Saturday, 31 December 2016

The Trump/Putin bromance is based around shared values, not interests

The foreign leader who President-elect Donald Trump has done most to befriend and defend, both during the Presidential election and afterwards, is Russian dictator Vladamir Putin. This, like so much of what Trump has done, is unprecedented for a senior American politician. However it’s never been in his short-term interest to do so. Trump has been prepared to associate himself with Putin despite the hostility of the mainstream Republican Party, the American security establishment and the majority of the American people. This indicates that to Trump, this relationship matters, and matters enough to be worth taking a political hit for. In short Trump is allying with Putin not because it makes strategic sense, or is a geopolitical necessity, but because he sees in Putin a kindred spirit who shares his world view. This tells us a great deal, little of it comforting, about Trump’s likely foreign policy and attitude to governing.  

Trump’s admiration for Putin goes back a long way. In October 2007 he told CNN’s Larry King that Putin was ‘doing a great job rebuilding the image of Russia and also rebuilding Russia period’. In June 2013, ahead of a ‘Miss Universe Pagent” he organised in Moscow, Trump asked his followers on Twitter whether they thought Putin would be attending, and ‘if so, will he become my new best friend?’ The relationship developed after Trump became a serious contender for the Republican Presidential nomination, blossoming into one of mutual public praise. In December 2015 Putin described Trump as the ‘absolute leader in the Presidential race’ and ‘talented without doubt’. Trump swiftly showed his appreciation, stating that it was ‘a great honor to be so nicely complimented by a man so highly respected within his own country and beyond’ and later in the month defending Putin from accusations he had murdered political opponents.

During this time evidence that Russia was giving practical assistance to Trump’s campaign mounted. In particular security sources began suggesting that Russia was behind the hacking of internal Democratic National Committee emails, which were subsequently released by Wikileaks. Trump responded not by voicing concerns about a foreign power potentially interfering in the American electoral process, but by calling on Russia to hack and release Hillary Clinton’s emails as well. Even after his election, when it became clear that both the FBI and CIA believed Russia was behind the hacking, with the explicit intention of helping Trump, the President-elect continued to deny Russian involvement. When President Obama responded to the hacking allegations by expelling Russian diplomats, Trump praised Putin for the ‘Great move’ of not responding in kind, stating ‘I always knew he was very smart!’

Trump’s warm relationship with the Russian leader becomes starker still when we compare it to his attitude towards the leaders of a number of America’s closest allies, leaders who clearly adhere to liberal-democratic values. In December 2015 he accused German Chancellor Angela Merkel of ‘ruining Germany’, and Trump went on to tell Piers Morgan that he was unlikely to have a good relationship with then British Prime Minister David Cameron after he criticised Trump’s plan to ban Muslims from entering America. Trump’s rows with American allies show that his warmness towards Putin can’t be attributed to his unusually diplomatic nature, nor to some friendly and personable nature.

Trump’s friendly relationship with Putin has undoubtedly been politically damaging to him, showing how determined he has been to maintain it. It is one of the issues which has most strained his relationship with traditional Republican leaders, and especially the party’s foreign policy hawks. Indeed until recently Trump was virtually the only significant Republican advocating a closer relationship with Putin, whilst most of the party, and especially its right-wing, criticised Obama for being too weak in response to Russian aggression.

Putin is also unpopular amongst the American public, and until quite recently this overwhelmingly included supporters of the Republican Party. Trump has pretty much single-handedly affected a major change in attitudes to Putin amongst Republican support. Until recently he had a met approval amongst Republican voters of -66. Now it’s down to just -10, whilst the proportion of Republicans with a positive view of Trump has increased from 10% in 2014 to 37% this December. What’s clear is that it’s never really been in Trump’s interest to be so friendly towards Putin, showing that he’s done so for reasons of ideological conviction rather than self-interest. Trump’s relationships with the Republican leadership, and the American media and security establishment, have all been damaged by his affection towards Putin. Moreover it remains an unpopular position amongst the public, and despite a dramatic improvement in his ratings even a majority of Republican voters continue to hold negative views of Putin.

