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2 June 2021

Leader: The new age of Westlessness

Though Trump is gone, progressives should not delude themselves: there will be no return to the age of liberal triumphalism – and nor should there be.  

By New Statesman

The last time the United Kingdom hosted a G7 summit, in 2013, Russia had not yet annexed Crimea (which prompted its expulsion from the then G8), the Chinese president Xi Jinping had yet to abolish term limits and Covid-19 did not exist. We have, in short, entered a darker age. “The world is what it is,” as VS Naipaul wrote in the celebrated opening sentence to his novel A Bend in the River. “Men who are nothing, who allow themselves to become nothing, have no place in it.”

Any notion that it would end with the departure of Donald Trump as US president was always an illusion. As our international editor, Jeremy Cliffe, writes in this week’s cover story on page 20, when G7 leaders meet in Cornwall, from 11 to 13 June, they will confront a world in which “China has stepped up its threats to Taiwan, Russia has threatened Ukraine by massing troops on its border, Myanmar has experienced a military coup, democracy in India (supposedly part of Joe Biden’s liberal alliance) has further deteriorated”.

In February 2020, the Munich Security Conference’s annual report spoke of a new age of “Westlessness”, an era in which “the West is in retreat, in decline and under constant attack – both from within and without”. The Covid-19 pandemic has enhanced this sense of drift and malaise.

China, which suppressed initial reports of the virus and has sought to thwart investigations into its origins, has emerged strengthened from the pandemic. The country of 1.4 billion people, which has detained an estimated one million Uighurs in concentration camps in Xinjiang province, is now forecast to overtake the US as the world’s largest economy by 2028, five years earlier than anticipated. Xi does not lead a benevolent regime. He puts China’s and the Communist Party’s interests first.

Mr Trump spent much of his time pondering how to emulate autocrats and confront the rise of China. Mr Biden has made it his mission to contain them. Rather than passively accepting American decline, the new president is pursuing growth through bold measures such as his $1.9trn fiscal stimulus and his $2trn infrastructure programme.

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By proposing a minimum global corporate tax rate of at least 15 per cent, meanwhile, Mr Biden is calling time on the regressive “race to the bottom” that has prevailed since the 1980s. As Gordon Brown notes in his essay on page 27, “this would bring a long overdue message that there will be no hiding place for tax avoiders – and that the billions of dollars currently siphoned off by tax dodging will now be used to fund health, education and public services”. A global minimum rate of 15 per cent would raise an extra £7.9bn annually for the UK, according to the Institute for Public Policy Research, while a rate of 21 per cent would raise £14.7bn. The haphazard unilateralism of the Trump administration has given way to Mr Biden’s more pragmatic multilateralism: the US has rejoined the Paris Agreement, retained its membership of the World Health Organisation and reaffirmed its commitment to Nato.

Progressives should not delude themselves, however: there will be no return to the prelapsarian age of the 1990s, not least because it never existed. The era of post-Cold War liberal triumphalism was one that incubated future catastrophes. The US invaded Iraq in 2003 (a war supported by Mr Biden at the time) in the belief that liberal democracy could be imposed on the Middle East through military intervention. The global financial system and the eurozone nearly collapsed in the wake of the 2008 crisis after policymakers were beguiled by visions of perpetual growth, market-driven globalisation and “ever closer union”.

These liberal delusions have rightly been discredited. But global cooperation remains indispensable. Faced with the Covid pandemic, some states have retreated into self-defeating nationalism. Yet in an era of chronic emergency, splendid isolation is an illusion. Rather than liberal triumphalism, or defeatism, a clear-eyed realism should guide world leaders in this new age of disorder. After all, the world is what it is. There is little point pretending otherwise. 

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This article appears in the 02 Jun 2021 issue of the New Statesman, Return of the West