For 2019, the global challenges are unlikely to become fewer than in 2018, based on the past experiences. The post-cold war international order as we knew it has taken a few blows again in 2018. Some key pillars and narratives are being shifted and challenge the stability of the international architecture. As often with foreign relations, it takes place in a context that consists of both global challenges and domestic priorities. Indicators for change will thus be located in domestic politics of some key countries. Without wanting to sound overly optimistic for a surely difficult year to come, some elements for a change are visible.
Multilateralism under pressure – with “go-alone” increasingly to hurt own interests
On multilateralism, we face ongoing challenges by the once-guarantee power for the international order, the USA. The ongoing trade dispute between the US and China is a key example for “my-country-first” policies. US-China trade relations have suffered already, exacerbating a difficult economic situation in China. It has, overall, dimmed the global economic prospects for 2019, with German Finance Minister Scholz warning that “the fat years” are over. Some hope is in the fact that bilateral discussions are continued and negotiations between the US and China may lead to a beneficial understanding.
The stronger pressure for change is, however, domestic. Yet, the US President is under increasing domestic pressure in particular due to a change in the composition of Congress, where Democrats have gained a majority in the House of Representatives. While President Trump’s hands are increasingly tied domestically, he may increasingly focus on issues of international relations picking quarrels with old allies and new rivals. At the same time, the other great power, China, continues to develop its reach, portraying itself as a new guarantor of the international order (remember President Xi speaking in Davos in 2017). Yet, Beijing applies multilateralism only very selectively, rather favouring China-to-region relations, not least so under the narrative of the Belt-and-Road Initiative (BRI) and in its relations to African countries, too. Related to this, in 2018, we have seen some debt challenges in African countries such as Ethiopia and Kenya as a result of Chinese loans. Debates on this are likely to continue and will put China’s rise and Xi Jinping’s BRI under more pressure in partner countries. Chinese commentators are likely to cry “Western interference”, but debates are mostly domestic in African countries (never mind “Westeners” to pick up on it).
Populism likely to continue in 2019
While populism is alive and kicking, key Southern states face elections in 2019: South Africa, India and Indonesia, inter alia. South Africa politics has gotten on a more stable path, in time before elections in April this year. Similarly, and around the same time, India and Indonesia are facing elections. In South Africa and India, the incumbents are likely to win a new mandate, but the interesting part will be if they get an outright majority or face difficulties in forming a government. In Indonesia, the incumbent also appears to be the front-runner. Populism (and nationalism) is likely to mark all campaigns. Brazil and Mexico, for their part, have already seen the change of power to (radically different) populists in 2018. Electoral debates in Brazil in 2018 were shocking. In Brazil, established legislative and judicial institutions as well as the civil society will have to ensure that democratic processes continue to function and individual rights remain guaranteed. In Mexico, a month earlier (December 2018), a left-leaning populist took over the presidency, promising radical change from a different direction. In both countries, the new administrations will have to deliver on bold election promises. We can expect the seeds of discontent in their electorate to sprout in the future.
The European Union, for its part, will have to live up to a number of challenges in 2019, including elections and a new commission. However, first and foremost, 2019 will continue as most of 2018, with debates around “Brexit”, which is bound to happen in March this year. Well, will it? Uncertainty around the process is high – and everything seems possible in the domestic policy gambling in an unstable government in London. Germany, for its part, has seen the beginning of a change-over in power, with the announced departure of Chancellor Merkel, and faces challenging regional elections. These elections – European in May and German regional in autumn – could still derail the coalition in Berlin. Internal challenges to the European liberal order are continuing in Hungary, Poland, but also strong populist politics in Italy, Austria and others. In a number of these countries, civil society increasingly challenges populist governments, but it is still open how these debates play out.
At the supranational level, the elections to the European Parliament in May 2019 is likely to see the far-right strengthened, but also offer an opportunity for public discussions on the benefits of the Union to societies of its member states. On the positive side, rates of approval for the Union are going up throughout the EU and societies appear to re-discover the value of a unified Europe. The fault-line within the European Parliament will be even more pronounced between those wanting more cooperation– and those critical of further integration.
Preserving or rebuilding a rules-based international order?
With these challenges, a retreat to cyncism is the wrong answer. 2019 will require active shaping of policy spaces, because they become smaller. There certainly is no natural culmination point (or “end”) of history. Political solutions are negotiated internally, and democracy constantly remains to be defended. And with more polarized national debates, the international setting is not becoming easier.
Multilateralism always results in compromises and thus is difficult to argue for during heated debates. Hotheads, however, eventually also realise that consultations and compromises might be at times cumbersome, but are, overall, less expensive than driving an agenda on testosterone. Working in a rules-based environment allows for time to focus on content, rather than who’s loudest. This will be an important pre-condition for significant UN summits ahead of us in 2019, such as the SDG and Climate Summits. The G20 will meet in Osaka, Japan, in June and the G7 in August in Biarritz, France. ‘Club governance’ comes with obvious limitations over truly multilateral mechanisms, but we argue that the setts such as the G20, with 19 states plus the EU meeting in various formats, continues to have its benefits.
In current times, multilateralism is not fashionable. We are often thrown back to the logic of the nation state, and we need to reconnect with parts of the population that feels left out. However, simply hanging on to “the olden days” was never a receipt for long-term success. In our current world, contacts across borders are more intense than ever. “Think global, act local” is a well-seasoned slogan – and we should also consider “think local while you are busy acting globally”. Solutions to very local problems are to be found in global cooperation – and this needs to be explained ever more. And while preserving key global achievements, new narratives and new mechanisms in the political discourse well have to be found. Every new year comes with challenges – and every future needs to be shaped.