Trump has gone out of his way to praise Putin, despite the political damage this has caused him, because they see the world in the same way and share a similar value system. They both, in summary, subscribe to broadly the same ideology. Trump and Putin are both anti-liberal authoritarian nationalists. Both men believe that the culture and power of their respective countries is threatened by a combination of social liberalism and foreign influences (linked in America to immigration and in both countries to Islamic fundamentalism). Both wish to restore their nation to match an era of past-greatness, reflecting some combination of the Russian Empire and the USSR for Putin and the post-WWII period for Trump. In addition Trump and Putin both share an innate authoritarianism, a belief in their own indispensability to their respective nations and a questionable or hostile attitude towards democratic institutions and norms.

Putin and his allies have undermined Russia’s democratic institutions, which were admittedly already weak, to the point where democracy in Russia is clearly no more than a sham. Similarly during the Presidential election campaign Trump attacked or disregarded many of the norms of American democracy. He stated that his opponent should be imprisoned, argued that the election was rigged against him when it appeared he might lose and launched aggressive and continuous attacks on the media. His rhetoric was that of the standard demagogue, and if you change a few key words his speeches could have been delivered by a Latin American strongman or Central Asian dictator.

In summary Trump’s friendly attitude towards Putin isn’t the result of shared interests, or real politic, but because they share similar values. The two men have a very similar understanding of how power works, and how the world ought to be run, and as a result Trump has been prepared to associate himself with Putin despite the political damage this has caused him. This doesn’t necessarily mean Trump and Putin will always get on. 
Authoritarian nationalists have a tendency to fall out badly when their interests become incompatible.  But it does mean we should be wary of Trump’s intentions and sceptical of his interest in defending liberal-democratic values or America’s constitutional principles. I’ve advise American defenders of democracy to spend the next four years sleeping with one eye open.  

If you found this interesting you might like to follow me on Twitter: @JBickertonUK

Wednesday, 28 December 2016

The world can’t afford a return to great power politics

The stability of the liberal-democratic (or Western) world order is currently held together by a complex set of international organisations. Broadly speaking all these bodies promote, or at least aim to promote, free market economics, international cooperation, representative democracy and conflict avoidance. But these international organisations are rapidly losing influence and popular support. As a result there are signs that an older system of international relations is re-emerging, one based more around naked national self-interest and great power rivalry. Considering the destructive power that humanity currently possesses, and the history of conflict associated with great power rivalries, this is at best a dangerous development. At worst, it could be cataclysmic.

The organisations which uphold the current world order include, but are not limited to, the International Monetary Fund (IMF), the World Bank, the World Trade Organisation (WTO), NATO, the European Union (EU) and (to a limited extent) the United Nations (UN). The IMF, WTO and World Bank promote market economics, free trade and fiscal prudence. NATO and similar alliances, such as the ANZUS alliance (between Australia, New Zealand and the United States), provide security for the liberal-democratic world, primarily by committing the United States to protect its other members. The EU has promoted both market economics and liberal-democracy in Europe, particularly the South and East of the continent, whilst the UN acts as a forum to resolve international disputes, though as several authoritarian countries have veto power its influence is quite limited.

Some of the organisations listed above work better than others. Several of them are deeply flawed. But what they all have in common is that they’re losing influence in the face of a nationalist backlash. This backlash may be partly justified. You don’t have to be a hard-line nationalist to be uncomfortable about the wealth and influence of the ‘Davos elite’, nor to be concerned about the failure of mainstream Western politicians to address concerns relating to identity, immigration and national security. When I look at the behaviour of the EU over the last few years it’s hard not to conclude that some of its leaders are closet UKIP supporters.

As a result it’s perhaps unsurprising that the current liberal-democratic world order is starting to come apart at the seams. Most significantly the United States, which underwrites and protects much of this order, has just elected a President who doesn’t believe in liberal-democratic values in any meaningful sense of the term. He violated several basic democratic norms, by suggesting that he might not accept the election result if he lost, vowing to imprison his opponent and launching unusually aggressive attacks on the media. He also made it clear that he has little respect for the international bodies which support and protect liberal-democratic values. During the election campaign he said that as President he might not protect NATO members who hadn’t ‘fulfilled their obligations to us’, attacked free trade deals (and by association international capitalism) as impoverishing American workers and associated himself with a number of authoritarian leaders. His primary foreign policy pledge was to put ‘America First’, rather than to promote liberal-democratic values. Under Trump America is likely to surrender her role as chief defender of the liberal-democratic world order, and pursue an increasingly nationalistic policy instead.

