Posted by David Owen
It’s difficult to tell if 2017’s populist, egomaniacal antics are a new permanent fixture in global politics, or simply a final dying gasp of nationalistic ideologies in an increasingly globalising world.
World leadership was characterised by far too much testosterone, realpolitik and brinkmanship, best seen in leaders like Rodrigo Duterte (The Philippines), Donald Trump (US), Vladimir Putin (Russia), Benjamin Netanyahu (Israel), Shinzo Abe (Japan), Kim Jon-Un (North Korea), Recep Tayyip Erdogan (Turkey), Viktor Orban (Hungary), Jacob Zuma (South Africa) and Sebastian Kurz (Austria). Even leaders like Xi Jinping (China), Narendra Modi (India) and Malcolm Turnbull (Australia) took time for – at one time or another – some photo opportunity made to look like a ‘tough guy’.
It is notable that a discussion around neo-fascism has become more punctuated since 2016 in the news – not because fascism is likely to make a resurgence in international relations, but rather because of a widespread degeneration of liberal democracy to populist demagoguery. In other words, the popularity of right-wing candidates in democratic (or otherwise) elections, and the preference of these candidates to play on the baser anxieties of the public through a style of xenophobic, fear-mongering politics. Overtures to the concept of ‘security’ have accompanied an expansion of the state in military might, surveillance and cyber-capability. Corporate exploitation of people, capital, resources and the environment, and the extent to which commercial interests have undermined institutions of government are evident with the release of the Panama and Paradise Papers. Even Canada’s Justin Trudeau has had his socially-progressive credentials compromised by these leaks. Asserting the principle neoliberal keystone of trickle-down economics has seen vast corporate welfare extended to companies and immense tax cuts to high-income earners the world over. In Australia, this can be viewed with the 2017 budget proposal to extend over $50 billion in tax cuts to big business.
Issues like climate change, people movement, poverty, internet freedom and inequality have taken a back seat under these world leaders in their grand enterprise to turn back the clock to the early 20thcentury, where the nation state was paramount, conflict was the natural state of being in the international community, leaders postured and made names of themselves for appearing adversarial and belligerent in front of the press, and ‘civilisation’ was viewed through a zero-sum prism, rather than as a unifying idea intended to make the lives of all better.
And of course, actual neo-Nazis – despite having very little institutional power – have still felt empowered enough to take to the streets in places like Charlottesville, Virginia.
There have been small successes: Robert Mugabe has been removed from power in Zimbabwe, and South Africa’s Jacob Zuma is unlikely to win renomination in South Africa. In the UK, Jeremy Corbyn has reinvigorated the Labour movement, Jessica Ardern has won government in New Zealand and Moon Jae-in in South Korea. Despite her right-wing economic policies, Germany re-elected Merkel at a time when socially progressive politics have taken a beating. In Alabama – one of America’s most conservative states – a Democrat won the race for Senator. Whether this is an omen of things to come is yet to be seen.
But these are marginal victories compared to the magnitude of affairs in the three big world powers – China, Russia and the US – nations which are now more oppressive and belligerent than at any other time in the 21st century (except perhaps the U.S. in Iraq). The UN and the EU are on the retreat: they are cosmopolitan projects which rely on the fervent participation of nation-states to function effectively.
Will 2018 look any better? Given the entrenchment of conservative leaders in the West, it is unlikely. But the momentum can certainly be interrupted: in the U.S. the mid-term elections will take place in November, and with it the opportunity to blunt Trump’s legislative agenda. A federal election in Australia will also likely take place towards the end of the year. If you’re a subscriber to the ‘Pendulum’ theory of politics, you might like to look at 2017 as the “plateauing” of a rightward swing.
But in places like Russia, Putin looks set to secure another term as President in the March elections. Xi Jinping has consolidated his influence in China, having his own ‘thoughts’ enshrined in the Constitution alongside Mao Zedong and Deng Xiaoping, suggesting his influence in Chinese politics – and his special brand of imperial corporatism – will last well beyond his second and final term as Premier. The United States no longer counterbalances these regime’s oligarchic and hyper-nationalistic style of global governance, and so it increasingly seems that international relations is entering a multipolar stage of being.
Rogueish belligerence on the world stage by populist, nativist leaders is symptomatic of this trend. Hopefully, an equally-unifying doctrine can be articulated universally by the global left in coming years.