Illustration on the changes in world direction from 2016 by Linas Garsys
Historians will look back on 2016 as an inflection year in world history, perhaps not as momentous (or violent) as the years that follow but marking a major global turning point, when the old order of world politics could be seen as crumbling. This disintegration actually has been going on for some time, but it was not so readily discernible during the intervening years as it became in 2016.
As we peer into 2017, consider some of the old structures, both global and domestic, now under threat.
The European Union: This 70-year-old experiment in European integration is buffeted by a powerful wave of nationalism reflected in Britain’s Brexit vote and other rising political currents in France, Belgium, Italy, the Netherlands and elsewhere. Designed to ensure peace and foster economic growth among European nations, the EU has become an antidemocratic bureaucracy dominated by elites and increasingly removed from, and hostile to, traditional national and cultural sentiments of the European peoples. The flash point was immigration — a growing infusion of Muslims whose assimilation appears increasingly questionable. The EU structure was not sustainable, and it will be seriously reformed or dismantled, with the elites themselves displaced. This will entail plenty of societal disruption and perhaps violence. Old structures seldom die quietly.
Asia: When Richard Nixon coaxed China out of its “angry isolation” in 1972, he created a lasting structure of stability and peace in the Orient. America’s military and economic dominance remained unchallenged; China joined the world as a nation in good standing, positioned to help foster tremendous economic activity; and a U.S. network of alliances with Asia’s economically progressive nations (Japan, Hong Kong, Singapore, Taiwan, South Korea and Malaysia) served as a counterweight to any possible Chinese threat.
That structure now is breaking down as China disrupts global commerce with intricate non-tariff trade barriers and seeks dominance over the western Pacific, particularly the vast South China Sea. It now claims maritime territory that has been viewed as international waters by the global community for decades, and it openly intimidates its neighbors in efforts to remake the area’s maritime borders. The ultimate aim, it seems clear, is to remove American power from the region and push the United States back to Hawaii so China can effectuate a regional dominance. This constitutes a highly unstable situation. Either China backs down; or the United States retreats from Asia; or hostilities eventually will ensue.
The Middle East: This is a region of progressive conflagration — Sunni versus Shia, Palestinians versus Israel, the geopolitical interests of Saudi Arabia versus those of Iran. President George W. Bush’s secretary of state, Condoleezza Rice, famously criticized her country for pursuing Middle East stability at the expense of democracy — “and we achieved neither,” she said, adding Mr. Bush would pursue a different course of political and economic reform (democracy promotion, nation building).