Other pillars of the international order are also in trouble. The EU is virtually paralysed. Britain has voted to leave, the populist right is gaining support across the continent, the Eurozone continues to struggle with several of its members stagnating and Governments in Eastern Europe resist many of its dictates. Meanwhile the international financial order has yet to recover from the hit its credibility took during the 2008 recession, whilst the UN remains as impotent as ever. Given the decline of these institutions, and the rise of nationalism across the planet, it’s not difficult to imagine a different world order emerging. This would be characterised by the interactions between self-interested nation states. This would hardly be new, on the contrary it’s the way human societies have behaved for most of recorded history. But it has never before been so dangerous.

To put it bluntly a global order based on competing nation states is almost certainly going to trigger significant wars. We know this both because of our history, and because it logically makes sense. The current period of peace and stability in the liberal-democratic world is almost unprecedented in terms of its longevity. Comparable periods of regional stability have tended to be imposed from above by empires. If the current world order collapses, and is replaced by one of self-interested nation states, then it’s inevitable that the interests of these states will at times conflict. Sometimes it will clearly be in the interest of one power to pursue a military solution, if it believes the odds are in its favour. Other times the push of tribal nationalism, and fear of losing face, may lead authoritarian leaders to gamble on wars they know they could lose.

What makes this scenario so dangerous, rather than just a repeat of past history, is that human destructive power is so much greater than ever before. Nine countries are at present nuclear armed, and this number is likely to rise if the current world order disintegrates. With the present level of human technology nuclear weapons are relatively easy to deliver, extremely destructive, and very difficult to stop. The threat of mutually assured destruction makes wars between major powers less likely than in the past, but in my view far from impossible. In short if there is a dramatic increase in the level of inter-state conflict, as seems likely if a world order based on great power politics is reconstructed, then it’s likely that at some point nuclear weapons will be used.

Since 1945 the liberal-democratic world, originally concentrated in North America and Western Europe, has developed a complex set of institutions designed to avert war, promote liberal-democratic government and advance market economics. Over time the influence of these institutions spread along with the liberal-democratic form of Government, especially with the end of the Cold War, so that by 2010 they covered new areas such as Eastern Europe and much of the Asia-Pacific region. However nationalism is currently on the rise. With Trump in America, Modi in India, Xi Jinping in China and Putin in Russia we have leaders who would be comfortable with a return to great power politics. They could plausibly be joined in the next year by France’s Marine le Pen, in which case Britain would be the only permanent member of the UN Security Council not to be ruled by an authoritarian nationalist.

As the institutions and norms which have underwritten the liberal-democratic world since after WWII start to weaken, it’s worth considering the alternative. A world order based on great power politics. Combined with the destructive power of modern weaponry this is a frightening prospect. It cannot reasonably be compared with previous eras of conflict, which never threatened the survival of humanity itself. Thus, whilst they may be ugly and imperfect, it is worth protecting the institutions which underwrite the current liberal-democratic world order. 

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Labour’s Brexit dilemma

On quite possibly the most important issue facing our country, restructuring our political and economic relations with Europe after the Brexit vote, the Labour Party lacks a coherent policy. When you consider Labour’s electoral coalition this is understandable, but it is also potentially very damaging. Labour’s problem is that it’s traditional electoral base, a coalition of traditionally working class (disproportionately public sector), liberal/leftist middle-class and ethnic minority voters is hopelessly split on Brexit, and the associated issue of immigration. Generally speaking working-class voters were more likely to vote for Brexit, with income as well as age being a strong indicator of how someone voted in the referendum, whilst the middle-class liberals voted ‘Remain’. Labour’s challenge is to find a position on Brexit which holds this coalition together, and is logically coherent.

