2017: The year of isolationism?

After Brexit and Trump in 2016 many observers say the world and nations may become more inward looking and isolationist in 2017. What is your view, do you agree and why or do you see this differently? Read few comments.

James Goldgeier, Dean, School of International Service, American University

The main effect of Brexit and Trump is uncertainty. There is uncertainty regarding the US commitment to its alliances and to free trade. In Europe, there is uncertainty regarding the future of the EU. It appears that the long-standing international order anchored by a strong United States is eroding rapidly, and we don’t know what will take its place.

Alexander Clarkson, Lecturer in German and European & International Studies, King’s College London

While most commentators and scholars have compared the Brexit and Trump crises I find the contrasts more interesting. Certainly one factor that unites both cases is how specific parts of the British and American voter demographic have been attracted towards anti-immigrant themes as well as a rather paradoxical nostalgia for a mythical imperial golden age in which their state seemed to operate autonomously from the wider world.

But if one digs deeper one can find major differences between the two cases. The Leave campaign was a disparate coalition of very different ideological factions. You had the so-called Left Exit (Lexit) socialists who believed the EU was holding the UK back from becoming the Marxist utopia they hope for. There were the Liberal Leavers who believed EU regulation was keeping Britain from achieving its economic potential as a global trading power and are not particularly bothered about immigration. And then there are the classic UKIP anti-immigrant isolationists who are as hostile to Scottish or Irish aspirations as any other society or culture they see as a danger to their definition of Englishness. The story since the referendum has been about the Brexiteer struggle to hold this coalition apart even as the realities of Brexit come to undermine its cohesion. As a result, Theresa May and those now committed to leaving the EU are desperate to complete the negotiation process as quickly as possible before demographic change and frustration over specific models of departure alienate key sectors of the Leave coalition and triggering a collapse of the Brexit project.

Yet at least from my point of view, Trump’s rise is not a break with but rather a culmination of long term trends within the US Republican party that were already identifiable in the wild response to Pat Buchanan’s Culture War speech during the 1992 GOP Convention. Trade wars, isolationism mixed with homicidal hyper-imperialism, a penchant for courting authoritarian regimes rather than less ideologically (in Republican terms) reliable democracies, hostility to the principles of the EU and the emergence of China, all this has been floating around the heart of US Republicanism for twenty years. The aim to suppress the votes of African-Americans, Hispanic-Americans and other minorities while trying to peel off culturally conservative elements of those communities have also been core elements of the GOP since Nixon’s Southern strategy while Ryan’s Randian war on state institutions is something that links him with Trump’s populist machismo. In that sense, the GOP has been a Far Right party since the late 1990s. All Trump did was outflank already very right wing Republican candidates even further to the right in a way that made it very difficult to respond without alienating a base they have been cultivating for three decades. The only difference is that Putin now plays the role of friendly conservative authoritarian that the Saudis or Pinochet once did.

So in that sense with Brexit we are looking at two quite distinct developments. Brexit was the product of a diverse alliance of convenience, some of which was isolationist, some of it most certainly was not. As a consequence the Brexit project is already grinding to a halt because of its profound internal contradictions.

By contrast Trump took advantage of the internal contradictions of the GOP to take advantage of long term trends within the party to isolate and marginalise factions within it that promoted an internationalist outlook that has not connected well with the hyper-imperialist isolationism of much of the party’s base.

As a consequence my views on the comparisons between the two differs greatly from the stance of most of my colleagues. From my point of view, Brexit may just be for Christmas, but Trump is for life.

Alexander KazamiasSenior Lecturer in Politics, Coventry University

Brexit and Trump are more a symptom than a cause of the isolationist politics which have grown in the past few years. The real causes of this chauvinistic current are the global economic crisis of 2008 and the continuing failure of mainstream elites to replace their neo-liberal autopilot with a new humanist agenda focused on restoring growth, democracy and multilateral diplomacy.  Having said this, Brexit and Trump will exacerbate the already rampant climate of xenophobia and isolationism. Yet, despite their similarities, I believe they will do so in different ways.

Brexit, contrary to the imperial nostalgia of Conservative Eurosceptics, will not make Britain a more ‘global’ player.  At best, i.e. under a ‘soft Brexit’ scenario, it will have a limited isolationist effect on Britain itself. Meanwhile, its symbolic impact (as was the case in Trump’s victory), could prove catalytic for populist and far right parties elsewhere, like M5S in Italy and the FN in France, who now point to Brexit as proof of the alleged ‘realism’ of their xenophobic programmes. This, in turn, will speed up the disintegration of the EU, which is already under way.

By contrast, Trump’s isolationism will send shock waves to the world economy, especially as it could trigger a break up of NAFTA and, after the appointment of Peter Navarro, a currency war with China. In high politics, it might have a less devastating effect, not least because Obama’ s foreign policy already contained elements of isolationism which, in some cases, lowered international tensions.  However, Trump’s racist discourse and autarkic economic views could have a more damaging ideological effect than his policies. As leader of the world’s sole superpower, his presidency will legitimize far right politics in many countries and this, in turn, could drive several governments in the direction of misanthropic, chauvinist and isolationist policies.

For this reason, all liberals and progressives must instantly abandon their wait-and-see approach and form a unified bloc against this windstorm of new Dark Age politics.

Guy Laron, Lecturer, Department of International Relations, Hebrew University of Jerusalem 

International trade has contracted this year for the first time since the end of World War II. Interest group that make their profit from international trade are becoming weaker. Interest groups that are focused on the domestic market are becoming stronger.

The last group would include small to medium business owners and workers in developed countries. Small businesses can’t compete in a global market – only big corporations can. Workers are worried about losing their good paying jobs to low-pay workers in developing countries.

So what you get in the developed world is a coalition between the white working class and small business owners usually led by demagogues. The isolationist movement uses xenophobia to promote its agenda and this helps them avoid discussing certain issues: the growing gap between rich and poor and the major threat that robotics poses to the livelihood of both the working class and the middle class.

So, my expectation is that the isolationist movement would grow stronger in the next few years. It’s leaders would present themselves – like Trump – as worriers for the working class. In practice they will preside over a more massive transfer of wealth from the poor and the middle class to the top 0.1%. When people start protesting, there will be extensive use of repressive measures (robots, again, will pay a key role in this). We live in dangerous times.


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