Are International Affairs Dying At The Hands of Rising Populism?

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When Donald Trump spoke at the UN in New York, 2019, to a crowd of international leaders and diplomats, and declared that “The future does not belong to globalists. The future belongs to patriots. The future belongs to sovereign and independent nations”, it signalled the shift that’s been taking place in the last decade from globalist politics and economics to governments becoming more populist, nationalist and anti-immigration.  The rise of Brexit and world leaders such as Trump or Bolsonaro threatens the growth in world trade, international interdependence and improving relations between nations seen since the end of the Second World War. This change in politics could now define the way countries interact with each other for a generation, and have deep consequences.

23rd of June 2016 is a day that will live in infamy in UK and European political history. The UK had voted to leave the European Union, making it the first time a country volunteered to leave any economic union, and the political class in London were left shocked. David Cameron would never have thought that such a result was possible, as the idea of the UK, one of the major powers within the EU, leaving was inconceivable. Not even Brexit’s biggest proponent, Boris Johnson, thought such a result would take place. But it did happen, and Cameron was forced to resign. The referendum, however, was not a one off event which would just pass by, but rather a warning sign of a rise in protectionism and nationalism across the world. Four years after that vote, the UK has been through a turbulent political period, with three different Prime Ministers, two snap-general elections and two different negotiated Brexit deals. Westminster became more toxic than ever before, with debates in the House of Commons becoming a loud and raucous shouting match, rather than a place of debate and speech. The deadlock over Brexit finally ended, with the Conservatives resounding landslide victory at the General election last December. Even the strongest remainers, such as myself, felt a relief  that the issue had been settled. However, I couldn’t have been more wrong. Brexit still prevails today, as we head towards the deadline of reaching a trade deal with no deal, seemingly unable to reach a compromise with the EU. Furthermore, the UK government announced that they were preparing to break international law through the Internal Markets Bill, by going back on the legally binding deal agreed by Johnson and his government last year with the EU. This is showing the consequences of Brexit and the rise of populism on International cooperation, as nations dealing with each other have become more hostile. The accusations thrown by the UK government and the EU have been numerous and rather too public, while at the same time a trade deal still seems a mile away from being agreed. Agreeing a trade deal is now no longer a behind closed door process, it’s now very public and played out in the media. Announcing that you’re ready to break international law, or preparing for a no deal scenario through the media, is becoming a rather common tactic used by governments to negotiate a trade deal in their favour. The consequences of this type of negotiating will lead to more hostility between countries in place of real diplomacy and civil negotiations. For the UK, no trade deal with the EU or, as put by the government, a Canada style agreement (which is just the governments way of saying they havent agreed a deal they promised), won’t only lead to a slow-down in trade with the EU and in UK economic growth, but it will also set relations back with our European neighbours to pre-WW2 levels. With the amount of blaming and name calling from leave campaigners in 2016 about leaders in Europe and their governments, which has continued to this day, relations have turned sour, and they could remain that way for a long time without a return of civility and traditional diplomacy.

Populism hasn’t only grown here in the UK however. It’s a rising global movement that has had growing support in many countries across the world, even when that doesn’t translate to holding government roles, as seen in France with Marine Le Pen. Brazil, with Bolsonaro, and India, with Hindu nationalist Modi, are now under populist and nationalist control too. However, I wouldn’t be able to write this particular article without addressing the elephant in the room. Donald Trump is possibly the most isolationist, populist President the US has had in it’s modern history. He has implemented isolationist and “America First” foreign policies, while leaving Obama administration signed deals, such as the Iran nuclear deal and the Paris climate treaty, while also recently withholding funding for the WHO over the coronavirus pandemic. He has continuously picked fights with allied nations’ leaders, while cosying up with dictators such as Putin or Kim Jong-Un. His actions have brought us to the brink of war in Iran, while destabilising certain regions such as Syria by abandoning Kurdish forces. He’s left trans-Atlantic trade deals, whilst also starting a trade war through tariffs with China. The US is now losing its influence on world affairs, with allied nations’ leaders from France, Canada and the UK at the NATO summit laughing about his child-like antics at press conferences. Trump has certainly been unusual when it comes to dealing with world leaders. For example, when he was in an argument with Angela Merkel and other leaders at the 2018 G7 summit, Trump, just like a child, took out two starburst candies from his pocket and placed them out on the table, proclaiming “here Angela, don’t say I never give you anything”. While these absurd stories are amusing, they are having significant consequences on world relations. Trump is turning the US’s back away from their historical allies, and allowing dictators and external threats to continue their illegal acts in the world.

The consequences could see China, a communist and authoritarian nation, become an economic and military world leader. China, in recent decades, has grown exponentially to become the world’s second largest economy and now contributes to 12% of the UN’s budget, up from 1% in 2000. They head up four of the UN’s 15 special agencies, whilst the USA only leads one. China has also been increasing its influence in neighbouring South East Asian and African nations through large investments, while bullying nations within the South Chinese sea, through building man made military islands. The US has turned its backs on the world under Trump , and China is now taking advantage. The consequences could be dear, as China has an appalling human rights record, from their persecution of Uighur Muslims to the suppression of Hong Kong’s protestors. Despite Trump’s claim that he is tough on China, he praised Xi-Jinping’s response at the beginning of the coronavirus outbreak in Wuhan, and according to his former National security advisor, John Bolton, he purposefully turned a blind eye to the persecution of Uighur Muslims, even encouraging it. Thanks to Trump’s ineptitude and isolationist policies, China are now using their greater influence over the UN to rewrite UN legislation in their favour and using their increasingly influential veto to prevent discussions around their human rights abuses. The world is now at risk of being run on China’s authoritarian and communist terms rather than the the US’s terms of freedom that have run world affairs for the last 75 years.

This is all quite scary, and it shows the dangers that populism and nationalism has on world affairs. But it also begs the question, is there any way back for globalism and international cooperation? Well, there are signs of hope. The EU has seemingly, for now, staved off additional support across Europe for the break up of  the EU, while leaders such as Macron and Merkel have been keen to increase integration of European countries, with Macron’s idea of a unified European army having gained support. However, all of that is for nothing if Trump is re-elected as the US’s President. Trump would continue his “America First”  and isolationists policies on foreign relations. But a Biden Presidency would take the US back to their traditional foreign policy position. Biden has made clear that his first priority in office would be to call up NATO’s members and tell them, “we’re back”. Biden, who headed the foreign relations committee as a Senator, will get the US to re-join the Paris Climate Accords, the Iran nuclear treaty and the World Health Organisation. He won’t bow down to China or Russia interference in the US or other countries, and he will make sure the US leads the agenda at the UN. A Biden win this November could breathe a sigh of relief for the US’s allies, while a Trump win would likely see governments frantically panicking at the thought of four more years of Trump. This US election will not only be a historic moment whichever way it goes for the US and it’s domestic issues, but it will also determine international affairs for a generation.

Brexit, Trump, and now the coronavirus pandemic, have threatened globalism and international diplomacy as we know it. USA’s influence on the world stage is now diminishing and China is reaping the benefits, with the UK also turning its back on international trade and hastening its relationships with its European partners. We are now at a crossroads, where authoritarian dictatorship nations are gradually increasing their influence, whilst democratically elected globalist and nationalist nations are turning away. Globalists and internationalists, such as myself, are now left hoping that Biden sweeps to victory this November and decency and diplomacy returns to international affairs.