So far they have failed to do so. Labour’s current Brexit policy is, essentially, to mumble some general platitudes and then try and change the subject. But considering how important Brexit will be as an issue over the next few years, this isn’t good enough. Labour risks alienating both its ‘Remain’ and ‘Leave’ voting supporters. Rather than being the party of the 52% or the 48%, it could become the party of the 0%. The Liberal Democrats are, unsurprisingly, presenting themselves as the anti-Brexit party. So far this is working well for them; they’ve hit 14% in the opinion polls, taken the Richmond Park parliamentary seat from a renegade Tory and roughly doubled their share of the vote in the recent Sleaford and North Hykeham by-election. On the other side the Conservative Party has remodelled itself as the party of ‘sensible’ Brexit, though it remains divided on what concessions should be made for single market access, whilst UKIP remains the party of ‘hard’ Brexit.

In these circumstances, if the impact of Brexit is a major issue at the next general election (as is likely) it’s not clear who Labour will appeal to. They are currently polling at an abysmal 29%, and have a leader whose approval rating matches that of various tropical diseases. Labour performs best when the main political issue is the distribution of wealth within society. When this gets replaced by issues related to identity the party struggles. In Scotland, after independence replaced economics as the main political division after the 2014 referendum, support for the Scottish Labour Party collapsed. In the 2015 UK General Election they lost 40 of their 41 seats, and in 2016 they were replaced by the Conservatives as the official opposition in the Scottish Parliament. The SNP, as the party of Scottish nationalism, got the support of previously Labour voters who voted ‘Yes’ in 2014. Correspondingly the Scottish Conservatives branded themselves as the assertive party of the union, and got an increased share of the unionist vote. As a result Scottish Labour was squeezed out.

The risk for Labour is that what happened in Scotland could be replicated, to some extent, across the rest of the UK. If Brexit, and associated identity issues like immigration, become the main cleavage in British politics the party could lose support to rivals with a clearer and firmer position on both sides. Broadly speaking it will lose ‘Remain’ voters to the Liberal Democrats, and ‘Leave’ supporters to the Conservatives and possibly UKIP. An interesting test will come with the Copeland by-election, after sitting Labour MP Jamie Reed decided he had a better chance of getting close to power in the nuclear energy industry rather than the Parliamentary Labour Party. The Conservatives are currently the bookies favourite to win the seat, which has been Labour since it was first contested in 1983. If they do so, and the Liberal Democrats increase their share of the vote, it will be a clear indication that the Labour Party really is in trouble. The Labour Party needs a position on Brexit which is both consistent and firm. At present it has neither, and it looks likely to start paying the price.  

If you found this interesting you might like to follow me on Twitter: @JBickertonUK

Thursday, 22 December 2016

#MakeConservatismGreatAgain – we can’t allow our ideology to be defined by Donald Trump

For the next four years Donald J. Trump, as President of the United States, will be the most influential and high-profile conservative in the world. This, for conservatism as a whole, is a disaster. For humanity as a whole of course it could be even worse, but plenty has been written on this already by more able writers. If Trump’s brand of authoritarian, prejudice and quasi-democratic politics is allowed to define and transform the conservative movement then this movement will no longer be a positive force in world politics. This means the next four years are going to see an intense battle, most pronounced in America, for control of the conservative brand and party apparatus. It’s a battle which ‘traditional’ conservatives, by which I mean those who subscribe to liberal-democratic-capitalist values, must win over their authoritarian and populist rivals. And it’s a battle that’s going to be fought within the conservative movement, and often within political parties, between politicians who may until recently have considered each other allies.

The first thing ‘moderate’ conservatives need to do, and I’ll use this term throughout to refer to those who prioritise liberal-democratic values, is to realise that some of our greatest adversaries are on ‘our’ side. Politics isn’t, and shouldn’t be seen as, left vs right. In Britain the centre-left found this out the hard way. They indulged the hard-left, sharing platforms and the Labour Party with the defenders of Castro and Venezuela (and more curiously Hamas and Hezbullah), until the hard-left took over. Only at this point did they recognise that the hard-left were more than harmless eccentrics trying to flog unreadable newspapers outside party conference, they had the potential to be a mortal threat.

