States have power based on multiple factors, including natural resources, technology, and the strength of government capacity. As the global system develops and evolves, demands for certain resources move around, and globalised supply chains in the past twenty to thirty years have had the effect of distributing wealth less unequally. Thus we have had the paradox of inequality: that the extremely rich have disappeared into the distance, while the wealth generating capacity of the not-rich has increased significantly. Alternately put – the middle classes continue to grow. There are shifts occurring in relative power, as in general relative wealth moves from west to east, and in particular from the US and Europe to China. How are these shifts impacting geopolitics and decision making, in, for example, the cases of America and the United Kingdom?
In recognising that relative power is declining – by measure of size-of-economy, military capacity, technological independence, or soft power – there are two options for nations to adopt. The first is to restructure the economy to accommodate the changing nature of the world, and acquiesce to powers that are beyond the control of a single government, while deploying strategies such as tariff and trade alliances to slow the decline, allied with borrowing and privatisation to offset the worst effects. Thus beginning in the late 1970s, the arrival of small state strategies led to significant restructuring of manufacturing and other labour intensive industries alongside investments in knowledge work. In tandem with this, computerisation, mass systematisation and financialization allowed for new trade structures to be established, enabling global supply chains to be set up. This was the sharp end of neoliberalism, a perceived marketisation of the state.
Fundamentally, this strategy remained liberal, neo- or otherwise, in that it was open and free. Its progress could be considered in three stages. First, from 1973-1992, restructuring, where manufacturing and other heavy industry was migrated east, and knowledge industries were heavily invested in. Second, financialization and privatisation (1992-2008), where state assets were sold and treasury management became super creative, with longer and longer term bonds. In the third phase since 2008, there was nowhere left to go, countries around the world lurched from crisis to crisis, and power decline began to accelerate. The response to this third phase has been the second option for nations to adopt: aggression.
By this, I mean that countries faced with accelerating decline get angry with the international system and deny its legitimacy. While the populism of the far right is both reactionary and intellectually vapid, its broad appeal and simplicity of message has been co-opted by political classes unhappy to merely accept decline as a fact, and make cuts accordingly. The intellectual basis for a rejection of the process of decline has been one of strategy and practicality. It is practical because it buys time, disrupts the normal flow of international economics. A new reality, in effect, can be constructed by strong negotiating on the back of soft power: borrow more, for even longer, creating the illusion of success which enhances the soft power, and by extension the capacity to negotiate. The strategic rationale for rejecting the international system is that acceptance is to adopt a position of vulnerability, therefore hastening even further the demise of power.
This strategy of aggression is visible in both Brexit and US Foreign Policy today. It should be noted that this is not something that happened since the election of Donald Trump, or since the Brexit vote itself. It is a shift in position that happened – in the case of the US – while Barack Obama was still in office, and – in the case of the UK – sometime after the Brexit vote itself. For America, the National Debt spiked in the immediate aftermath of the crash of 2008, and kept rising thereafter. Obama attempted to persist a vision of collegiality and liberal progressiveness despite the behaviour of the US in the Middle East, Africa and Afghanistan. Privatisation continued, but international cooperation became fraught, and the outwardly cooperative presidency persisted a systematic, global, pervasive electronic surveillance operation, assuming for themselves a strategic advantage over all other powers with the exceptions of China, and (latterly) Russia.
In the United Kingdom, the Brexit vote caught the establishment by surprise, and was primarily a reaction to generally declining standards of living across the country. The establishment in the initial phases of Brexit in 2016 was minded towards what was referred to as a ‘soft Brexit’, and even advocates such as Boris Johnson and Daniel Hannan were in favour of remaining in the Single Market and customs Union. After six months, however, the posture of aggression took hold with May’s speech on January 17th 2017, where she rejected membership of the Single Market and the Customs Union, rocking markets and surprising almost everyone.
This is a very dangerous time for the world. If the system that persists denies erstwhile power-holders their future, then the logical strategic response is to deny the system its legitimacy. This attacks the very foundations of law, economics and even ontology. Human Rights are no longer important, only the rights of the declining powers (and perhaps not even the rights of the citizens of those powers). The laws of war are no longer important, because it is now just as likely that the declining power will be the aggressor as the target. Saving the planet is no longer important, because the planet – according to the existing system – is no longer the inheritance of the declining power. So science is denied; facts are denied; politicians gaslight their populations (Boris Johnson – there’s no border in the Irish Sea; Donald Trump – we’re building a wall).
The last holdouts for progressive liberalism are the European Union, and perhaps Canada. Within each, however, there are threats. Poland, Hungary, Italy, Czechia and Greece are all uncomfortable members of the EU; Justin Trudeau maintained his position at the most recent election in Canada by the skin of his teeth. The 2019 European Parliament elections saw a raft of far right and Euro skeptic representatives take seats. The trend, one would fear, is one that will continue.