The apex of this convergence occurred in late 2008. As the world reeled from the worst financial crisis since the 1930s, the United States hosted the first G20 leaders’ summit, recognizing that all member states had a shared interest in averting economic catastrophe. Hopes were high that the G20 could expand its remit to global security and transnational challenges.
Since then, the geopolitical story has been the dissolution of this global consensus—convergence replaced by divergence. In recent years, a rising Russia and China have come to see the liberal order as a threat and pushed back against it, both domestically and internationally. Globalization went from promising prosperity for all to representing stagnation and outsourcing. Hopes of progress in the Middle East faded after the Iraq War and the failure of the Arab Awakening. Starting in the Obama years, Americans began to question whether they should bear the brunt of the burden of global leadership.
Broadly speaking, the world now seems to be dividing into three camps, both between and within the major powers. The first camp, the Restorationists, want to return to the way things were. They want the United States to once again embrace the mantle of global leadership, and for European nations to integrate further. They believe in globalization and multilateral cooperation. They are usually on the center-left and the center-right in western nations. Emmanuel Macron, Angela Merkel, and Shinzo Abe, all reside in this camp.
The second camp, the Revisionists, wish to tear down the old order and replace it with something new. The Russians want to see a 19th-century-style great-power concert based around spheres of influence. The Chinese also covet a regional sphere of influence, although, unlike the Russians, they have a stake in maintaining the global economic order. Then there are those in the west on the far right and far left who want to bring globalization to an end and dissolve the U.S.-led system of alliances.
In the third camp are the Populists. They want to do less to uphold the international order and focus on a far narrower set of national interests. They tend to blame other nations for their problems. They seem comfortable with the demise of many elements of the order—trade pacts and security commitments—but they do not seek to replace it with anything else. Riding the global wave of nationalist sentiment, they want to do less and get more. Their ranks include Trump, Britain’s pro-Brexit politicians, an increasingly authoritarian Turkey, as well many others within western societies from Bernie Sanders on the left to Ted Cruz on the right.
The world had begun to diverge along these lines well before November 8, 2016. Prior to the U.S. presidential election, the massive Trans-Pacific Partnership and Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership were in trouble. China was seeking to expand its influence in the South China Sea. Russia had annexed Crimea. And the European Union was facing an existential crisis. The United States was pushing back—insufficiently perhaps, but pushing back nonetheless. Obama sought to impose costs on Putin’s Russia, promoted free trade, and spoke out against spheres of influence. All this largely ended with the election of Trump. He sought friendship with Russia, pressured U.S. allies, threatened to launch a trade war, and all but said that the days of American leadership of the international order were over.