The fate of the Republican Party in America mirrors Labour in the UK. The moderates spent years indulging, or at least refusing to fight, the hard-right. They thought they needed the votes of the hard right, of evangelical conservatives, economic nationalists and tea party fruitcakes, in order to beat the Democrats. They may well have been right. But as a result, especially during the Obama years, they allowed the hard-right to become more and more entrenched within the American conservative movement until, via Trump, they were able to takeover.  

Mainstream Republicans began by tolerating, or turning a blind eye to, all kinds of quackish nonsense and insanity. The hard-right spread racially charged rumours that Obama wasn’t born in America, that there was a plot to repeal the 2nd amendment and even shut down the federal Government in 2013. Overtime the right gained strength, making increasingly implicit appeals to white identity politics, until the mainstream Republican candidates were wiped out in the 2016 Primaries. In the end the Republican choice came down to Ted Cruz, the ultra-conservative ideologue, or Donald Trump, the populist demagogue. The Republican Party is dominated by Trump now, and moderate Republicans need to fight hard to ensure that at least some residue of the original Republican Party survives.

The same battles will also be fought in Europe. Generally in Europe the demarcation lines are clearer, as the hard-right and mainstream conservatives have different parties. Thus the hard-right, represented by Trump in America, is represented in Europe by the likes of the Front National in France and the Freedom Parties of Austria and the Netherlands. Generally European conservatives, no doubt reflecting on their history, have been better at confronting the hard-right than their American counterparts. This may be partly why, outside of Eastern Europe, the hard-right has been kept away from power on the continent. Considering the strength of the hand the right has been handed, thanks to economic stagnation, the refugee crisis and Islamist terrorism, this is no mean feat. But it’s unlikely to last. The hard-right is likely to triumph in some West European nation in the near future. They nearly managed it twice this year in Austria, with the Freedom Party candidate coming within a narrow margin of winning the Presidency. They will have another chance next year, with Parliamentary elections in the Netherlands (and possibly Italy) and, most significantly, the French Presidential election.

Considering the threat from the hard-right, who are currently far more of a threat to the Western order than the hard-left, moderate conservatives have a duty to fight on their right flank as well as the left. They should be wary of seeing authoritarian populists as useful allies against the left, and should prioritise liberal-democratic values and defence of the nation over any allegiance to a broader ‘conservative’ family. If at times this means working with parties of the centre and centre-left, then so be it. And moderate conservatives need to realise that, right now, history doesn’t seem to be moving in their direction.  

If you found this interesting you might like to follow me on Twitter: @JBickertonUK

Wednesday, 21 December 2016

The great divide in Western conservatism

The Atlantic recently published an excellent piece by Professor Peter Beinart, discussing the divisions within the American Republican party over policy towards Russia. It makes a distinction between ‘ideological’ conservatives, primarily loyal to liberal-democratic values, and ‘civilizational’ conservatives, who prioritise the defence of Judeo-Christian culture and civilisation. The former, which include the likes of George W. Bush, Mitt Romney and John McCain, tend to be suspicious of Russia and other countries with authoritarian leaders, and desire to spread the liberal-democratic form of government around the world. The latter group, which contains figures like President-elect Donald Trump and his chief strategist Steve Bannon, are primarily interested in defending ‘Western’ culture and civilisation from external threats, chiefly ‘radical Islam’ (or Islam itself), and see Russia under Putin as an ally in this struggle.

Professor Beinart’s analysis can, I think, be expanded beyond the American Republican party to cover Western conservatism in general. Admittedly this is not a totally fresh perspective. It has long been argued that conservatives can be divided between populists and free-market liberals. Between ‘nationalists’ and ‘globalists’. This analysis may be somewhat simplistic, but it is also extremely useful.

All Western conservatives want to preserve and enhance Western civilisation. But there is a key disagreement on what constitutes the core of this civilisation. For ‘ideological’ conservatives, who were until quite recently the overwhelmingly dominant body, its liberal-democratic values. They attribute the success of Western nations to democratic institutions and practices, the rule of law and market economics. They also tend to believe, at least to some extent, that these values are potentially universal and exportable, and thus often favour an interventionist foreign policy. By contrast ‘civilizational’ conservatives define Western civilisation primarily in cultural terms, with Judeo-Christian values at its core. This is usually combined with a dose of nativist nationalism, and sometime (as in the case of Trump) with some focus on white identity politics. Civilizational conservatives tend to be much more suspicious of foreign influences, which could erode their countries Judeo-Christian values, and are correspondingly less interested in foreign interventions unless undertaken in naked self-interest.

