The year 2017 opens on a world laid to waste. Some areas are littered with mass graves. For future historians, 2016 will be seen as a turning point in human history, one of those times when the world teeters on a precipice.
Despite the cataclysmic risks of the Cold War, times have not been as dangerous as these since 1945. Freedom and the rule of law are under threat. Now, more than ever, we need principled leaders with an understanding of history.
Donald Trump will take office on January 20. His election tips us into the unknown and ushers in a new political era. It comes at a time when the ultimate aim of Vladimir Putin’s Russia — our biggest, multifaceted threat — is to upend the world order.
Trump’s election also accelerates the downward spiral of democracies, crumbling under the weight of their own demons. Meanwhile, on the international stage, a new reality is taking shape: war is called peace, a bloody victory is a step towards reconciliation, and a terrorist regime is a legitimate power.
In this context, the basic principles of democratic life in both Europe and the U.S. — truth, fact-based reality, justice and the rule of law — are being gradually eroded with the help of a foreign power.
While it may seem necessary to extrapolate the trends observed over the course of 2016 (and this doesn’t take long), the most important thing is to understand what might steer us towards a more secure world order, where respect for the rule of law and for international bodies are granted their proper place.
We could go for a sombre scenario but there are reasons for hope as well.
1. A new equilibrium
As 2017 begins, Russia is dominating the world order. Throughout 2016, Moscow appeared to set the international relations agenda. First of all in Syria, by imposing a ceasefire designed to lead to a peace agreement(after it had ravaged the country indirectly, then directly).
In the Ukraine, Russian forces are once again on the offensive in Donbas. In Europe, Moscow’s ideas are gaining ground and recent elections have seen the success of several pro-Russian candidates.
In Turkey, Moscow managed to bring about the reversal of an alliance. In the United States, it contributed to the election of its preferred president. And, at the United Nations, it has consistently hindered the Security Council.
But this trend can be reversed in 2017. Upcoming elections in Europe — particularly in France, maybe Germany and, outside the EU, Serbia — could see the defeat of candidates who are soft on Russia. Russian cyber-attacks and pervasive propaganda could have the unintended effect of turning international opinion against Moscow. New cyberattacks in the United States that would affect the lives of US citizens could also render Trump’s pro-Russian position untenable.
2. China as a moderating influence
In the South China Sea, Beijing — which tends to behave rationally and seek long-term consensus — may decide that the best response to a more aggressive America is moderation. Trump’s intention to bury the Trans-Pacific Partnership could compel China to bolster its agreements with countries in the region and attempt to appease them in order to dissuade them from turning to the United States or seek closer cooperation with Moscow.
While it has been hesitant to take up a fully active role on the international stage, the Chinese government may attempt to assert itself within international organizations, especially the UN, where it has largely let other countries take the lead.
Concern in the region regarding this new era in American politics, along with rising doubts about the US’s role as a peacekeeper, provide Beijing with an excellent opportunity.
In addition, China still has commercial and financial means (although more limited) to put pressure on the United States, and a Trump administration may well come to realise that it is not in America’s best interest to create lasting conflict with China. All things considered, China is in a unique position to act.
3. Europe resists
European powers may choose to find strength in their union. Brought together by the need to combat those who threaten fundamental European values, Paris, Berlin, Rome and the Benelux countries could launch new initiatives to bring about real European cooperation.
Beyond a French-German initiative to reinforce European security, the EU could come together to fight Russian disinformation aiming to undermine their values. Implementing measures that would go beyond the strictly technical and be backed up by increased resources, leaders would feel the need to better communicate with the general public on the relationship between principles, policies and the current geopolitical threat.
In this context, Europe would also maintain, and regularly renew, sanctions against Russia. The European council would appoint a leading candidate to preside over its affairs. Over the course of 2017, several concrete steps would at last be taken towards reinforcing European security, in direct cooperation with NATO, setting aside questions about the future of the organisation.
