A populist backlash against globalization during 2016 brought a series of events culminating with Donald Trump’s surprise victory in the U.S. presidential election. The results marked a sharp break with a muscular form of liberal internationalism committed to spreading democracy and promoting human rights that guided policy since the 1990s.
During the 1990s, victory in the Cold War seemed more than just a triumph over the Soviet Union.
Realpolitik is a term more often invoked within the English-speaking world than explained or understood. The word provides a condensed symbol that expresses different meanings depending upon who employs it. Sometimes it signals a practical approach focused on the concrete particulars that shape international relations or an effort to cut through naivety and utopianism. More often, however, it conjures a very different image of cynically pursuing advantage by deploying power without moral restraint. As “an unwelcome import from the dark heart of Mitteleuropa,” in John Bew’s telling phrase, realpolitik marks a disturbing counterpoint to Anglo-Saxon conceptions of fair play and liberty under law.
Almost exactly 200 years ago, the British House of Commons rejected a peacetime income tax. Henry Brougham, a Whig member of Parliament, mobilized public opinion against the tax, and after a raucous debate in the Commons, his side won by 37 votes. This revolt against the government that had led Britain to victory over Napoleon barely a year before, and the government’s response, marked an important turning point.
Henry Kissinger has drawn on his experience of statecraft to explore the contradictions of world order, and elucidate how statesmen keep international relations from becoming an anarchic struggle. Pithy observations punctuate his latest analysis, World Order, an engaging book informed by a wide appreciation of history and culture.
Lord Salisbury, Britain’s 19th century strategist and prime minister, famously remarked to a correspondent that “if you believe the soldiers, nothing is safe.” Alarms that experts raised from their own preoccupations, he believed, required tempering with common sense before such warnings could offer a reasonable guide for policy. Much of the discussion of American security over recent years brings to mind Salisbury’s observation. Mark Helprin’s “Indefensible Defense” in National Review’s June 22 offers a case in point.
Jean Monnet, the chief architect of European union after World War II, once described crises as the great integrators. Without a clear and present danger to outweigh self-interests, he believed leaders would not make tough choices needed. The current problems facing the European Union seem likely to test the validity of Monnet’s claim as a project many saw as destiny flirts with destruction. Adopting a single currency marked an important step towards an economic integration aimed at ratcheting member states into a tighter political union, but the story took a different turn. The euro now serves as a mechanism to heighten economic strains upon member states. Financial crisis in Greece risks spreading to other economies as lenders raise their terms for purchasing bonds or flee vulnerable banks. Rather than drawing Europe together, however, this and other crises over the past few years highlight deep tensions that work against integration, at least of the kind Monnet envisioned. Walter Laqueur’s After the Fall: The End of the European Dream and the Decline of a Continent explores what caused these present discontents and the issues behind them.