Until quite recently ‘ideological’ conservatism was so dominant within the mainstream conservative movement, or its elite at any rate, that those who adhered to ‘civilizational’ conservatism could largely be ignored or dismissed as cranks and bigots. This is no longer the case. As someone who believes the core of Western civilisation is liberal-democratic values and institutions, making me an ‘ideological’ conservative, the revival of this rival breed of conservatism over the past couple of years has been something of a shock. Over the next few years, it could well become rather more than this.

The revival of ‘civilizational’ conservativism has many parents, and has been going on, partially hidden from view, for longer than a lot of people realise. For some time now a significant section of the public, in both Europe and America, have clearly been concerned with the level of cultural change taking place due to immigration. The ‘ideological’ right, like the centre-left, have largely failed to address this concern. Both are fundamentally pro-immigration, and less concerned about cultural change. For the left this is primarily due to internationalist principles and a belief in individual rights. For the ideological right immigration is seen as useful to business, and is supported on free market principles. In addition the ideological right belief that liberal-democratic values are universalist means they tend to believe that immigrant communities can be integrated into Western societies with relative ease.

The civilizational right disagree. They are suspicious of immigrant communities’ ability to assimilate into Judeo-Christian civilisation, and so tend to view substantial migrant flows as a threat. And like it or not, and on the whole I don’t, a significant proportion of the general public agrees with them. Meaning that views which were once on the fringe of conservatism have moved into the mainstream.

We can see the rise of ‘civilizational’ conservatism across the West. Most prominently it has recently triumphed in America, with the election of Donald Trump running on explicitly anti-Hispanic and Islamic immigration platform, and promising to promote Judeo-Christian culture (and attacking anything which seeks to undermine this as ‘political correctness’). The picture is similar in Europe. Civilizational conservative parties (usually described as ‘populists’) are gaining ground across the continent. In Eastern Europe they are already in Government in both Poland and Hungary, with the governments of both countries portraying the 2015 refugee surge from the Middle East as a threat to Christendom.

In Western Europe the situation is similar, with civilizational conservative parties topping polls in France, Austria and the Netherlands in recent months. Even in the UK civilizational conservatism has seen a resurgence, with some (though far from all) ‘Leave’ campaigners making explicit reference to it during the EU referendum debate. The focus on Turkey joining the EU for example, was clearly responding to concerns which go quite a bit beyond raw numbers. My personal experience when campaigning during the referendum was that, for a section of ‘Leave’ voters, the vote became a change to voice their displeasure at the level of cultural and demographic change which has taken place in the past 30-40 years. More free-market orientated ‘ideological’ conservatives would be mad to ignore this. 

In short ‘civilizational’ conservatism has made a strong resurgence in recent years, in response to immigration levels and associated cultural change, and could well grow further in the next few years. More traditional conservatives such as myself, as well as the left, need to recognise and acknowledge these concerns, or risk being swept away by them. There is no shortage of ideologies in the dustbin of history. We need to make sure ours isn’t next.

If you found this piece interesting you might like to follow me on Twitter @JBickertonUK. 

Tuesday, 6 December 2016

After Trump’s election who is the new leader of the free world?

Since 1945 the unofficial title of ‘leader of the free world’ (free meaning liberal-democratic) has essentially belonged to the President of the United States of America. Following the election of Donald Trump as America’s next President last month, this is now in doubt. To be clear Trump could still lead the ‘free world’. But this would require him to govern in a quite different style, and with different policies, from those he pursued during the Presidential election campaign. During this campaign Trump questioned his commitment to a number of the key components of the liberal-democratic order. He suggested that his commitment to European security via NATO is incomplete, was openly friendly towards a number of autocratic leaders and suggested that Japan and South Korea should be less reliant on America for defence. He also refused to observe a number of the basic tenants of a democratic society, asserting that the election was rigged against him whenever it looked like he might lose and attacking certain journalists/media organisations with an unusual ferocity.

