A Bigger Foreign-Policy Mess Than Anyone Predicted

In the 2010s, global affairs turned out far worse than the most pessimistic scenario foretold by U.S. intelligence experts.

Alex Brandon / AP

About the author: Thomas Wright is a contributing writer at The Atlantic, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, and the co-author, with Colin Kahl, of Aftershocks: Pandemic Politics and the End of the Old International Order, which will be published by St. Martin’s Press in August.

Every four years, after the U.S. presidential election, the National Intelligence Council publishes a report looking ahead to the next two decades in global affairs. We do not have a report to mark the beginning of the 2010s, but the council’s 2012 report, “Alternative Worlds,” described two scenarios—the best plausible case and the worst plausible case. In the best-case scenario, “China and the United States cooperate on a range of issues, leading to broader global cooperation.” In the worst-case scenario, “the risks of interstate conflict increase. The US draws inward and globalization stalls.”

Reports like these encourage the reader to land somewhere in the middle, but that would be an egregious analytical error. The 2010s were far more disruptive than the National Intelligence Council’s worst-case scenario envisioned. It was a horrid decade for those who aspire to a more cooperative and freer world. Today, every region, with the possible exception of Africa, and almost all major countries are in a worse state than 10 years ago.

The scale of repression in China and the rise of Xi Jinping’s dictatorship; Donald Trump’s election as president and the return of “America first” rhetoric; the weakening of the European Union; the erosion of democracy in Poland, Brazil, India, the Philippines, and Hungary; the failure of the Arab Spring and the rise of a new generation of dictators in the Middle East; the devastation of the Syrian civil war; Vladimir Putin’s official return to Russia’s presidency and subsequent aggression against other countries; the collapse of diplomatic achievements such as the Iran nuclear deal and the Paris climate accord; the weaponization of social media; and the beginning of deglobalization—all of these trends would have seemed alarmist to even the most pessimistic of observers at the end of 2009.

No doubt, things could be worse. Trump has not (yet) blundered into a major security crisis or pulled out of NATO. Russia has not (yet) invaded the rest of Ukraine or other states. Xi is assertive internationally but not (yet) reckless. And, there is some good news. Extreme poverty is down. According to Save the Children’s 2019 report, “Children born today have a better chance than at any time in history to grow up healthy, educated, and protected.” After decades of problems, life expectancy in Russia is up. Inequality may be high around the world, but for the first time ever, more than half of the global population is categorized as middle class. New technologies promise breakthroughs in medicine and science. Arguably, more people have benefited from this good news than have been hurt by the bad. Americans continue to live their lives largely unaffected by the trouble around them. But this should still not give us much comfort.

What we have learned from the 2010s is that populist nationalism does not contain within it the seeds of its own rapid destruction. In 2009, one would have assumed that if a Chinese leader tried to perfect dictatorship through technology, he would fail to accomplish what he set out to achieve—and that, if he somehow managed to do it, the cost would be too high. In 2013, it was widely assumed, including by the president of the United States, that Putin could not simply annex territory and invade his neighbors or intervene in Syria, but also that if he did so, he would suffer a protracted and severe military defeat. In 2015, it was widely assumed that Trump could not be elected president, but also that if he somehow managed it, the economy would crash, and that if he pursued extreme ends, he would be removed from office.

The nationalists believe they are winning, and they are not necessarily wrong. They have encountered less resistance than expected. Republicans used to wonder why moderate Muslims would not speak out against jihadists in their midst. They surely know the answer to that question now. With little to fear except a nasty tweet and a loss in a primary, GOP elected officials have capitulated to a man whom they regarded as a buffoon and completely unfit to be president. Autocrats around the world do pay a small price for assassinating their rivals at will or reintroducing concentration camps, but it is a price they can and will pay for the perceived benefit it brings them. They are all learning about how to wield power more effectively, how to weaken and divide their opponents, and how to maintain enough popular support to stay in office.

We do not know whether we are nearer the beginning or the end of this new nationalist and autocratic period. The U.S. presidential election may prove to be a tipping point. If Trump is reelected for a second term, it will be seen as confirmation of a permanent shift in U.S. strategy. Other countries will adjust accordingly. We can expect more trade wars, a weakening of liberal norms, no meaningful prospect of cooperation on climate change, and much more. If Trump is defeated, it will be seen as a blow against populist nationalism and a second chance for American internationalists.

Even if Trump wins, the seeds of populist nationalism’s eventual downfall are in evidence. For example, Chinese citizens are unlikely to put up with state control over all aspects of their life, the U.S. economy cannot prosper in an unhealthy global economy, and the nationalists have no answer to climate change. But the germination period is likely to be long. Great damage can be done between now and then.

The immediate questions confronting traditional internationalists—whether liberals or anti-Trump conservatives—are what type of world are we now in, and what do we do about it? There are basically two camps, which are divided by ideology.

One group—call it the clash-of-systems school—argues that we are seeing a contest between the traditional American-led system of democracy, freedom, and openness and a Chinese-led system of autocracy and mercantilism. Each system, simply by being itself, threatens the other. The Chinese Communist Party sees the free press, nongovernmental organizations, and social media as undermining its regime. The United States understands that the Communist Party’s effort to make the world safe for autocracy can undermine democracy and international norms. Autocratic and illiberal forces are present within Western democracies, including the United States. Internationalists must work with like-minded nations to inoculate the free world against the negative externalities of autocracy, which will include a limited economic decoupling on sensitive technologies, sharpening the lines of division on international norms, and pushing back geopolitically.

The second camp—call them the pragmatists—worry that describing the world as ideologically divided could become a self-fulfilling prophecy leading to a new cold war. They argue that the nationalists and autocrats are in a box of their own making. We should therefore not exaggerate the nationalists’ success. They do not have a universal model for society, as the communists of the Cold War did. We should stand up for our interests and values but stop short of generalizing across countries and domains. Accommodations must be made to integrate China, and possibly Russia, into the international order if we are to work together on matters of mutual interest, such as climate change.

Each camp has a range of views within it. A minority of those who believe in the clash of systems want to go beyond protecting the free world against authoritarianism to seek regime change. A minority of pragmatists have a relatively benign view of Xi’s China, Putin’s Russia, and the broader populist nationalist movement. But for the most part, the argument is between moderates. If the nationalists continue in the 2020s as they left off in the 2010s, the pragmatists will lose. They will be simply overwhelmed by a tsunami of evidence that seems to falsify their hypothesis—whether it comes from Hong Kong, Xinjiang, Chinese pressure on sporting organizations, Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman’s murder of journalists, Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro’s destruction of the Amazon rain forests, or much else still to come. An ideology does not have to be universal or philosophical to be significant.

However, the legitimate concerns and questions raised by the pragmatists may help ensure that the clash-of-systems school proceeds cautiously, carefully, and, well, pragmatically, avoiding the overreach that was a feature of the Cold War strategy of containment. As the United States does more in some regions and domains, it will have to do less in others. Potentially dangerous dynamics, like deglobalization, need to be managed, not enthusiastically embraced. A synthesis between the clash-of-systems school and the pragmatists may point toward a new consensus for a 2020s post-Trump foreign policy.