoke of the Cold War. For the past few years President Vladimir V. Putin has been positioning Russia as a strong yet disruptive counter force to US ambitions.
The change in global perceptions can also be judged from the fact that rather than investigating the circumstances behind Meng’s disappearance Interpol accepted his resignation and decided to hold elections for a new chief. It was an admission of helplessness against Chinese unilateralism. On November 18 Interpol gathered police chiefs from around the world in Dubai and three days later elected South Korean Kim Jong-yang as its new president.
The arrest is a brazen example of China’s increasingly thuggish ways of dealing with issues and a slap in the face of rule-based order. Therefore, no matter how wealthy or how long its strategic outreach Chinese versions of global order will be unacceptable to large sections of the world.
ussia is rising from the dust and smoke of the debacle that was the Cold War and its global influence too waxes. For the past few years President Vladimir V. Putin has been positioning Russia as a strong yet disruptive counter force to US ambitions. The world is witnessing a fifth generation war in real time, being fought in cyberspace where information is the key weapon. Russia employs a vast army of hackers to destabilise rivals and settle scores with particularly detested adversaries. In the process, it has become home to a host of fugitives from the law, including the US’ most wanted cyber criminal Evgeniy M. Bogachev, a US citizen with a $3 million bounty on his head.
The Dutch intelligence service MIVD thwarted a Russian hacking attack on the headquarters of the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) in The Haque on April 13 and apprehended four Russian hackers who had arrived in Amsterdam on diplomatic visas. The OPCW is investigating both the use of chemical weapons in Syria and the nerve agent attack of March 2018 in Salisbury, England.
Success in influencing the outcome of the 2016 US presidential election was a prime example of how Russia has matured as a global mafia don. Its muscle flexing in Syria where it successfully held off US intervention and saved the Bashar al-Assad regime shows Russian policy to be a mix of criminal engagement, support for rival militant groups and paying the US in the same coin. In Afghanistan, Russian intelligence supports Taliban fighters against NATO and is engaged in organising peace talks simultaneously. The ultimate casualty is rule of law.
For the US, a military treaty like NATO is not enough to deal with Russian excesses. Contrary to the transparent US announcements and Congressional hearings, Russia’s international engagements in various theatres of wars are an extension of opaque, authoritarian mafia-type intervention.
The big worry is that both China and Russia are registering far more successes than international theorists ever thought they could achieve. The European Union’s recovery is beyond sight. The big four are on the downward slope while the rest of its members have neither the capacity nor the inclination to hold the Union together or establish a world order deploying the collective strength of the Union.
India, a massive economy, does not fit into the scheme of things so far as establishing a global order is concerned. Although the US portrays India as its Asian partner capable of countering the rise of China, India’s own record is dismal. In international affairs, it has mostly relied on the archaic non-aligned policy or wavers around abstention.
The contemporary world order is in flux. At the moment, therefore, there are really no ground rules on international affairs.
India has long been seeking international support against terror groups of all hues since the Kashmir crisis began in the late 1980s. However, in a surprise move, it abstained from a US-sponsored vote on a UN General Assembly draft resolution that would have condemned the activities of Hamas and other militant groups in Gaza. While doing so, India sent the message that some militants are not to be condemned or banned while others must. The resolution faltered for lack of two-thirds support in the General Assembly.
Further proof of its shortcomings was on view when Russia invited India to the peace dialogue with Taliban representatives in Moscow on November 9. It sent two retired IFS officers without a mandate to speak for the country. Therefore, they ended up as silent bystanders in a caricature of diplomacy. The much-touted Quadrilateral Security Dialogue (QSD) with the US, Australia and Japan is only intended to make sound with no fury.
The contemporary world order is in flux. The US, NATO, European Union and UN, which so far called the shots on the question of maintaining world order are watching from the sidelines. China and Russia are still to make the grade as a proper replacement for the US and reorient the world according to their authoritarian ideologies. At the moment, therefore, there are really no ground rules on international affairs. In any case, the world is so integrated and technologically connected that it is difficult to imagine a machine for collective security without the west. As far as defence production and defence budgets are concerned, the west has a monopoly. On alliance making, too, the west has advantages over the rest. Therefore, it cannot be delinked from the issue of international security and order.
But even with a stable order the world will remain volatile until the guns in war zones in the Middle East and Africa fall silent and distressed migration stops. An Asian version of NATO or EU is difficult to imagine at this stage. China alone cannot lead and as an authoritarian regime it does not respect alliances. Therefore, the west’s inability to control the world order is a recipe for a free-for-all. Till the west prepares once again to advance an international order conducive to security, prosperity and humane values, the world will remain dangerously exposed to anarchy and random violence.