Donald Trump’s recent election to the presidency of the United States has confirmed that we’re living in a time where our values are in a state of crisis. Both the campaign he oversaw as well as the proposals that he’s made for the future of the United States and the world have been, above all, quintessential examples of populism. Trump has portrayed himself as “untainted” and the spokesman of anti-establishment elements in the fight against society’s powerful voices and elites; as someone that’s taken up the mantle representing the common person to face down those that would seek to destroy the country; as someone advocating radical solutions to the country’s problems.
European NATO allies want to keep benefiting from U.S. protection? We’re going to make them pay! We need to end illegal immigrants’ entry into the U.S.? We’ll build a wall.
All of these claims, fitting nicely within Trump’s playbook, are classic examples of populism, drawing strength from racism, xenophobia, intolerance, disrespect for others and disunity. Above all, they constitute a genuine attack against the fundamental values upon which, for example, the United Nations and the European Union have been built.
In the face of such developments, many international relations analysts have begun speaking about the return of “realpolitik” to the international stage. Said differently, we are taking a considerable step backwards in the way that states’ affairs are managed; one in which moral and ideological considerations are systematically undercut by political expediency.
It must not be assumed, however, that this type of “progress” is limited to the United States under Trump. It was in June, a full five months before the hotel and casino magnate’s victory over Hillary Clinton, after all, that the European Union approved its new global strategy for foreign affairs and security. At the behest of Federica Mogherini, the High Representative of the European Union for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy, the EU revised its strategic document in which it lays out principles to be followed by the political bloc when engaged in diplomacy with the “outside world.” While, on the one hand, this document enumerates the priorities, principles, values and interests – and, even more significantly, specifies terms that are to be used uniformly when discussing the programmatic foundations of the EU states’ shared foreign policy – the document also affirms in supercilious terms within its initial pages that EU foreign affairs are to be governed by a certain “pragmatism based upon principles.”
But what are the European Union’s principles in 2016? They consist of a hierarchy of values, which include peace and security, an international system based upon the rule of law, democracy, and human rights, as well as prosperity and the market economy. What this strategy doesn’t establish, however, is what is to be done should conflicts of interest arise – something that hinges upon the club of 28 states’ ephemeral interests.
Will the EU maintain trade relations with dictators who remain uncommitted to a human rights agenda within their jurisdictions? Up until now, when formulating a response to such a question, the EU has largely neglected to take into account the very same list of fundamental values that the Union itself established. And there’s no reason to believe that things will change in the near future. At its core, then, what this strategic document has established is that the EU’s foreign policy will continue to be governed according to the interests of the moment – realpolitik.
What this example from the EU shows is how this shift of values came from behind [the EU’s borders]; while the document itself was approved in June, it had been two years earlier that it was initially formulated as a means of responding both to anxieties and difficulties that had been foreseen. Donald Trump is not, then, the principal catalyst for this shocking wave of change that we are seemingly about to experience.
Nor are other shocks that could be felt in the future related to the United States’ ability to exert influence on the rest of the world. People voted for Norbert Hofer in Austria because they, too, were fed up with politics as usual in their country. In the Italian referendum, they voted against proposed constitutional changes not because they don’t want a stable government but rather because they’re tired of the manner in which the main political parties have governed the country. They want something new. As far as they’ve seen, there hasn’t been a wide, coherent application of values, principles or priorities over the last several decades – so they’re fed up. They’re fed up with their inability to change the status quo. They’re fed up with a welfare state that, up until this point, has been unable to respond to their needs.
As Stephen Hawking, one of the great thinkers of our time, wrote this week in The Guardian, we’re at the cusp of one the most dangerous eras in recent memory. The elites of society and the centrist political parties must find a solution for a middle class that is losing more and more jobs on a daily basis as a result of advanced technologies, digitalization and artificial intelligence. Added to this mix have been the increasing waves of immigrants, who see developed countries as an opportunity for a better future for themselves and their families.
Nevertheless, in the absence of values or an agenda that upholds human rights, democracy and the rule of law as the highest of priorities, none of this change will be possible. While this is still the case, there’s enormous room for more surprises to occur similar to that of the Brexit vote and the election of Trump, which have the potential to affect our collective future. We still haven’t totally hit rock bottom.