The resignation of US Defense Secretary James Mattis stands not only as a radical disassociation from the actions of the president he served, but as a foreboding for the future, a warning for 2019 – and beyond. And, for all the assurances that the world is getting better, such as Steven Pinker’s “Enlightenment Now,” there are huge geopolitical challenges to face and master to make that optimism real.
The key passages of Mattis’ resignation letter include statements asserting that the United States cannot protect its interests or effectively serve its role as “the indispensable nation in the free world” without maintaining strong alliances and showing respect to its allies. “[W]e must use all tools of American power to provide for the common defense, including providing effective leadership to our alliances,” says Mattis. “It is clear that China and Russia… want to shape a world consistent with their authoritarian model.” These are implicitly harsh criticisms of Donald Trump, a president who has denigrated and insulted allies as close as Canada, Britain and Germany, and deferred to Russian president Vladimir Putin, often treating him as a friend. More, Mattis’ remarks are red flags signaling the prospective collapse of the institutions and common policies of democratic states – now in increasing peril.
As the United States under Trump retreats to Fortress America, China under Xi Jinping retreats behind that version of Marxism which brooks no competitor on the political or ideological levels. The Uighur Muslims in Xinjiang have over the past year seen many of their number taken to re-education camps to purge them of their devotion to Islam; some Chinese authorities have ordered Christmas displays in shopping and office centers to be taken down. China’s news media have been squeezed into conformity with the Party line for the past few years. The internet and social media provide some space for dissent, but it’s usually quickly cut off – consistent, as Mattis might say, with Beijing’s authoritarian model.
Putin both retreats and advances. He publicly embraces Orthodox Christianity and refers glowingly to the doctrine of Eurasianism which stresses Russia’s separation from Europe. At the same time, he advances – piling pressure on neighboring Ukraine, most recently in the Sea of Azov which lies between the two countries, where Russian warships fired on poorly-armed Ukrainian vessels – part of Moscow’s overall strategy to, as Orysia Lutsevych writes, “prevent the Ukrainian state from delivering security, economic prosperity and closer integration with the EU and NATO for its citizens.”
Putin is also ratcheting up pressure on Belarus, the smallest of the three Slavic states, to integrate more closely with Russia – a move which the Belarusian president, Alexander Lukashenko, has so far resisted. Were Russia to bring Belarus back under direct Russian control and engineer a pro-Russian government in Ukraine’s capital Kiev, Putin’s new Slav empire would be a reconstruction of much of the Soviet Union.
India, forecast to be the world’s most populous nation in three years’ time, becomes at one both more populist and more authoritarian in the fifth year of Narendra Modi’s rule. The country’s democratic institutions survive and debate is often robust, but a relentless centralization of authority and a sapping of the strength of formerly relatively independent institutions – as, this month, the Central Bank of India – are warnings of potentially unchecked executive power.
The largest project of a different kind of power, the European Union, now learns the hard way that the soft powers of education, culture, democracy, civil society and common markets – all of which the EU actively champions – can go only so far without military power to underpin them. 2019 will be a huge test for the Union – not just because the UK is due to leave it at the end of March, but also because the EU parliamentary elections in May are likely to see a large influx of populist and Eurosceptic deputies, dedicated to returning centralized power to national parliaments.
After the collapse of the Soviet Union at the beginning of the 1990s, a new spirit went abroad. Call it the export of democracy: the certainty that democratic practices and the institutions of civil society – as non-governmental pressure groups, independent research centers, the news media – could, once released from servitude, rapidly change into free societies on the Western model. They would do so because their people wanted freedom – the revolutions in the former Soviet bloc and elsewhere seemed to prove it.
In the United Nations, steam built up behind a project named “genocide prevention and the responsibility to protect” – the view that all rulers had a duty to protect their citizens, and to refrain from subjecting them to “war crimes, ethnic cleansing and crimes against humanity.” If leaders did descend to attacking their own people – as did Saddam Hussein of Iraqthroughout much of his 24-year reign – then they would be the target of sanctions, and even military force.
The debacle of Iraq, above all else, convinced many Western publics and leaders that idealistic imperialism led to disaster, and always would. Those espousing it – as had Hillary Clinton – faded. Both a liberal like Barack Obama and a populist like Donald Trump tacitly agreed that such foreign adventures were, on any large scale, a thing of the past. Thus, both the “new soft power” of the European Union and the idealistic imperialism to which the “responsibility to protect” gave birth have been seen to have demonstratively failed.
We are left with hard power in the ascendant – powers at whose summits are men (in every case) who use nationalism and the projection and growth of military force to bolster their popularity, and who saw liberal globalism as having offered a threat to their ruling strategies – but which is now ceasing to do so. And because large sections of the Western publics experienced marginalization, a loss of identity and no rises in income, they too turned against the liberal vision.
It is this state of affairs which, ironically, an American general turned politician (turned out early by a president tired of the opposition he mounted against his policies) described in leaving office. The world, in many ways presently richer, healthier, safer than ever before, still needs global stability to enjoy the fruits of the medical, agricultural and technological revolutions which could enhance lives, especially of the poor. 2019 will be a crucial testing ground for efforts to establish a firm foundation for that stability.
John Lloyd co-founded the Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism at the University of Oxford. His books include “What the Media Are Doing to Our Politics” and “The Power and the Story.” He is a contributing editor at the Financial Times and the founder of FT Magazine.