To lead the free world Trump would have to reassert his own commitment to the tenants of democratic government, and make it clear that America is still intends to protect the liberal-democratic order. It is far from clear that he is prepared to do this. So far, the signs are mixed at best. Admittedly Trump did appear to reassert America’s commitment to Asian security after a meeting with the Japanese Prime Minister, and to NATO during a telephone call with British Prime Minister Theresa May. But it’s too early to say if these commitments are secure, and Trump has continued to conduct himself in an authoritarian manner (for example launching strident attacks on TV show Saturday Night Live for mocking him, and the cast of Hamilton for lecturing his Vice-President). So if Trump elects not to lead the free world, what other candidates are available? Below I will go through the possible alternatives, and state which I think is most likely. The candidates are as follows:

Angela Merkel – Chancellor of Germany

Strengths: An experienced and respected politician, who had led her country since 2005. She is undoubtedly committed to liberal-democratic values and the Western order, and notably when congratulating Trump on his victory made explicit reference to her belief in ‘democracy, freedom and respect for the law’. Germany has the fourth biggest economy in the world, and is the most influential power within both the Eurozone and the European Union. Obama recently described Merkel as his ‘closest international partner’ and his recent visit to Bavaria was interpreted by some as passing on the liberal-democratic baton to Merkel.  

Weaknesses: Germany isn’t a permanent member of the UN Security Council, and doesn’t possess nuclear weapons. Moreover since 1945 Germany has behaved as a European, rather than world, power and its influence on events outside of Europe has been limited. Germany’s military capacity is weaker than the size of its economy would suggest, and due to the country’s history the German establishment and people are deeply reluctant to resort to armed force or deploy their military outside of Europe. Moreover German attention is currently focused on protecting the European Union and the Eurozone, and also on contending with the mass influx of (predominantly Syrian) refugees which took place in 2015.

Theresa May – Prime Minister of the United Kingdom

Strengths: The UK is the fifth biggest economy in the world, with the world’s fifth highest military spending and second largest overseas aid budget. The county has a permanent seat on the UN Security Council, is nuclear armed, and has both the capacity to, and a long history of, deploying military force around the world. Theresa May’s position as Prime Minister seems secure, and is unlikely to be challenged from within her own party any time soon, whilst the Conservatives enjoy double digit leads over the divided Labour opposition in opinion polls. In addition the UK’s soft/cultural power receives a substantial boost as the country speaks the world’s dominant language, English and the UK retains close relations with some of its former colonies.

Weaknesses: The UK recently alienated most of its liberal-democratic allies in Europe by voting to leave the European Union, and at present reformulating Britain’s political and economic relations with Europe dominates the thinking of British politicians and administrators. Following costly wars in Iraq and Afghanistan support for engaging in future ground conflicts outside of Europe is questionable, and despite high levels of defence spending Britain’s military remains small in personnel terms. Britain’s economic strength, whilst strong, is considerably behind that of Japan and Germany. In addition British Government’s face an ongoing threat from Scottish nationalism, and from Islamic fundamentalism which has the potential to destabilize the UK’s political system by triggering a nationalist backlash.

Shinzō Abe – Prime Minister of Japan

Strengths: Japan is, by some margin, the third largest economy in the world. The country has a population of 127 million, around double that of Britain or France, giving it a considerable reserve of human capital. Japan is politically stable, with no obvious internal threats to its liberal-democratic system or serious secessionist movements. 

Weaknesses: Japan’s primary weakness is military, though it has the economic strength to resolve this if the political will exists to do so. Article 9 of the country’s constitution makes it very difficult to deploy the country’s military outside of Japan, and prior to this Article being amended in 2014 is was close to impossible. Moreover Japan is not nuclear armed, isn’t a permanent member of the UN Security Council and has relatively little track record of expanding its influence beyond Asia. In addition it remains somewhat culturally distinct to the rest of the Western world (which is more European influenced), and this may impact on its ability to form alliances.

François Hollande – President of France

Strengths: France has the sixth largest economy in the world (effectively joint fifth), has a permanent seat on the UN Security Council and plays an important role within the European Union and Eurozone. In addition France has a substantial military capacity, including nuclear weapons, and a track record of deploying its forces around the world. France maintains significant influence in a number of its former colonies, and also possesses substantial soft/cultural power.

