The term of office that Donald Trump begins today may very well be judged in the future as the moment when the United States began dismantling the international order that successive US administrations had so zealously built up and maintained since 1945. Trump’s inauguration coincides in time with the formal declaration this week by British Prime Minister Theresa May that she intends to activate the process to fully and completely withdraw from the European Union.
This coincidence in timing starkly brings up the issue of whether we may not be witnesses to the (absurdly self-imposed) end of a long and fruitful historical period of Anglo-American hegemony.
A simple look back in time is evidence of the depth of the geopolitical and economic gap that Washington and London are opening up by voluntarily relinquishing over two centuries of Anglo-American domination at the political, economic, cultural and military levels. The British imperial century, which began in 1815 after the Napoleonic wars, ended in 1914, 100 years later, leaving the United Kingdom as the only world power, and one that was undisputed.
At its apex, immediately before the outbreak of World War I, the British Empire exercised power over 412 million people, or 23% of the world population, and its dominions covered nearly a fourth of the Earth’s surface. But the British Empire was as fortunate as it was vast. When the US took over, for the first time in history – incoming empires typically destroy outgoing ones – not only did it take over peacefully, but it also carried on with, and renewed, the liberal, political and economic project inspired by the British Empire’s work. And so, via the Bretton Woods system, which set the rules for trade and finance; through the San Francisco Conference that gave way to the United Nations; and thanks to the Marshall Plan, which lifted the European continent out of poverty, hunger and insecurity and forged the most successful alliance in history, the trans-Atlantic alliance, Washington formalized that peaceful relay of imperial power, designing and later maintaining the global political, economic and military order that we all know.
Nigel Farage predicted the Brexit victory was just a European dress rehearsal of what would come to pass at the global scale
But now these two hegemonic powers, the British and the Americans, that some have described as “benign” (mostly as compared with other competitors such as the USSR or Nazi Germany, and notwithstanding Gandhi’s skepticism regarding the West’s insistence on describing imperialism as “civilization”) are taking a course that is politically isolationist, economically protectionist and culturally xenophobic, thereby questioning the very foundations of the world order that both Pax Britannica and Pax Americana have so far shared and articulated.
The real paradox lies in the fact that both the US and Britain have all the elements in their favor to sustain a liberal, multilateral order in the same way they have been doing, and to benefit from it many times over, as they have done so to date. Despite their complaints regarding economic integration and immigration, the fact is that both countries have overcome the 2008 crisis faster than their rivals, and they are also countries of reference when it comes to integrating immigrants or encouraging cultural diversity and religious tolerance. Despite the laments of Trump and supporters of Brexit, their countries are experiencing a golden period compared with others and compared with other historical periods. The fact that the most dynamic, open and successful countries are throwing in the towel of globalization is a surprising reminder that we are going through a tremendous historical anomaly.
And yet it would not be the first time in history that an empire has committed suicide. From 1405 to 1433, China’s imperial navy sailed all the seas of Asia and along the east coast of Africa under Admiral Zheng He. The Ming dynasty was able to organize expeditions of up to 300 ships (some of them 120 meters in length at a time when the Santa María of Columbus only measured 26 meters) and employing tens of thousands of sailors. But when the Yongle Emperor died, coinciding with the era when Portuguese sailors were beginning to sail the seas, his successors decided to end the expeditions and began a long period of isolation that would ultimately cut China off from knowledge and key markets at a crucial juncture in its own development. This left the country in a position of weakness that later allowed the West to easily defeat it, obliging it to open its markets. The fact that, while Trump and May are announcing their intention to leave, Chinese president Xi Jinping is defending globalization at Davos, should offer a very clear indication of the depth of the power shift that we are acting as witnesses to – one that will only get deeper.
It would not be the first time in history that an empire has committed suicide
Some may like it and others may not, but we live in a world dominated by Anglo-American culture, or civilization for those who want to use that term. This culture has created the two institutions that define our way of life: representative democracy and the market economy. Both derive from a political philosophy, liberalism, in which thinkers from John Locke in the 17th century to John Rawls in the 20th century have played a prominent role. From the charter of rights encoded into the Magna Carta that British nobles obtained from John Lackland at Runnymede in 1215, to the Declaration of Independence in Philadelphia in 1776, and not forgetting Cromwell and the Parliament’s rebellion against the absolutist Charles I during the English Revolution, all the watershed moments in humanity’s long (and as yet unfinished) road to freedom have been to a large extent the work of Anglo-American civilization.
There is a stark contrast between everything we owe to this liberalism and the snapshot from last December in which a smiling Trump and an equally smiling Farage posed in front of the indescribably ugly elevator inside Trump Tower in New York. The image captures better than anything else the end of an era that we appear to be in the midst of. It hurts to confirm the predictive abilities of a character as repulsive as Nigel Farage, but one has to admit that the global nightmare that begins today with Trump’s inauguration began to take shape before our eyes as a likely scenario on the day that Farage, that champion of UK’s exit from the EU, predicted that the Brexit victory last June was just a European dress rehearsal of what would come to pass at the global scale when Trump was elected US president. And so it seems. The dress rehearsal is over. The curtain is going up, and the real show is about to start.
English version by Susana Urra.