A recent article by Nouriel Roubini suggests that an isolationist American policy will inevitably lead to armed conflict. He describes it as the end of Pax Americana.
It is possible that Mr Roubini is right and that armed conflict is likely over the coming years. But there are various reasons why that might happen. Mr Roubini puts his faith in the ability of America, should it choose to, to continue to maintain the global order in collaboration with a Europe that shares its liberal democratic values. And that much of this will be dependent on a continued embrace of open markets and free trade. Yet this position is hardly credible.
Europe is manifestly in decline. Liberal democratic values are being challenged from within. The EU seems stuck in a swamp of economic stagnation, non-functioning institutions and deep angst over immigration. The US is losing its hegemony in the face of a risen China and a global centre of gravity that is no longer firmly in Washington (China’s rise having been enabled largely by Western free trade policies). Decades of US-led effort have brought little or no progress in the Middle East which is now largely in flames. Russia will no longer tolerate its post cold war humiliation and marginalization. In this context, the idea that a US-EU axis can continue to set the global agenda and arrange the world order is simply delusional. Even more untenable is the idea that free trade and open markets hold the key to a peaceful world order.
Yes, it is quite possible that we are headed towards armed conflict in South East Asia, continued conflict in the Middle East and who knows what in Africa and Latin America. But the reasons may be twofold. One is that we will not find it possible to re-order the world away from Western hegemony without armed conflict. The second, related, reason is that Western powers will defend their dominance to the end. They will refuse to recognise that their time is over and, in their waning days, will seek to maintain a world order whose time is past.
The challenge for the West is this: will it, like the British Empire and other empires before it, continue to look backwards and defend by any means a system that is past its sell-by date? Or will it recognise that the world has changed and that we need to imagine what a new multi-polar system will look like and how we can work towards it without slipping into armed conflict. To believe that all that depends on is continued free trade and open markets is simplistic to say the least.
In spite of the political earthquakes of 2016, far too many Western leaders, as well as Mr Roubini, seem to be reacting by looking backwards and seeking ways to maintain the status quo antes. That, more than anything else, has the potential to lead us all into armed conflict.