Friday marks the beginning of a new era in world history – and not just because of Donald Trump. It was going to happen anyway: the tax-evading, Vietnam-draft-dodging, former reality TV show host-turned-opportunist-politician merely provides the (fake) golden veneer on the deadly turn of global events of the past year.
Pity your liberal American friends. After eight years of head-held-high pride in President Barack Obama’s elegant and reasoned intelligence and articulacy, they will be cringing.
Whether the freshly inaugurated United States president, and potential “big man” fellow travellers such as Russian leader Vladimir Putin, succeed in reinstating the “great powers” paradigm of 19th-century geopolitics by themselves or not, the steady move towards greater internationalism that has been the dominant trend in international politics since 1945 has stalled and is likely to be thrust harshly into reverse. In 100 years’ time, historians will identify 2016 as the year in which the multilateral gains of the past 70 years were brought to a juddering halt.
The principal symbols of that global order – the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, multilateral trade and development bodies, the so-called Bretton Woods organisations of the International Monetary Fund, the World Bank and the World Trade Organ-isation (WTO) – were established in the aftermath of World War II.
More sophisticated forms of multilateral governance, most obviously the European Union, duly followed as political leaders recognised that closer trading ties combined with a framework of common rules could deliver peace and prosperity. Alongside this, attempts to consolidate and advance hemispheric power through multilateral security organisations such as Nato and the Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe were also established.
Increasingly, the big decisions in global politics had to be taken multilaterally and not bilaterally. This was as sensible as it was necessary, tackling complex, polycentric, transnational challenges to peace and stability and human dignity and development, such as climate change and child trafficking, require transnational decision-making and supranational governance.
The day of the big political deal between great powers was largely over, followed by a process of globalisation that was hastened by the end of the Cold War in 1989 and the concomitant “victory” of liberal democracy.
Of course, it would be foolish not to recognise the inherent defects of the congealing embrace between post-war global governance and the form of neoliberal economic globalisation that emerged as its ideological mainstay, which has delivered unprecedented levels of inequality and a “global economy for the 1%”, as an Oxfam report put it earlier this week.
There is clearly a need for a major review and redesign of the system of global governance. But to do so does not require a complete dismantling of it and a razing to the ground of the institutions, such as the WTO-overseen system of free trade, that constitute its foundation.
A return to the 1930s will not deliver a bright new progressive world economy but exactly what the 1930s produced: a global conflagration. There is no good reason to think that history will not repeat itself.
The man who enters the Oval Office on Friday will be the lynchpin of this reckless rodeo ride back in time. It is tempting to think, or at least hope, that the centrifugal, moderating forces and institutional arrangements of the American political and constitutional system will moderate and constrain Trump, and that his ego-driven pragmatism will steer his administration towards a less rash and more careful deployment of the US’s economic and military power.
But a quick review of his selection of Cabinet members and advisers tends to suggest this will be a far more radical administration than that of the neoconservative era of Donald Rumsfeld and Paul Wolfowitz. This man means what he tweets and tweets what he means.
What does this mean for Africa and for its own multilateral arrangements, most obviously the African Union? Can Africa continue to plough a multilateral, internationalist path?
As established trading partners in Europe and the US and Asia are destabilised by a Trumpite new world order, so the imperative to -create stronger internal markets – so-called regional economic integration – grows stronger by the day. And there are promising signs of progress in the journey towards one big customs union.
But the EU story suggests that political integration and trade integration must be closely aligned, especially as the multilateral body grows to encompass economies of very different sizes and capabilities.
Here the signs are less promising. By most progressive accounts, the AU, despite its 2063 vision, is no stronger now than it was when Nkosazama Dlamini-Zuma was appointed chairperson of the AU Commission in 2012.
Most progressive commentators, such as Chidi Anselm Odinkalu, the former chairperson of the Nigerian Human Rights Commission, cannot wait to see the back of the South African. In her five years as chairperson at the AU, she failed, I am reliably informed, to take the trouble to give a single speech in French – notwithstanding the imperative to rebuild relations with Francophone Africa after her damagingly divisive election victory.
As a typically pallid AU meekly sat by, it was the regional multilateral body, the Economic Community of West African States, that in the cases of Côte d’Ivoire in 2012 and now of the Gambia and Yahya Jam-meh’s retro, 1970s-style attempt to hang on to power in the face of electoral loss to Adama Barrow, that has shown the necessary muscle and commitment to constitutional democracy.
“Good riddance to Dlamini-Zuma,” wrote Odinkalu last year, claiming she was so preoccupied with internal ANC politics and preparing her route to power at home that, like TS Eliot’s Macavity the Mystery Cat, she looked “outwardly respectable” but, like Macavity, was just “not there”.
At the end of January, the AU will elect a new chairperson. It will need to be someone who can unite the continent in the face of the strong headwinds building up.
Although the G7+1 in Italy in May will be Trump’s first big international gathering, the G20 in Hamburg in July will be a far more significant moment. It is on this bigger, more complex stage that Trump’s approach to global politics will be scrutinised more closely.
Sadly, South Africa’s president will probably be right at the bottom of Trump’s dance card. It is hard to see what value the US president will discern in seeking out a bilateral chat with Jacob Zuma – unless they wish to share stories about excruciating conflicts of interest, or how to deceive the media and push them under the carpet with the judicious use of one’s family members.
Whereas Obama had very particular, personal reasons for wanting to prioritise Africa – at least relatively speaking – in his foreign policy, trade and development agendas, it is unlikely that Trump’s White House will see the continent in any other way than through the security-terrorism lens.
As he builds new protectionist walls around American industry and farming, there is unlikely to be any nuanced understanding of the relationship between terror and the economic prospects of countries where extreme anti-Western views foment and then are turned, ultimately, into instruments of terror.
Elections in Europe will move the grim story forward: the Netherlands in March, with its menacing anti-EU, anti-immigration nationalist, Geert Wilders; France in April and the threat posed by Marine le Pen; and Germany in September, which no doubt will serve as a referendum on Angela Merkel’s immigration policy rather than on her role as the most intelligent and influential global leader today.
Thus, the rise of the right in Europe will have gathered greater momentum. The EU will be fighting for its life, as a “hard” Brexit (the United Kingdom’s withdrawal from the EU) further undermines its power and self-confidence and creates an even bigger vacuum for the jingoist interests of Russia, China and the US.
By the end of 2017, the world will be well on the way not to just dismantling the post-World War II system of multilateral governance and co-operation but also towards global conflict – new forms of cold war, trade war and, in relatively short order, hot war.
Trump’s sabre-rattling, Palmer-stonian approach to securing and advancing American interests will not be pretty. It will unleash a tornado whose destructive path it will be impossible to escape.
We will all be part of the collateral damage. So, batten down the hatches and prepare for the worst. An age of internationalism – delivering -relatively high levels of peace and prosperity – is about to be replaced by an era of nasty nationalism, which delivers, in turn, new alliances but also coruscating uncertainty and brutal global clashes. It will do precious little for those who voted Trump and his like into power, -creating yet further dangers as the people who voted against a liberal world order that had “left them behind” realise that they have been exploited and betrayed once again.
Richard Calland’s latest book, Make or Break: How the Next Three Years Will Shape South Africa’s Next Thirty, is published by Penguin Random House