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Tumultuous Times
2016 is a turning point on the road to a new world order
By Chu Yin | NO. 51 DECEMBER 22, 2016


European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker talks with British Prime Minister Theresa May during the EU autumn summit in Brussels on October 20 (XINHUA)

For those who are used to living in peace and tranquility, 2016 has been a year with much consternation. On the one hand, the post-Cold War global governance system is facing collapse. Rivalry between major powers has intensified, regional conflicts are on the rise, and the ever promising global integration process has seemingly become just a pipe dream. In the meantime, natural and manmade disasters such as the Zika epidemic and terrorism show a trend of "globalization." On the other hand, after living in stability and prosperity for many years, some countries also face the reality of turning from vigorous growth to stagnation, turbulence and crisis. The existing world order is on the decline, but the new one is seemingly still hiding in the shadows. Right at a crossroads of history, several "black swans" have taken off from different corners of the globe.

Among them, Brexit and Donald Trump's U.S. presidential election victory are beyond any doubt the most stunning ones. Brexit represents the first major retrogressive step in Europe's integration process, while the latter has not only become a weather vane of Western politics' rightward turn, but also forecasts that U.S. isolationism may become the biggest alternative to the current U.S.-led global order.

The emergence of these "black swan" events is not without reason. Brexit is actually a normal response of Britain as an EU member against the backdrop of the EU being mired in internal and external troubles. Internally, the EU's economic recovery is weak, and the welfare society it advocates cannot be sustained. Externally, the EU is incapable of fixing the Middle East migrant crisis and bearing the pressure of confronting Russia over Ukraine. In this context, sovereign state members of the bloc will naturally focus more on their own concerns than collective targets.

Britain for a long time has been dissatisfied with European integration. Many see Brexit as a result of British populism, but it probably demonstrates that the common people, rather than the elite, understand the nation's unique interests. The British public apparently tends to believe that the sweet dream of European integration could benefit only transnational capital groups, but not the average citizens or their country.

The U.S. election further reveals the reality of the split between "main street" and "Wall Street" on the merits of globalization. No matter how politically incorrect Trump is, his victory embodies revenge by voters who feel strongly deprived by the process of globalization. This sense of injustice exists not only among the marginalized white population in the United States, but also shows up among the underprivileged who inhabit shabby towns in France, Poland and Italy. This is the reason why Trump's victory has greatly encouraged many people in the Western world. After Trump's result, the right-wing forces of the Western world are engaged in ousting the liberal left camp, who have energetically advocated globalization.

The referendum on constitutional reform in Italy has proved to be political suicide for its initiator, Matteo Renzi, who stepped down as prime minister after voters rejected his proposals. The unprecedented political failure of French President François Hollande has already become a foregone conclusion. France's liberalists are very likely to face an awkward situation and have to make a difficult choice between the ultra-right François Fillon and the ultra-ultra-right Marine Le Pen in the presidential election next April.

German Chancellor Angela Merkel has thus become the last bastion of the European dream. However, although the Iron Lady currently still has everything under control, she has to face a stronger right-wing force domestically and what looks likely to be the most independent and uncompromising France for decades following the nation's presidential election.

The West is on the eve of a storm, while many emerging market economies and developing countries have already entered turbulent times. Brazil's economic tumble made Dilma Rousseff the first Brazilian president to be impeached. Though Rousseff insisted that the impeachment was a coup and many Brazilians believed that those who accused Rousseff might be yet more corrupt, she had to bear the cost of a failed development path and a welfare society advocated by her predecessor Luiz Inacio Lula.


Kurdish security forces assemble near the city of Mosul in Iraq on November 7 before launching an offensive to retake the city from the “Islamic State” extremist group (XINHUA)

Thankfully for Rousseff, there remains hope for her comeback. But for South Korea's Park Geun Hye, it is very possible that she might be thrown in jail after stepping down. The first female president of South Korea was destroyed by a dramatic confidante scandal.

Compared with Rousseff and Park, Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi, who has "willfully" abolished his nation's most-used banknotes, and Myanmar's Aung San Suu Kyi, who was devoted to national reconciliation though her country is now engulfed in civil war, are much luckier. They, at least, still have time and opportunity to adjust policies and resolve their countries' challenges.

The luckiest, though, is surely Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan. First, he annoyed Russian President Vladimir Putin by shooting down a Russian warplane, then he encountered a massive military coup. But, Erdogan got away intact. Erdogan's case demonstrates the "law of the lucky man," namely, as long as you face destiny with sufficient arrogance, even bullets will miss you. Iron-fisted Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte couldn't agree more.

This is the world in 2016, where some have survived disasters, while others have passed. Thai King Bhumibol Adulyadej and former Cuban leader Fidel Castro both passed away recently. These two influential statesmen left tremendous wealth to humanity, both traditional dignity and revolutionary passion.

In modern times, the global system of nations, based on national territories and power structures, mostly arose during the anti-Fascist war and the following national liberation movements worldwide. Although two events—the end of the Cold War and the disintegration of the Soviet Union—greatly impacted the order, overall, the pattern has continued since 1991. Over the past two decades, the international order has basically remained stable.

On the Western front, formed during World War II, the EU, under the protection of NATO, guards the interests of Europe and represses the national will of European states by means of a super-national framework. After Russia's marginalization since the Soviet Union's dissolution, Central and Eastern European countries such as Ukraine and Poland have again become the buffer zone between European forces and the power to the East. On the Eastern front, meanwhile, the political and economic landscape of the Asia-Pacific region is still subject to U.S. hegemony, in spite of China's growing economic strength. Japan, South Korea and other regional countries are still under U.S. patronage.

But the stability has been impacted by a series of recent events including the "Arab spring" movement, the Crimean crisis, the rise of the "Islamic State" extremist group in the Middle East, the Korean Peninsula nuclear issue and the South China Sea disputes. Nevertheless, the old landscape persists due to historical inertia.

The year 2016 is a turning point, when the power supporting the old international order was seriously weakened, as Europe unavoidably headed toward disintegration and the United States seemed to lose its global leadership ability and ambition. Amidst the chaos brought by weakening globalization, a new order has begun to take shape.

The author is an associate professor at the University of International Relations

Copyedited by Chris Surtees

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