Weaknesses: Hollande’s ratings are spectacularly bad, with approval of as little as 4% according to a recent poll, and he’s announced he won’t be standing in the 2017 French Presidential election. There is a serious possibility that the Front National, an authoritarian nationalist party, could win the 2017 Presidential election and the French radical right is far stronger than in comparable European countries like Germany or the UK. France is also suffering from a stagnating economy, and faces a particularly severe problem from Islamic fundamentalists (which in turn increases the threat from the far-right).

Narendra Modi – Prime Minister of India

Strengths: India is by some margin the largest democracy in the world by population, with over 1.2 billion citizens, and looks secure. The Indian economy is already the seventh largest in the world, and is growing at a rate of around 7% per year, far above the rate in Europe or North America. India has a significant military capability, including nuclear weapons, and has a large diaspora around the world with some allegiance to the Indian state.

Weaknesses: India has historically focused its influence on South Asia, and has a limited global reach. In addition it borders a hostile nuclear armed power, Pakistan, and contains significant religious and ethnic divisions which could be exploited by an opponent. Furthermore whilst his attitude towards democratic norms can’t fairly be compared to Trump’s, Modi does subscribe to a form of Hindu nationalism which has clear authoritarian leanings.

Justin Trudeau – Prime Minister of Canada

Strengths: Justin Trudeau has, since his election, become an icon for the global liberal-left. Canada has the tenth biggest economy in the world, as well as a serious military capability which it has previously deployed around the world. In addition Canada gains from largely speaking the world’s dominant language, boosting its soft power and potentially allowing it to function as an English speaking counterpoint to an authoritarian United States.

Weaknesses: The small size of Canada’s population, at around 35 million, and her relative economic weakness versus other major powers significantly limits Canadian influence. In addition Canada does not possess nuclear weapons, and is not a permanent member of the UN Security Council. Canada’s military, whilst significant, is weaker than that of other major powers and Trudeau has been reluctant to support their use abroad, withdrawing Canada from the military coalition against Islamic State. Canada is also the nation most integrated in terms of culture and economy with the United States, meaning the country will need to retain cordial relations with President Trump, whilst there is a significant and longstanding separatist movement in Quebec.


When I go through the list of alternative ‘leaders of the free world’, other than the President of the United States, I’m struck by how reliant the liberal-democratic world has become on America for protection and leadership. This made the liberal-democratic world very vulnerable to any dramatic shift in the character of American domestic politics, as happened with the election of Donald Trump last month. Realistically, no liberal-democratic world leader, other than the American President, is strong enough to lead the ‘free world’ alone. Thus if Trump’s commitment to the security of the liberal-democratic world, and Western values in general, turns out to be incomplete a new alliance of liberal-democratic leaders will be required to protect and preserve the Western world. This is likely to embrace representatives from all of the above countries, unless France elects a Front National President, and many others.

However a particular duty to provide liberal-democratic leadership will fall to the leaders of Germany, Japan, Britain, India and (again assuming the Front National don’t take control) France. All of these countries have either a very substantial economic base, a strong international influence including a potent military or both. Germany will need to provide de-facto leadership of Europe, especially on economic questions, whilst European security will disproportionately be the responsibility of Britain and France. In this context it’s worth noting that if Le Pen wins the 2017 French Presidential election Britain will be both the only European nuclear armed power, and the only permanent member of the UN Security Council, not to be governed by an authoritarian nationalist. 

Japan, along with regional powers such as South Korea and Australia, will need to play a greater role in ensuring security in East Asia, and so far as possible they should persuade Trump to maintain a strong American presence in this area. One of the most important countries for the future of liberal-democracy, regardless of how Trump behaves, will be India. India is already the world’s largest democracy, and it’s rapidly growing economy and huge population mean the country is likely to have a substantially bigger global role in the future. If India retains its commitment to liberal-democratic values the country could become one of the key pillars of the international order, assuming it’s prepared to expand its influence and cooperate more with European and far-Eastern powers. If not, we’re all in trouble. Other than America itself I suspect India will be the most important player in the future of liberal-democracy as a system of government.

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