Great Britain’s Brexit and America’s partial government shutdown show the West as inwardly, not internationally, focused at a time of increasing global threats, whether they come from Mother Russia, Mother Nature or any number of challenges to the global order.
To Brits and Yanks, the parliamentary paralysis in London and the gridlock gripping Washington may play as domestic political crises. But allies and adversaries alike are also watching.
“If you sit in the United States and you look over to Europe, you say, ‘Oh my God, what a mess,’ ” said Daniel S. Hamilton, the Austrian Marshall Plan Foundation professor at Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies.
“Well, I’ve got to tell you,” said Hamilton, a former State Department diplomat, “if you’re in Europe looking over at the United States, they’re having the same conversation: ‘What a mess.’ ”
As for the view from Moscow, “if you’re part of the [Vladimir Putin] regime, you’re delighted the West is so crippled. But if you’re someone on the street in Moscow, you’re worried about the economy and about your future as well, so it’s not necessarily good.”
The growing global economic impact of the West’s stasis means a mixed view in Beijing, too, since the U.S.-China trade war affects the Xi Jinping regime in Beijing as well as the person on the Chinese street.
“They’re more concerned about the nature of the trade fight the president is having,” Hamilton said.
Overall, Beijing’s geopolitical strategy has been more methodical than Moscow’s, said Mary Curtin, diplomat-in-residence at the University of Minnesota’s Humphrey School of Public Affairs.
But that doesn’t mean Xi doesn’t benefit from the West’s woes. Compared to Russia, China doesn’t “put itself out there in the same sort of way of actively trying to undermine Western unity,” said Curtin, a former Foreign Service officer. “But this disunity and the problems in Europe and the United States mean that energy that could be going into thinking about how the West reacts to China in a more strategic fashion is weakened.”
In other words, when your rival is riven with divisions, don’t get in the way.
And in fact, that’s what’s happening, according to Curtin, who said: “I don’t know if paralysis is a good-enough word; ‘self-inflicted damage’ might be better.”
In the U.S. “the shutdown is a symbol of that,” she said.
And in the U.K., the entire episode — not just this week’s repeat of Prime Minister Theresa May failing to pass a Brexit plan or Parliament failing to pass judgment on May herself (she survived a no-confidence vote) — is testament to the test that Britain is facing, and failing.
Curtin concurred with those who think that the U.S. and U.K. “should be addressing their own problems,” but added that they also need to be “leaders of not just the West, but that sort of quaint phrase, ‘the Free World,’ or whatever you want to call it, that has its problems but brings a lot of good.
“These self-inflicted wounds mean that system — whether you’re talking about the E.U. or NATO, or the concept of free trade and working together with other countries to address adversaries, but also the problems we have — is really weakened.”
Those problems aren’t coming just from nation-states, but the state of nature, as evidenced by recent bleak climate-change reports. Should the dire scenarios described in them occur, migration crises as well as other transnational challenges might spiral, because an inward West isn’t heeding, let alone leading, on mitigating global warming.
The U.S., Curtin said, used to lead through international institutions it helped shape. Yet “what we see now is a president who at every step undermines confidence in NATO [and other organizations] that we helped create because we thought that they were important for our security.” But now President Donald Trump’s “ridiculing” and “mischaracterizing” of these postwar political institutions “is unprecedented.”
So, too, are reports that in recent months the president privately mused about removing the U.S. from NATO, an unthinkable notion for previous presidents.
And for good reason: “Our alliances are multipliers of American influence; they’re not a drain on it,” Hamilton said. “We extend our influence by having allies — that’s what the Russians don’t have and frankly that’s what the Chinese don’t have, so to question that from the president of the leader of the alliance is deeply unsettling to allies.”
Advocating Britain’s exit from the European Union may be deeply unsettling, too. But Trump called himself “Mr. Brexit” during the campaign in an affront to the Western effort to bind the continent to cohesion that eluded it so tragically in the 20th century.
“Something like the Brexit vote was done without really any thought of what it was going to look like when it happened,” Curtin said.
What it looks like was captured on the cover of this week’s Economist, which featured a photo of Parliament with a jagged red tear through it. The headline? “The mother of all messes.”
Europe itself is looking messier at the moment, as the post-communism consensus reverts to historical patterns, including the red-hot anger of “yellow-vest” protesters in France, a populist push in Italy and the murder of the mayor of Gdansk, Poland, a jolting story that both Hamilton and Curtin considered a grave development in that increasingly illiberal country.
“The narrative in Europe was a gradually expanding, very magnetic Western-led order that was starting to encompass European periphery countries in the Balkans and Eastern Europe, and there might eventually be a place for Russia; the United States would simply be a benign supporter,” Hamilton said.
But now, Hamilton added, that’s “blown up” in a “conflation of crises” that come amid a rise in populism and nationalism.
The West — and the world — need America and Great Britain to lead, lest it fall back to the era both Hamilton and Curtin offered as the closest, if imperfect, parallel: the 1930s.
The pace of global change, and challenge, is torrid.
Torpor in Washington, London and other Western capitals must end if the West is to be equal to the threats these challenges pose.
John Rash is a Star Tribune editorial writer and columnist. The Rash Report can be heard at 8:10 a.m. Fridays on WCCO Radio, 830-AM. On Twitter: @rashreport.