Summer reflexions on problematic trends
by Michael Sahlin
In the midst of yet another hot summer, reasons are piling up for wondering just how worried we should be at the apparent devaluation of the value loaded, some would say visionary, ”U” word in names of political entities in the world generally and in particular in the Western world, whether pertaining to parties, countries or groups of countries. Second perhaps only to ”democratic” (for necessary basic legitimacy in today’s world) words like ”unity”, ”united” or ”union” prevail among political denominations at the various levels.
These ”U-words” serve the political purpose, whether as description and/or prescription, of manifesting the historical achievement of uniting pre-existing entities into a bigger and greater whole, like the United States, the United Kingdom and the European Union, and/or the political aspiration of unifying as much as possible a grouping of countries for common action, like the United Nations (for the ”international community”). The manifestation through usage of the word seeks to mobilize deepened support for or loyalty to the historical achievement, set in its historical context by conquest/domination or by consent, based on mutual interest. The persistent question, in shifting contexts exemplifying that there is no end of history, is about the strength of the ”unity glue” vis-a-vis the centrifugal power arising from the component parts. The power struggle between the centre and the perifery. And, at the global level, the struggle for and against multilateralism and international institution building. Preventing Robert Kagan’s jungle from ”growing back”.
The way things look this summer, one cause for concern in this perspective pertains to the global level and today’s challenges to the concept and vision of multilateralism. Most of us can note with genuine concern the clear discrepancy between on the one hand all the threats and challenges, climate change, mass migration, simultaneous regional crises, arms race risks, and more, that would seem to necessitate multilateral responses (if indeed there are to be effective responses), and on the other hand current tendencies to question and erode multilateral approaches. A critical, irrational discrepancy.
And then we have the state of the European Union, and all the current challenges to its kind and degree of ”union” or ”unity”. Here we have another disturbing discrepancy, the one between the long list of existential challenges facing Europe in the various directions and dimensions, and on the other hand the Union’s current state of transition and hence political impotence, with a more heterogenous European Parliament after the recent elections, with big steps still needed to be taken with the change of guards in the Commission and the Council, with a sustainable solution to the migration crisis still elusive – and with Brexit. And then some, including emerging disagreements on constituting core values.
In view of the importance to global unity (or lack of it) and security of today’s US quo vadis-issues and in view of the importance of UK quo vadis-issues to similar issues at the European level, there is this summer every reason to focus attention to these two, Donald Trump’s United States and now Boris Johnson’s United Kingdom. Both issues – how united are they (the political contenders and the population as a whole) and how lasting and deep-rooted are present trends – are deeply worrying, not least for those of us that claim to be transatlanticists. And europeanists. So just how worried should we be?
UK – quo vadis?
The domestic scenes first, starting with the UK, recently in transit between outgoing May and incoming Johnson.
The descent of the UK into political turmoil without visible exit (from the deadlock and turmoil) is truly remarkable and displays serious deficiencies in the very political system – the universally admired Westminster model of parliamentarism – inherited since ages. The capacity of the system to cope with the evolution of the partisan politics and the history and composition of constituent entities of the Union has proven to fall drastically short of ”objective” national need – i.e. to cope with the Brexit exigiencies. So much so that it now, summer 2019, seems utterly impossible for the Brexit saga to end up with anything else but a presumably catastrophic crash-out, without a deal based on compromise between the relevant actors. And the political process leading up to this deplorable state of the UK has been dishonorably farcical in the eyes of astonished spectators in Brussels and elsewhere, rendering the parliament speaker world fame. It is outright amazing that a famously orderly country like the UK has become disorderly to this extent. Disorderly or at least hopelessly blocked.
And now, after the period of fruitless May days, enter Boris Johnson, himself greatly responsible for the current mess as fundamentalist brexiteer, to the seat of prime responsibility, proclaiming in early speeches that October 31 is indeed definitely the date, at the latest, for the UK to leave the EU, with or without deal, and that the ”back-stop” arrangement to ascertain that the Irish border with North Ireland will remain soft (a center piece in the peace agreement back then) should be altered. I.e., a ”hard” Brexit ASAP, October 31 at the latest, even at the risk and cost of unraveling the Union, considering the inclination of Scottish non-Tory nationalists to dare one more referendum on Scottish independence. Alternatively, in view of known sensitivities in Scotland, North Ireland, in combination with the realities that the deadlocked British Parliament has voted down any and all practical options (including a no-deal Brexit, by the way) and that the EU has made it clear that trying to re-negotiate the existing deal, the May deal, is and remains a non-starter, will PM Johnson and his brexiteer government team instead change course and risk fresh elections and/or a new referendum after receiving a bloody nose from hitting the hard wall of these realities? For the survival of party status and his own premiership, risking that as a result of all Brexit efforts Labour’s Jeremy Corbyn will move into 10 Downing Street, and the Brexit vision coming to nothing, other than a number of self-inflicted wounds to lick?
Rarely has an incoming British PM, albeit entering the stage with so much pomp and charisma, had so few and so bad options. Perhaps only one in pursuance of Brexit, as pledged: A hard Brexit without deal, and by default, ending up on October 31 along the slippery slope of seeking illusive solutions, and then fait accompli. And still then – regardless of the UK:s state of political and economic readiness at that stage – having to negotiate some kind of socio/economic relationship with the Europe the UK has crashed out of.
Leaving aside here all the difficulties and distractions that the Brexit quagmire unavoidably will cause Europe and, especially, the EU as structure, actor and vision, the big question is rather what the Brexit experience, no matter how it finally transpires and ends, will do to the British parliamentary system, to its capacity to keep the country (i.e. the Union) together and its citizens reasonably happy, and to its standing as a constitutional world model, capable and ready to stand up to the contemporary challenges of mainly migration-rooted populism. UK quo vadis this summer has no answer. And the UK:s uncertainties are also Europe’s.
