Events of recent years make it hard to argue with the assessment that the age of the west is at a crossroads. In the United States, Donald Trump was elected president after campaigning to ‘Make America Great Again’. It was essential that the US change direction, he had said repeatedly during the election campaign. The very future of the country hung by a thread. ‘Either we win this election,’ he told voters in Colorado Springs three weeks before polling day, ‘or we lose the country.’
The US was in free fall, he said time and again during the campaign. Desperate measures were needed to save the country, Trump declared when announcing his candidacy in the summer of 2015. ‘Our country is in serious trouble,’ he said. ‘We don’t have victories any more. We used to have victories, but we don’t have them.’ Other countries had grown rich at America’s expense. ‘When did we beat Japan at anything?’ he asked. ‘They send their cars over by the millions, and what do we do? When was the last time you saw a Chevrolet in Tokyo? It doesn’t exist, folks. They beat us all the time.’
Mexico was a problem, too. ‘When Mexico sends its people, they’re not sending their best,’ he declared. ‘They’re sending people that have lots of problems, and they’re bringing those problems with us. They’re bringing drugs. They’re bringing crime. They’re rapists. And some, I assume, are good people.’ China was a problem, too. ‘When was the last time anybody saw us beating … China in a trade deal? They kill us. I beat China all the time. All the time.’ Engagements overseas, meanwhile, had been costly and achieved nothing. ‘We spent $2 trillion in Iraq, $2 trillion. We lost thousands of lives, thousands in Iraq. We have wounded soldiers, who I love, I love – they’re great – all over the place, thousands and thousands of wounded soldiers.'
It was time for dramatic action – or the US was doomed. ‘I would bring back waterboarding,’ Trump said in one televised debate with Republican rivals, ‘and I’d bring back a hell of a lot worse than waterboarding.’ Then there were the infamous plans to build a wall with Mexico that Trump promised would be ‘an impenetrable, physical, tall, powerful, beautiful, southern border wall’. The Mexicans ‘are great people and great leaders’, he said. ‘They don’t know it yet, but they’re going to pay for it.’ Former Mexican president Vincente Fox was incandescent: ‘We are not, I am not going to pay for that fucking wall,’ he told television reporters. ‘And I am not going to apologise’ for swearing, he added defiantly.
Action was needed against China too, Trump repeatedly said. ‘We can’t continue to allow China to rape our country and that’s what they’re doing.’ The Chinese ‘have taken advantage of us like nobody in history’, Trump told ABC’s Good Morning America. ‘They have; it’s the greatest theft in the history of the world what they’ve done to the United States. They’ve taken our jobs.’ It was black and white. ‘There are people who wish I wouldn’t refer to China as our enemy’, Trump wrote in a book that was designed to serve as his presidential manifesto. ‘But that’s exactly what they are.'
The US was on its knees. ‘This American carnage stops right here and stops right now… From this day forward, a new vision will govern,’ Trump stated at his inauguration in January 2017. ‘It’s going to be only America first, America first.’ The mantra of ‘America First’ – a slogan with deep roots to the inter-war period and long-standing isolationist views that the US should stay out of international affairs, as well as to the Ku Klux Klan and to anti-Semitic views – infused the White House. Indeed, the first budget Trump presented to Congress in the spring of 2017 was simply entitled ‘America First. A Budget Blueprint to Make America Great Again’.
As he had promised during the election, Trump promptly set about pulling out of multiple agreements that the previous administration had signed up to, detaching the United States from the international mainstream in the process. This included signing an order to ‘permanently withdraw’ from the Trans-Pacific Partnership on his first day in office, promising that this was a necessary step if he was to ‘promote American industry, protect American workers, and raise American wages’.
Then there was the Paris Climate Accord, which Trump described as ‘simply the latest example of Washington entering into an agreement that disadvantages the United States to the exclusive benefit of other countries, leaving American workers – who I love – and taxpayers to absorb the cost in terms of lost jobs, lower wages, shuttered factories, and vastly diminished economic production’. As a result, he announced in June 2017, the United States ‘will cease all implementation’ of the Accord with immediate effect and thereby avoid the ‘draconian financial and economic burdens the agreement imposes on our country’.
In addition to these withdrawals were steps such as issuing an executive order banning all nationals from Iraq, Syria, Iran, Libya, Somalia, Sudan and Yemen from travelling to the US; instructions to cancel ‘the last administration’s completely one-sided deal’ with Cuba (‘effective immediately’); and steps – the ‘first of many’ – to impose tariffs on more than a thousand products that would eventually affect some $50–60 bn of imports from China.
These dramatic switches of direction point to a world that is changing fast and where political leaders – and voters – are both demanding and choosing sharp changes of course. Europe has seen the rise of the far right, with Marine Le Pen of the National Front (FN) contesting the French presidential election as one of the two highest-ranked candidates in the preliminary round in mid-2017; in Germany, the Alternative für Deutschland (AfD) not only won its first ever seats in the Bundestag elections in September of the same year but became the third largest party in the process – with ninety-four MPs elected to parliament.
Frictions in Europe centre on questions about immigration and national identities. But they are fuelled by the fear – real or imagined – that radical action is needed either to slow down change or to reverse it. In Hungary, barbed-wire fencing has been constructed along the border with Croatia and Serbia, while the failure to ensure the independence of the judiciary and freedom of expression, and the growing lack of protection for minorities, has led to calls in the European Parliament for sanctions to be imposed by the EU on one of its own members – so dramatic is the ‘clear breach … of the values on which the Union is founded’.
This followed calls to punish Poland over similar concerns about the rejection of liberal values that were so intense that, in December 2017, the EU deployed Article 7 of the Lisbon Treaty, obliging Warsaw to reverse judicial reforms. ‘We have a dispute with the Polish government,’ said Jean-Claude Juncker, the President of the European Commission; at least, he added reassuringly, 'we are not at war'.
The stresses and tensions within Europe, the difficulties of member states to see eye to eye about major internal issues and the failure to deal effectively with arrivals of refugees and economic migrants from outside Europe have put an enormous strain on the ideals and integrity of the European Union itself. The EU seems to have ‘serious problems with its founding principles’, declared Italy’s Deputy Prime Minister, Luigi di Maio, in the summer of 2018. Perhaps the time has come, he said, to no longer make contributions to the European Union’s annual budget.
The breakdown in confidence was epitomised, however, by the referendum campaign held in Britain in the summer of 2016, when 52 per cent of those who voted chose to recommend leaving the EU – even though the process and consequences of doing so remained not so much obtuse as unknown. Most people in Britain were ‘suffering because of our membership of the EU’, Michael Gove, then secretary of state for justice, stated baldly in a televised interview shortly before the referendum, offering no evidence to support his claim. The European Union, he had said previously, had ‘proved a failure on so many fronts’ – and was not only holding Britain back, but doing so to all its members. By leaving, he claimed, ‘we can show the rest of Europe the way to flourish’.
In the build-up to the referendum, the European Union was presented as being part of the problem, not part of the solution for Britain’s future. The EU, said Boris Johnson, was ‘a job-destroyer engine’, that did deep damage to the British economy. The customs union between all the members of the EU was a ‘complete sell-out of Britain’s national interests’, said another prominent proponent of Brexit; ‘luckily’, however, noted yet another senior politician, Britain has ‘old friendships’ with other countries that could be rekindled and with whom better trade agreements could be reached – countries, as it so happened, that had almost all once been British colonies. To advance into the future meant looking to the past.