WITH THE onset of a new year, world politics are now dominated by changes set in train during 2016. All eyes are on America and Russia, the Middle East and the future of the European Union.
While people yearn for order and certainty in 2017, the success of Donald Trump in last November’s US presidential election, Russia’s expansionism and alleged interference in that election through computer hacking and Britain’s decision in a referendum in June to leave the EU (‘Brexit’) have now produced the opposite effect of inducing real fear about international security during the coming year. In parallel, the continuing grotesque actions of ISIS and the humanitarian catastrophe in Syria, which has precipitated the refugee crisis, have already led to serious disorder in Western countries together with public concern and dismay.
Mr Trump’s election and ‘Brexit’, both of which confounded the predictions of the claimed experts and the pollsters, amounted to a defeat of the global governing classes and almost to an unravelling of the old world order and a resulting potential rise in nationalism. Furthermore, the likely political upheaval following elections in certain countries in Europe in the coming months may result in a strengthening of the far-right and lead to further worries about the future, not least the likely chaos which would follow a possible collapse of the whole EU project.
The President-elect’s victory represents a rejection of what is now being seen as liberal drift in the United States itself and the nation’s disengagement on the international stage. Clearly, the seeds of this were sown during the eight years of the Obama presidency, which are more and more being considered as long on rhetoric and short on wisdom and useful achievement.
Mr Obama’s lack of leadership, amounting almost to detachment, in the area of foreign policy in an increasingly dangerous world has been particularly damaging. This included his refusal to refer explicitly to radical Islamic terrorism, ambivalence towards Israel and a failure to counter Russian aggression and advances in Ukraine and Syria as well as its rearmament affecting the Baltic states which has constituted a challenge to EU security. Finally confronting Vladimir Putin by expelling Russian diplomats over hacking and interference in the US presidential election was seen as too little, too late.
Mr Trump has already signalled a radical change of direction in US foreign policy but, in seeking a rapprochement with Russia, he should surely be wary of regarding Putin as a friend since his strategic interests run counter to those of the West. The President-elect will also be faced with other important issues, like the nuclear threat from North Korea and Iran and the risk of conflict arising from China’s military activity in the South China Sea, as well as the problems of international trade and of climate change, which he has dismissed as a hoax.
As for Europe, it now looks as though Britain has chosen to be on the right side of history at a time when the emphasis on global solutions, diminishing the role of the nation state, is waning. ‘Brexit’ has been described as the most complex diplomatic, legal, political and economic negotiation of our time. The relatively close result of the UK referendum means that the current fierce domestic debate about its outcome will continue. But all the signs are that, despite the political minefield both at home and within the EU itself, Prime Minister Theresa May’s government will stick to its deadline of the end of March to trigger Article 50 of the Lisbon Treaty (the mechanism for leaving the EU).
So far, Mrs May has been reluctant to disclose information about the government’s negotiating position, but the pledge in her New Year’s message to secure what she described as the right deal for every single person in the UK - not just the so-called ‘Brexiteers’ - was a welcome affirmation of her wish to heal the divisions between the Remainers and Leavers.
Given America’s vast influence in the rest of the world, most people will hope that, in office, Mr Trump is not as intolerant and impulsive as he has so far shown himself to be. There can be no doubt that he will always seek to put the interests of the US first, but there is also the hope that he will cease to ‘tweet’ at the drop of a hat on foreign policy matters. Appearing to be making policy on the hoof in relation to serious and complicated issues will only increase public fears about the potentially disastrous consequences of failing to address international problems in a rational and considered manner.
Prediction can be foolhardy if not reckless. But it is safe to say that the future of the United States in the hands of a new president is, at the very least, uncertain. In our own neighbouring small-island state, we await the events of 2017 with some trepidation.