Possibly the one lesson the Western world will learn from the extraordinary UK case will be this: erase henceforth risky referendums from the repertoar of legitimate tools to play with in the exercise of representative parliamentary democracy. Referendums in the modern world of populist tendencies cannot be a cheap escape from political deadlocks any longer, referendums can dangerously destructive.
US quo vadis?
And then there is the big issue of the alternative model of Western liberal democracy, the US, now in the hands of Donald Trump, for one more year, or possibly five, assuming a not-any-longer-unthinkable Trump re-election 2020. If in the case of the UK the issue is largely about impact on Europe, in the case of the US the issue obviously is broadened to concern the world as a whole. Under Donald ”America first” Trump the impact of US policies on the world stage has deviated rather dramatically from Post- WW2 normalcy, as we have seen, thus adding to what activities of US adversaries have ‘contributed in terms of shaking up the post-WW2 international order and undermining multilateralism as the internationally accepted approach, with uncertain but worrying consequences for world peace and security, and for a functioning transatlantic link.
But leaving aside here the discourse on the Trump administration’s clearly problematic impact on US world leadership, Western coherence and world peace, what about the function and fate of the American political system, as such, as a model for liberal democracy? What is, in other words, the status of unity and consensus in the United States as it enters the electoral campaign period this fall?
As reminded by the COE Venice Commission in its evaluation of and ruling on the constitution tailor-made for Erdogan in Turkey and the controversial referendum that led to an utterly narrow majority accepting and adopting authoritarianism, a presidential system by definition needs strong and credible checks and balances if the system is to remain democratic and able to preempt inherent trends towards authoritarianism. This basic insight is enshrined in the US constitution, based on Montesquieu`s model for division of powers between the Executive, the Legislature and the Judiciary (and the media…), but is clearly under pressure in Trump`s USA – and certainly more so if Trump`s so-called ”base” is mobilized to be big enough (and the democratic opposition weak and split enough) to grant the Trump administration ”four more years”. Or perhaps – unconstitutionally – even more…
From a Swedish and European point of view developments and trends in today`s US are rather scary, due to the extreme polarization and mutual demonization, in polity and society, into which the esteemed ”indispensible nation” has descended, in a vicious circle of spiraling action/reaction. One anticipates with bewilderment and awe what the upcoming presidential electoral campaign will do, further, to the American polity, and what further destructive and dysfunctional polarized harm will be inflicted on the society, regardless of who wins. For many are now predicting that the climate of destructive enmity will not peter out after the Trump family abandons the White House, thus contradicting Joe Biden’s purportedly reassuring message in the Munich Wehrkunde that ”we” are ”coming back”.
The increasing climate of polarization co-exists with and feeds into a parallel trend of erosion of the democratically essential checks and balances as foreseen in the Constitution, a result of politicized Supreme Court appointments, the deadlock in Congress with democrats now commanding the majority in the House and GOP retaining the majority in the Senate, with liberal mainstream media constantly under presidential attack, and with a clear tendency for ministries and agencies (and White House staff still remaining in office) to adapt and to prioritize obedience to perceived presidential tweet-directives over politically neutral professionalism and independent push-back. The deliberate White House policy of polarization/”base” mobilization furthermore diminishes the space for classically principled GOP positions in Congress, making even veteran republicans appear and act as presidential poodles, further alienating and frustrating (and, ironically, splitting) the other side of the aisle, rendering as a result compromise and problem resolution across the aisle practically unthinkable, as it seems this summer. Democrats keep struggling with their impeachment dilemma, but seem to rather add fuel to the polarization flames than to produce an effective challenge to Trump’s claims to legitimacy.
On top of this you have two additional characteristics. One is the fact that ”America first” has proven to be consistently operationalized as policies which, as stated by a seasoned columnist the other day, would place Trump in a position of extreme right if translated to European ideological conditions. And then, most incredible of all, the fact that the president steers his administration and the country by means of daily, unpredictable tweets, tweets without anyone’s oversight and without due process, still with the de facto power of quasi-dictatorial presidential directives. In other words and in summary, there are so many instances of deviation from constitutional normalcy and political tradition now in full display that serious questions arise, already before the elections, as to where the US as actor and system are headed. There is, it has to be admitted, a deeply problematic discrepancy between recurrent, continued claims to leadership of the ”free world” and a visible trend in domestic practice towards deliberate polarization, anti-constitutional curtailment of freedoms of assembly and expression, and populist rhetorics. At the same time ”America first” seems to imply internationally a rather scizofrenic wobbling between isolationism and ad hoc interventionism.
And all this, largely and essentially, because of an unfortunate electoral process back in 2016 that, with officially acknowledged Russian assistance, left behind serious scars pertaining to legitimacy and entitlement – and polarization. So just how worried should we be? Very, the answer seems to be.
Boris Johnson spoke about the ”doomsters and gloomsters” about Brexit and the future of the United Kingdom that he intends to prove very wrong very quickly. And maybe we who may be labelled doomsters and gloomsters about the state of affairs in the indispensable nation, the USA, will be proven wrong, too. Reason may yet, somehow, prevail. But this summer it certainly looks like we have to buckle up and get ready for seeing two important, yes indispensable, countries making a bid U-turn, eroding the ”U” for Unity or Union, countries with political systems in disarray and constitutional arrangements under serious abuse. How this in turn will impact the other existentially important ”U:s”, like the United Nations and the European Union, et alia, remains to be seen.
”The West” as an entity, identity, interest and vision suffers decline and weakness if both the UK and the US cannot reverse current trends towards systems disarray.