4. Respite in the Middle East
In the Middle East, increased tensions between Turkey and Iran regarding Syria, pressure from Europe for the removal of Bashar al-Assad, and renewed concern about Tehran’s regional influence the US would lead European countries and the coalition of states fighting the Islamic State in Iraq to regain some measure of control and bring about a political transition in Damascus. This of course would rely on removing Assad from power and installing a transitional government.
In the meantime, the US and Europe, witnessing the lack of serious anti-terror action on the part of Russia, would agree to step up the fight against Islamic State, by taking back Raqqa, the so-called capital of Islamic terrorism. This would be a strong symbolic victory.
At the same time, the liberation of Mosul and increased pressure from the United States and Europe for a more stable government in Iraq could provide the region with relative stability. Finally, angered by Russian indulgence towards Iran, Ankara could reaffirm its commitment to NATO and water down its repressive internal politics.
As for Iran, under pressure from both Europe and the US to withdraw forces from Syria and Iraq, abandoned by Hamas in Palestine and seeking the preservation of its nuclear agreement, it would finally agree to the removal of Assad in exchange for guarantees concerning the representation and protection of the Alawite minority.
From resilience to resistance
These four scenarios are not leaps of faith, nor are they baseless utopias. Their aim is to outline a path to action. For now, the world’s democracies have held strong and firm in the face of terrorist attacks – this is resilience. But some are now preparing for resistance and even dissidence. If we want any of these scenarios to become a reality, even in part, we must understand the four points below:
First of all, internal and external issues are more linked than ever. The fight for the rule of law, human rights, democracy, truth, justice and freedom within nation states is tied to that same combat internationally. This must now be understood, which explains why the way we intend to deal with Russia is so fundamentally important.
Next, we need to be guided by historical precedent, while keeping in mind what is unique to each era. It is clear that dark times are once again upon us, and we can see some common patterns emerging, at least from our own subjective perspectives, with what Stefan Zweig described as “The World of Yesterday”. Hannah Arendt also wrote about the way in which totalitarian regimes use lies and subvert the concepts of true and false, of good and evil.
Total destruction was used as a military tactic in Aleppo and, on this front, it has rightly been compared to Grozny. However, current modes of information and disinformation are different; the threat to free thought and freedom may be greater than anticipated. The disconnect between the flagrant abominations being committed practically live-to-air and the lack of response also has devastating consequences for our democracies, their credibility and for common sense. This situation must be examined carefully.
We must neither underestimate nor overestimate France’s role in world affairs, and we must understand the consequences of a possible change in our country’s position. Recently, in New York, the chief economist of a large ratings agency confirmed my fears: he and some of his colleagues believe that France is the main risk factor in Europe in 2017, greater than Brexit and the uncertain situation in Italy.
Should France turns toward Russia, two potential dangers may manifest: Europe could withdraw from any intervention in the Ukraine — despite the fact that the Maidan revolution was fought in the name of European values — since Germany may no longer be able to defend its stance alone. For the same reason, Europe would also step back from Middle Eastern affairs. This would mean a lasting weakening of Europe’s position, because Paris would no longer be willing to support the European project alongside Berlin. This would of course lead to an undermining of the power of the UN Security Council.
Finally, the United States — and all other Western countries — must face up to the issue of institutional resilience. My recent conversations in Washington revealed this to be the major unknown, and theories varied widely. The role of Congress in moderating the Trump presidency will be the first test of American institutional strength. Both in Europe (especially in the United Kingdom, following the Brexit vote) and across the Atlantic, this question should not be left to parliaments, but to political parties, civil society and the intellectual sphere.
Should these institutions find themselves unable to take a stand and act according to global interests and basic values, there is no reason why 2017 should not continue in the same vein as 2016, and the consequences may be irreversible.
Nicolas Tenzer, Chargé d’enseignement International Public Affairs, Sciences Po – USPC.