It has been a particularly ugly stretch in an age of ugly. Members of the global diplomatic elite openly laughed at the boasts of a U.S. president, and Washington put its domestic dysfunction on full display in a confrontation over the Supreme Court.
Events like President Donald Trump’s visit to the United Nations last week and the dispute over the Brett Kavanaugh nomination help make clear how self-absorbed the United States has become — and how sharply its status has diminished. The world is changing, and even the best minds have only a murky idea of where we go from here.
Outside of Washington, there is plenty more ugly to go around, as countries seek to balance sovereignty and cooperation; the urge to look backward and the need to move forward. British Prime Minister Theresa May’s Brexit plan satisfies neither the European Union nor her own Conservative Party. So prominent Europe skeptic Boris Johnson unloaded his own plan – a “half-baked, sloppy rant,” in the memorable words of Britain’s third party, the Liberal Democrats. Brazil, beset by recession and corruption, is entering the final week of an election campaign in which Jair Bolsonaro — who declared a female legislator too unattractive to rape, and said that a former military dictatorship erred in merely torturing leftists instead of killing them — was one of the leading candidates. Bolsonaro nearly died after being stabbed on the campaign trail three weeks ago.
Frustrated with Trump’s Iran policy, America’s European allies are working with Russia and China on a way around U.S. sanctions. China, embroiled in a trade war with Trump’s administration, lowered some tariffs to lessen the impact on its economy and align itself closer to Europe and Japan.
A concern that the U.S. was overextended and needed to pull back was evident in the Obama administration’s policy debates over Iraq, Syria and Afghanistan. The momentum has accelerated under Trump, like a car bouncing downhill with the driver steering only when he bothers to look up from his phone.
So where might we go from here?
First, Brookings Institution scholar Robert Kagan argues that it’s important to understand what we risk if we stay on the same path. American hegemony was a major building block of the post-World War II decades, but America often failed to live up to its own ideals. Nevertheless, states like Brazil eventually ended dictatorship and became (flawed) democracies. Countries “became more humane in the treatment of their citizens, increasingly respectful of free speech, a free press, and the right to protest and dissent. The poor were better cared for. Rights were continually expanded to hitherto unprotected minorities. Racialism and tribalism were dampened in favor of a growing cosmopolitanism. Extreme forms of nationalism diminished,” Kagan argues.
If millions of people now are uneasy with globalism, immigration and a loss of national identity, argues Israeli historian Yuval Noah Harari, it’s imperative to understand that previous efforts to build a world order around states with distinct national identities have failed spectacularly: “All attempts to divide the world into clear-cut nations have so far resulted in war and genocide,” says the author of the widely reviewed “21 Lessons for the 21st Century.” Like it or not, everyone is bound together by a global economy and three problems that demand cooperation: the threat of nuclear war, climate change and artificial intelligence.
“In itself, Brexit isn’t necessarily a bad idea,” Harari says, but “every minute that Britain and the EU spend on Brexit is one less minute they spend on preventing climate change and on regulating AI.”
Harvard’s Stephen M. Walt regards recent decades, in which many Republicans and Democrats alike in the U.S. foreign policy establishment have been keen on intervention, as a failure. But he’s no isolationist. Walt wonders whether American democratic socialists, libertarians and foreign policy realists such as himself can come together on a more restrained foreign policy that would “husband U.S. strength, avoid costly quagmires, encourage other states to bear a greater share of global burdens, and allow the United States to rebuild its domestic infrastructure and focus on big strategic challenges that remain (e.g., China).”
Walt acknowledges the long odds of getting those groups together on much of anything. Even so, it’s possible to imagine ways in which this turns out — if not great — at least not so bad.
Trump already has launched what are likely to be his main foreign policy efforts. The U.S. can’t by itself halt the spread of nationalism and xenophobia, but it can avoid whipping them up further. Distracted and inward looking, perhaps the Trump administration ends in a whimper.
Maybe the Brits figure out this Brexit thing in a way that helps establish a new balance between sovereignty and cooperation. The Economist notes that new political ideas – good and bad – are bubbling in Britain, and there is often is an odd parallel between events in the U.K. and the U.S. – Thatcher and Reagan; Clinton and Blair; Brexit and Trump.
Finally, are changes coming to U.S. politics? In particular, young people and women, spurred on by the Kavanaugh spectacle, have a chance to move into positions of prominence – and bring new ideas with them. When that happens, much of the world is inspired to follow.