Nigel Farage, the acting leader of the United Kingdom Independence Party, said recently in a program in London that 2016 would be remembered as a year of big political revolutions. He made his assertion in reference to the British vote to leave the European Union and the US presidential election.
Indeed, these two votes clearly demonstrate the rightward political lurch in these two countries. But are they the harbingers of change from the liberal democratic political and economic trend of the last 70 years in Western countries towards an illiberal and undemocratic one? If yes, how is it going to affect the rest of the world?
Let us start with the British vote. The British voters, in a referendum in June this year, decided by 52-48 to leave the European Union, after 43 years as of membership, and to build their future outside the economic grouping.
The Brexiteers, the leaders who campaigned to leave the EU, used hard nationalism and soft racism to win the vote. They said they would take British sovereignty back from Brussels, control immigration, secure borders, give British jobs to British worker, and divert the 350 million pounds a week paid for the EU membership to the cash-strapped NHS.
Such nationalist and racist undertones were unusual in Britain after the political demise of John Enoch Powell.
More importantly, the vote clearly repudiated the liberal, tolerant, and globalist worldview that had governed British politics and its main players — the Conservative and Labor parties, which have their marginal differences.
In the United States, the Republican candidate Donald Trump won the election on the plank of hard nationalism, hard racism, hard misogyny, and authoritarianism. During the campaign, he promised to build a wall on the US-Mexican border, to walk away from NATO if other members did not pay more to it, and to tear trade treaties if other signatories did not give the US a more favorable treatment.
Trump called Mexicans criminals, described the African-American communities as crime-ridden, and promised to ban Muslims from entering the United States. He insulted women — from his Democratic opponent Hillary Clinton to Megan Kelly, a television anchor, to Rosie O’Donnell, a talk show host, continuing his pre-campaign objectification of women in general.
He threatened to put his opponent in jail and haul his critics to court if he were elected, denigrated the US elections as rigged, and refused to acknowledge the outcome of a democratic election if he lost. And he praised authoritarian leaders and called on hackers to hack into his opponent’s emails.
All this was the repudiation of civil, liberal, democratic, globalist politics and policy that had governed the United States at least since 1945. That is not to suggest the Republican Party and the Democratic Party saw eye to eye. They did not, but they shared the fundamental values, from center-right or center-left.
That brings me to the question of whether the British and US votes suggest the beginning of a new trend or a temporary setback, in the long liberal political and economic journey started in 1945.
A sample of two incidents is not enough to indicate the arrival of a new trend. We need to wait and see how Germany, France, and other European countries move forward in their elections in 2017. If the National Front leader Marine Le Penn and the AfD leader Frauke Petry win the elections in France and Germany, respectively, it will be clear that liberal, globalist worldview is beginning to retreat, at least in Western countries.
Otherwise, the Brexit and Donald Trump’s victory would be only a temporary setback. However, even this setback might have significant impact on the rest of the world, mainly in those countries that look to Washington and London for political guidance, economic assistance, and military support and those that have rivalry with them. Such impacts would be felt in political, economic and human rights matters.
Broadly, the promotion of democracy and human rights will take a back seat. Donald Trump has criticized US involvement in nation-building in other countries and supported harsh interrogation tactics. So the dictators and human rights violators will be at ease.
But impacts in other areas would be mixed. For instance, if the US pushes it against the wall on NAFTA, Mexico will be more hawkish with Central American republics and reach out to the rest of the world to substitute the lost market in the US.
India, where the rightward lurch has already occurred under Prime Minister Narendra Modi, might enjoy better economic relations with Washington and London but will be more hawkish with its neighbors in its strategic and economic relations. It may consider building walls on its Pakistan and Bangladesh borders.
China under Xi Ping might be more worried about its trade and strategic relations with Washington and less about its human rights record. It might be tempted to erect a barrier on it border to the troubled North Korea.
Israel would be encouraged to complete the wall on its border with the Gaza Strip and the West Bank.
If Britain does well outside the EU, it may inspire other members to quit the regional organization as well. But if it suffers in the process of separation or after the separation, other countries might not venture into leaving the EU.
In Nepal, the impact of Brexit may be significant in development assistance and limited in trade. If Britain becomes inward-looked after its exit from the EU, its development aid will decline. Any change in trade will be limited, if at all.
The Trump presidency would be more significant for Nepal in many ways, but mainly for two reasons. One, it will affect US assistance to Nepal. Two, Trump’s approach will embolden India and put China on its tenterhooks, resulting in increased tension in the region.
Will these impacts across the world force a paradigm shift, as Nigel Farage seems to suggest? I hope not. Bit let us wait and see.