This is the age of the disgruntled — in domestic politics and foreign affairs alike. Anti-establishment sentiment within countries is somehow echoed by the way the rule book of international relations is being torn up. These dynamics feed on each other. They are at play in America (the rise of Donald Trump), Europe (growing populism) and Asia (nationalism and an arms race). Finding a way to address them will be crucial if democracies are to have any hope of resisting instability.
I recently attended the Lennart Meri conference in Estonia — a transatlantic gathering where much of the talk focused on how the “dream of a Europe whole and free” might be fading, and how that is affecting security and stability. And last week in London, at a meeting on global governance, and what needs to be done to improve it, a key focus of British and other European participants was: how do we restore the legitimacy of international institutions?
In democracies it is only natural that public opinion influences actions taken by governments on the international stage. But the way that pressure is exerted has changed. The Dutch government would never have sought a review of an association agreement between the EU and Ukraine if a referendum in the Netherlands — with a turnout of only 32 per cent, triggered by a petition that had just over 300,000 signatures — hadn’t signalled a rejection of that treaty.
German Chancellor Angela Merkel would never have pushed for a relaunching of EU membership talks with Turkey (something she had been blocking for almost 10 years) if the German far right hadn’t started doing better in opinion polls. In my country, France, although Marine Le Pen’s Front National failed last year to win control of any region in local elections, her admiration for Russian President Vladimir Putin has made it more difficult for the socialist government to stick to its policy of renewing EU sanctions against Russia later this year. In Austria, where the far-right seems within reach of the presidency (ahead of voting on Sunday), populist pressures have already led to borders being shut to refugees. And in the US Donald Trump’s success is already beginning to frame the foreign policy debate.
Just as the traditional domestic politics of many nations is being upended by groups who claim that elites have lost all legitimacy, global politics is being shaken up by the way institutions created after 1945 have lost much of their credibility. The UN has failed dismally to put an end to the war in Syria; and the EU is widely criticised for its inability to address a variety of crises — its very functioning as an institution is questioned as never before. Meanwhile, Russia and China are disrupting international rules that were once deemed rock solid: force has been used to change borders unilaterally (Crimea), and territorial claims are made through the creeping militarisation of islands (in the South China Sea).
Both in Europe and Asia alliances are being put to the test, with many asking if they will hold. The result of much of this is that global governance appears weakened, if not powerless. Passions and frustrations, often with strong nationalistic undertones, have become a major driving force of events, both domestically and internationally. Increasingly we see the rule of force — even rule of the mob — prevailing over the rule of law and over diplomatic mechanisms designed to defuse tensions. To a large extent that’s because the very legitimacy of institutions, and the way we have known them, has eroded. Many citizens feel their voices are not being heard. The influence of the internet means representative democracy is losing ground to grassroots mobilisation — spontaneous or orchestrated — that often exists outside a recognised framework. And on a global stage tensions between powers fester because the forums meant to settle them aren’t working. Accepted rules and limits are increasingly set aside. Broadly speaking, what we are seeing is a growing cacophony in which it is unclear who, or what, will ultimately act as an arbiter.
The parallel between disgruntlement on the inside and disruptive behaviour on the outside may well define our era. It’s as if a race is under way between the growing aspirations of citizens (not least driven by a massive, instant spread of information and disinformation) and the struggling capacity of governments and international institutions to address them. So what can be done? Reforming the UN system entirely is much talked about, though all but impossible right now. Reinventing the way democracies function is just as difficult. So perhaps small steps might be taken. At the Tallinn conference some speakers suggested EU officials could embark on “town hall meetings” across the continent, to reach out to citizens who resent what they see as a dehumanised Brussels bureaucracy.
And in the London discussion, several participants spoke of the need to create a “multi stakeholder” model for international institutions in which not just states but NGOs and citizens would have a say in open and transparent deliberations. Depending on the issue at hand, ad hoc groups of stakeholders could be convened. One idea was dubbed “the skateboard model” after the sport’s eschewing of judging panels in favour of competitors marking each other’s performances in open discussions — apparently everyone comes out more satisfied.
It’s easy to see the flaws (for example, how do you make sure the results aren’t manipulated?). But the key point is that if passions are to be managed in an orderly way, both within societies and globally, new mechanisms are needed to restore the legitimacy of decision-making. That this issue is increasingly being discussed is a good thing — because the risk of sticking to the status quo is that populists, everywhere, will continue to thrive.
— Guardian News & Media Ltd
Natalie Nougayrede is former executive editor and managing editor of Le Monde.