Strategy after populism

François Fillon is realist enough to know that his Thatcherite economic pledges will open a way for his far-right rival, Marine Le Pen. Photo: Jacky Naegelen/Reuters

François Fillon is realist enough to know that his Thatcherite economic pledges will open a way for his far-right rival, Marine Le Pen. Photo: Jacky Naegelen/Reuters

This year’s electoral encounters in the US, UK and France have attracted attention from many angles, particularly on domestic and European politics. So far, however, one angle has been under-noticed. The three countries, currently convulsed by populism at home, are all permanent members of the UN Security Council.

Together with the other two permanent members of the council, Russia and China, these three countries represent the international order that emerged in the wake of World War II. The five were allies in the war against fascism. After that they drifted apart, to put it mildly.

However, one of the results of the respective domestic weaknesses that led to the rise of Donald Trump in the US, the threat of Marine Le Pen in France, and the victory of Brexit in the UK, may be to bring the Big Five together in a new way.

If that happens, the consequences will be multiple.

It will be the first time, since the founding of the UN, that its leading five members (leading at least in formal powers and authority) will all be led by governments that are either populist or authoritarian. Not coincidentally, it will also be the first time that all five feel economically vulnerable (with problems ranging from too slow a rate of growth to shrinking economic power).

It will be the first time that the UN, founded to represent and bring about a liberal international order (‘liberal’ as in standing for freedom and the rule of law), will effectively be led by states whose leaders have almost all expressed significant doubts (at the very least) about the exercise of human rights law.

China and Russia routinely violate the human rights of their own citizens. Trump has notoriously declared that he is open to torture (and although it seems he has changed his mind on waterboarding, he did so for pragmatic not principled reasons). The UK’s Theresa May would like to repatriate powers away from the Strasbourg Court of Human Rights. Only France, so far, has resisted temptation.

How real are the pressures on these five international powers to reconsider their relationships? They are several and varied.

Take France. Much has been made of François Fillon, winner of the mainstream right’s primary over the weekend, and his commitment to cooperate with Russia over the Syrian morass.

Obviously, this is partly driven by an assessment of international priorities: the definition of Islamic State as a deadlier enemy than the dictatorship of either Bashar al-Assad of Syria or Vladmir Putin of Russia.

But there is also a domestic undercurrent. Fillon is realist enough to know that his Thatcherite economic pledges will open a way for his far-right rival, Marine Le Pen, to make a direct appeal to left-wing working-class voters (her economic pledges include, so far, price controls, among others). That will make her a more serious contender for the French presidency than has hitherto been assumed.

What would possibly keep together a loose alliance between five powers that have not cooperated together for the last 70 years?

The last thing Fillon needs is for outside interference – from Putin’s Russia – to aid Le Pen’s campaign. Or even, more remotely, aid from the US alt-right fringes with Trump’s quiet blessing (at least with the intention to wring more international cooperation from mainstream politicians than France has been prone to give).

Fillon’s pledge to cooperate more with Russia must therefore be seen as an attempt to assure Putin that there is no need to support Le Pen.

The point here is that domestic politics are not just driving the policies on immigration and national identity. They are also driving foreign policy.

With the UK, the pressures are likely to be different. Brexit presents the UK government with difficult dilemmas. There is no deal possible that will not hurt. It’s been calculated that negotiating new international trade deals (to substitute the EU trade agreements from which the UK has so far benefitted) would require tens of thousands of new negotiators to be hired by the UK.

With a general election on the horizon in 2020, the UK government will be hard pressed to aim for some major trade deals – or at least the initiation of fast-tracked negotiations. The prospect of new deals with the US and China – with family photos and talk-show theatre – may be possible to engineer (the prospect, not the deals) in return for cooperation on more political fronts.

As for the US, Trump has made no secret of his willingness to cooperate with Putin. He has been more bellicose in relation to China. But the prospect of North Korea being in a position to aim a nuclear missile at the US is likely to temper that rhetoric.

What would possibly keep together a loose alliance between five powers that have not cooperated together for the last 70 years (since the birth of Trump, you might say, without blaming him for it)?

At the moment there are few candidates, apart from a rogue North Korea. It is Islamic State, followed by Iran, and its insurgent clients, Hamas and Hizbollah.

If true, that means this alliance will follow the Cold War in making the Mediterranean one of its major theatres. Call it the Cold Peace, if you like, but its techniques of containment, support of local strongmen, collusion in the suppression of dangerous democratic movements, and perhaps even the balkanisation of a state or two that is too large to manage as a whole… these will remain on the table.

In other words, one of the major theatres of the Cold Alliance will be taking place in Malta’s neighbourhood.

It’s just a scenario but hardly a remote one. If it comes about, it will affect not only Malta’s diplomatic relations but its economic ones as well.

Malta’s high strategy – if that’s the right name to call our sometimes casual attitude to our military, political and economic security – is driven by three fundamental beliefs.

One is that our national interests as a small state are best served by an insistence on the letter of international law (since our politically weak voice will hardly ever prevail on matters of interpretation). The other is that, given our exposed open economy, we have a vested interest in an international order based on free trade.

The last is that we have a vested interest in peace – not because we’re more virtuous than other countries but because peace best secures the liberal international order that best suits us.

Given the possible consequences of European and American populism for the international order, we need to work harder on our own scenario planning.

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