Brexit, Trump, and the Changing International Order

March 6, 2017

On the evening of 2 March 2017, members of the BCCJ and the Japan British Society heard Bill Emmott of The Economist speak about how today's crisis in liberalism came about, why the British voted for Brexit, and the future of the international order after Brexit and Trump.


Emmott opened the lecture by asking the audience to reflect upon the term "Age of Uncertainty", which has been used ubiquitously by the media since Brexit and the election of President Trump. This expression, he said, is a phrase of our times, but "don't we always live in an age of unknown outcomes?". The speaker pointed out that "many epic events of the past were unexpected, from the Iranian revolution to the fall of the Berlin Wall to the Lehman crash - all of them followed by uncertainty - but "surely the point is what is the lesson?"

The biggest source of uncertainty, Emmott argued, is politics. "The upcoming elections in France, a potential trade conflict between the US and China, Russia testing the solidarity of NATO, or Merkel losing the election/EU leadership would all have massive consequences for the stability of the frameworks under which we have been operating since 1945.

Game changers

The speaker highlighted that over the past 70 years, politics has focused on the construction and development of treaty-based international institutions such as the EU and WTO, on collaboration between like-minded nations, and measures emphasising equality and trust. After Brexit and the election of Trump, said Emmott, "the big game changers have been in three categories."

1) Destruction of international institutions

Emmott warned that the EU has been damaged by Brexit, but could be destroyed by a victory by Marine Le Pen, similar to the fate of the League of Nations. Similarly under Trump, other treaty-based organisations such as NATO and the WTO could be undermined.

2) Undermining of alliances

A rejection by Trump of alliances in foreign affairs and security, said Emmott, would be "a big game changer."

3) Less openness

The speaker highlighted that a rise in nationalism could lead to increasingly closed  ideas, restricting movement of people and goods, resulting in greater divisions and aggressive policy toward other alliance partners putting an end to western collaboration. "The fate of the West, however, need not be one of decline and disintegration. We have been there before, got out before, and can do so again." said Emmott. 

Loss of faith

The defining moment for the crisis the western world currently finds itself in, argues Emmott, was the 2008 financial crisis, which saw a break in the basic faith of capitalism and politics. "A slow, weak economic recovery in which inequality surged, resulted in increased tension and anxiety in our countries, and this has been compounded by other factors such as an ageing society, the rise of China, and the rise of jihadism. Failed public policy, complacency, and corruption in the sense of bias in regulation because of Wall Street’s political power have resulted in widespread discontent."

Emmott added that record low household incomes, high unemployment, increased poverty and deteriorating living conditions are among the triggers for changing voting behaviour throughout the western world. "The discontent has been simmering for a while, and it is therefore not surprising that when presented with new alternatives, the people seized the opportunity.

Emmott  explained that although the discontent caused by Brexit and Trump are not the same, there is indeed "a common resounding “no” to the establishment, a shared disblief in failing solutions, a willingess to blame foreigners and bureaucrats, and a feeling of taking back control." Both reveal a worrying trend towards division and ostracism, and a rejection of integration and diversity.

Looking forward

Emmott spoke with optimism about the upcoming elections in France, and said he believed the French voters would choose to stay in Europe with a leader who supports equality. In reference to Trump, the speaker reflected upon the controversty of the rhetoric "America First" and what it actually means. In terms of the president's leadership, Emmott argued that Trump is not an ideological leader, but one who entered politics for power, self-aggrandizement, and popularity.

"Trump's policies distance themselves from many of the basic frameworks of the post-1945 international order, particularly free trade. US politics are experiencing a dramatic change of direction toward a more adversarial illiberal America, possibly an isolationist America that is much more closed to the world than before." Emmott claims, however, that Trump in the short term is likely to be less confrontational in international affairs and will focus on the US economy, jobs, and earnings because those are the things that will keep him popular, and increased ratings could mean prospects of re-election in four years' time.

The US, Japan and the UK

The speaker predicted that the Trump victory could strengthen China as America will be a less dependable ally and partner for many Asian countries. "Japan after Trump, with the United States more uncertain, will need to have a strong, more coherent policy in economics, trade and security," said Emmott. He also spoke of a need to strengthen alliances and networks within Asia, spending more time and political capital on maintaining and improving relationships.

Emmott argued that the consequences of Brexit are more benign that those of Trump's election. He believes that the UK will continue to be an open country, a champion of globalisation, and predicts that Brexit will be "a friendly divorce". 

Emmott concluded by saying that the UK and Japan "have to domesticate Donald Trump and to influence him to be more open and less reckless on trade". He highlighted the fact that May and Abe were the first leaders to meet Trump and that this was not a coincidence. "Both Japan and the UK can be beacons of liberal and pro-market policies, and can work to restore the eroded sense of equality and social trust. They must shore up friendships, cement their alliances,  stay open, flexible and innovative."


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