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America Last: Coming to terms with the new world order

Multilateralism is being replaced by bilateralism, open borders are being eroded by fanatical anti-immigration policies, and free trade has been distorted by protectionism

The last quarter of the 20th century was the heyday of political globalisation. The defeat of communism marked a clear victory for the West and the neoliberal order. 

According to literature that emerged around this time, the North-centred world order was expected to continue operating smoothly on the platform constructed by the political and economic institutions established after World War II. Approaches and theories that criticised this notion relied on the thesis that “order” could only suffer an existential threat via external influences.

The possibility of a system being threatened by its builder - particularly the US - was barely contemplated. Why would the creator of an order destroy its own system? 

The fall of globalism

Globalism and multilateralism swept the world, an unstoppable political and economic wave. By the turn of the millennium, virtually no corners of the world had been left untouched. 

The last decade of the 20th century was perhaps the most colourful. And of course, the most colourful of all seasons is the fall.

In the 1990s, the modern global system was experiencing its most profound transformation since the internationalisation of trade. But this period, in which globalisation was sanctified in every sense, did not last long. At the start of the new millennium, the leaves began to fall, and soon the financial crisis of 2008 had produced a global economic recession.

Many view the current turmoil as temporary turbulence due to Trump’s election and the rise of nationalism in the West, but this is merely a comforting delusion

The economic crisis, which sowed the seeds of the global political depression that we now live in, lasted for several years in the West. It was a transformative time. The consequent political turmoil called into question the entire economic order established after 1945, which was accustomed to dealing with non-Western political and economic conflicts. 

This time, it was different. Developed economies and mature democracies faced their own dilemma: they needed to implement the haughty economic discourse that they had been preaching to the rest of the world for years. This package was full of pluralism, multilateralism, open borders, and the free movement of goods, labour and capital. 

This package is now being tested, and the results are not promising. In fact, the opposite package is being developed. Multilateralism is being replaced by bilateralism, open borders are being eroded by fanatical anti-immigration policies, the quality of democracy is being pressured by the rise of the hard right, and free trade has been distorted by protectionism.

Ripple effects of bilateralism

Distorting multilateralism does not necessarily - directly and immediately - produce bilateralism. Unilateralism is an intermediate phase, which shapes the quality of the bilateralism to come. The best examples include US President Donald Trump’s unilateral moves and Britain’s decision to leave the European Union. Today, the controversial agendas of Washington and London represent a struggle to adapt their unilateralism into an expected bilateral order.  

The vital issue, then, is how much the ripple effects of bilateralism will affect the rest of the world. How much will the remaining multilateralism erode, and how will bilateralism manoeuvre in a globalised world? 

US President Donald Trump and British Prime Minister Theresa May meet near Ellesborough, northwest of London, on 13 July 2018 (AFP)

The emerging order will transform international institutions, investment, trade, security and global governance, posing crucial challenges in the years ahead. In the short term, economies, security and foreign policies will evolve according to the new bilateral world. Contradictions and inconsistencies will also arise.

As we are in the early stages of the re-emergence of bilateralism, the world is simply watching what are, in many cases, surprising developments. Nobody expected the hegemon to quit the 20th-century game. Many view the current turmoil as temporary turbulence due to Trump’s election and the rise of nationalism in the West, but this is merely a comforting delusion.

Recent developments are warping the status quo and creating a new normal. It would be a better idea if all concerned actors began to adapt and work on possible solutions or a soft landing. The “America First” strategy has already set the stage for what comes next: America Last. This global earthquake that shook the 20th century's modern world system has triggered other fault lines.

Worse still, the adaptation strategy will create a "London Millennium Bridge dilemma" which is also known as the "synchronous lateral excitation".

Conflict zones

The rise of bilateralism will affect conflict zones around the world, including vicious civil wars. In many cases, proxy wars have unfolded, requiring urgent multinational political responses. Bilateralism will not only diminish policy options, but provides unanticipated room for non-state actors and authoritarian regimes. 

Syria is the best example of bilateralism killing hopes for a resolution: Bilateral understandings between the US and Turkey, Russia and Turkey, the US and Europe, Turkey and Iran, Russia and the US, and Iran and Russia are not enough to bring lasting peace. In many cases, one negates the other. Another example is the Palestinian issue, mired in US-Israeli bilateralism.

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Inevitably, in the initial stages, the rush to bilateralism will operate in the waters of unilateralism. It is not easy to discern one from another, and it would be naive to expect weighty political and economic developments as a consequence. Bilateralism tends to rely on conjecture and partnerships - such as the US-Israeli ideological marriage - rather than a profound geopolitical understanding. As a result, emerging bilateralism will continue to be a prisoner of unilateralism. 

This further erodes hopes for repairing the current global order. Although Western actors have criticised Trump’s style, they must accept that the power-maximisation strategies of the 20th-century political economy are long gone. Globalism, which helped them prosper immensely - along with the rest of the world, at a certain level - is the only path towards a more egalitarian future.  

- Taha Ozhan is an academic and writer and holds a PhD in politics and international relations. He was chairman of the foreign affairs committee of the Turkish parliament and senior adviser to the prime minister. He frequently comments and writes for international media. His latest book is Turkey and the Crisis of Sykes-Picot Order (2015).

The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Eye.

Photo: A carnival float depicting a dragon, a globe and the phrase “America First” is seen at a carnival parade on 12 February 2018 in Dusseldorf, Germany (AFP)

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