“In 1941 there were only a dozen democracies in the world. Today there are over a hundred. For four centuries prior to 1950, global gross domestic product (GDP) rose by less than 1 percent a year. Since 1950 it has risen by an average of 4 percent a year, and billions of people have been lifted out of poverty. The first half of the twentieth century saw two of the most destructive wars in the history of mankind, and in prior centuries war among the great powers was almost constant. But for the past sixty years no great powers have gone to war with one another.”
These, according to Robert Kagan, in a book published at about the same time as Obama’s second term began, with the clear intension of dissuading the president from stepping back from global leadership, are American fruits. Since then, Kim Jong-un and Putin, Syria and the Diaoyu/Senkaku islands, have brought into question America’s global reach. Nonetheless, Obama has held the international institutions that have held sway throughout much of the period venerated by Kagan – EU, NATO, IMF, UN, World Bank – in as much reverence as any modern US president.
We have our discontents with globalisation (and these are justified, notwithstanding its gains, which, in Kagan’s historic sweep, are considerable, even unprecedented). We have our grumbles with Obama (but it is hard not to feel that he has made a sincere attempt to recalibrate American strategy and recraft international institutions for ongoing transition to a more multipolar world). None of these discontents and grumbles, however, justify a retreat to nineteenth century statecraft.
John Kerry bemoans Putin playing by “19th century rules”, while Thomas Wright has chronicled Donald Trump’s “19th century foreign policy”. Trump – like Nigel Farage and George Galloway – holds Putin in high regard. The feeling is mutual. The Russian leader has said of Trump that he is a, “really brilliant and talented person”.
“For Putin,” according to Wright, “Trump would be a dream come true: an American president who possesses views commensurate with Putin’s own antiquated notion of great-power politics. Putin would no longer have to deal with a president committed to wide-open global trade, NATO and democracy close to his borders—the formula that won the Cold War.” In addition to the Cold War, these presidential commitments greatly assisted the gains applauded by Kagan. “It’s not hard to imagine these two men sitting down to cut a deal,” Wright continues, “perhaps something like Putin offering to help Trump on ISIL and Iran in exchange for giving Putin a freer hand in Europe”.
Imagine such a Europe. It would be divided. Perhaps by Brexit, if Farage and Galloway have their way. Certainly, by the biggest refugee crisis since World War II and the Euro’s sclerotic performance. Division is what Putin invariably seeks and preys upon. President Trump would shed no tears. Because he would look upon America’s global responsibilities differently from any other modern US president. He’d see minimal responsibility to anyone beyond the walls that he would erect, literally and metaphorically, upon his country’s borders. Farage and Galloway would see little to object to in this Europe either. They’d have Brexit, they have few qualms with Putin.
In such a combustible, disunited continent, though, it is not hard to envisage a President Le Pen, another admirer of Putin, emerging in France and the EU unravelling, receding to memory as the League of Nations did before it. Still, presumably, Farage, Galloway and Trump wouldn’t mourn. Nor, of course, would Putin.
If Jeremy Corbyn sees any plausibility in this scenario whatsoever, he ought to throw himself, and his party, into the campaign to keep the UK in the EU. It doesn’t always feel like this is happening. And if the worst were to happen, if the world were at the mercy of Trump, if Putin were the vulture on carcass of Europe, if France were reduced to Le Pen, what, then, would Corbyn think? What he has always too easily convinced himself: it is all America’s fault. The presence of Trump would varnish this belief, as with much of Corbyn’s worldview, with a veneer of plausibility. But beneath this would only be conceit. That he holds no culpability. That he did as much as he could to keep the UK in the EU. That, anyway, Brexit contributed nothing to this nadir.
On the contrary, Brexit has the potential to be a significant contributor to the unwinding of the second great globalisation, the benefits of which are described by Kagan. The first great globalisation occurred over the century to 1914. On many measures, the world economy only recently surpassed the 1913 levels of globalisation in trade and finance. As this first era reversed, protectionism built walls, as Trump would now build walls, and humanity pummelled some of its deepest depths. There is little reason to think that the closing of the second great globalisation would be any less barbarously regressive than the first.
We need to preserve the benefits of globalisation, while correcting its faults. And these weaknesses – inequality, suspicion of elites, institutional failure – are echoed, in different ways, in the rises of Corbyn and Trump. But would deepen under President Trump. And Brexit.