18 January 2018
I have been spending a lot of time recently researching the 1930s. I am forcefully struck with the similarities between our current turbulent and unpredictable age and those bygone years.
Then as now, nationalism and protectionism were on the rise and democracy seemed to have failed. People hungered for a government of strong men. Those who suffered most from economic pain felt alienated and turned towards simplistic solutions and strident voices. Public institutions, conventional politics and the old establishments were everywhere mistrusted and disbelieved, and compromise was out of fashion. The centre collapsed in favour of the extremes and the normal order of things didn’t function. Change – even revolution – was more appealing than the status quo and “fake news”, built around the effective lie, carried more weight in the public discourse than rational arguments and provable facts.
Perhaps the last time when we stood as close to war as we stand now was at the height of the Cold War. But then, we had a comfort which we do not have today. Then, the Western liberal democracies stood together in defence of our interests and our shared values.
Now, under President Trump, the most powerful of our number thinks standing together is less important than going it alone – abdication is preferable to international leadership and collective action should take second place to “America First”.
Throughout the long years of the American century, we have taken great comfort in the fact that our alliance with the United States and its Presidents has been built not just on shared interests, but also on shared values. Today we have to face the wrenching reality that this US President does not share our values – his description of a good percentage of the world’s nations as “sh**holes” bluntly reveals just how far from our own ideals he is.
The liberal principles that have underpinned every civilised society, every peaceful age and every prosperous society are under attack as never before. President Trump appears more aligned with those forces that are raging against liberal values than those seeking to defend them.
We have, in the past, taken comfort too in the fact that the famous “leader of the Western world”, while flawed like the rest of us, was well informed, judicious and cautious about going to war. Now we have an American President who is ignorant, unpredictable, foolhardy and reckless.
We are witnessing a historic Gunfight at the O.K. Corral standoff in Washington right now – and only one side will remain standing. Either Donald Trump will destroy American democracy, or American democracy will destroy Donald Trump. Personally, my money is still on the latter.
But even if, on both sides of the Atlantic, we can find our way back to saner and safer ground, is there something deeper going on here?
The slow divergence of interest between Europe and the US does not date from President Trump’s election, although he may have accelerated the process. Even under President Obama the US gaze was looking more west across the Pacific than east across the Atlantic.
The United States will remain the world’s most powerful nation for the next decade or more. But the context in which she holds her power has changed. The American century was one of the few periods in history when the world was mono-polar, dominated by a single colossus. All compasses pointed to Washington to define their positions, for or against.
Now we are moving into a multi-polar world – more like Europe in the nineteenth century than the last decades of the twentieth.
A foreign policy for the next 50 years based on what we have done for the previous 50 years will be clumsily out of tune with the times. This is where we are right now. Everything has changed in the world, except Britain’s view of it.
British foreign policy in the post-Trump era will need to be much more flexible, much more subtle and much more capable of building relationships on shared interests even with those outside the Atlantic club – and even with whom we do not share values – than the simplicities of the mono-polar world where we only needed to snuggle to our friendly neighbourhood superpower to be safe.
To continue to diminish our diplomatic capacity, as we are currently doing, is folly of a very high order.
The most dangerous aspect of the current slide towards isolationism is that, in an increasingly interconnected and interdependent world, the only solutions to our problems are multinational ones. Climate change, trade imbalance, resource depletion, population growth, nuclear proliferation, over-population, poverty, migration, suppressing conflict – these are the greatest problems we face – and not one can be solved by nations who stand alone.
Lastly, we have to deal with the consequences of our own folly. I make no secret of it. We Liberal Democrats seek to reverse Brexit, which has already resulted in a serious shrinkage of our ability to protect our interests abroad.
In the EU or out, Liberal Democrat foreign policy will remain the same. To work as closely as we can with our European neighbours. Because that is the best – indeed the only way – to pursue our nation’s interests in this dangerous, volatile and turbulent age.
Europe is now facing an isolationist US President to our west, the most aggressive Russian President of recent times to the east and all around us economic powers are growing up – and some are already stronger than any single European nation. The right reaction to this new context is not to allow ourselves to broken up and scattered, but to deepen European co-operation and co-ordination.