Boris Johnson’s betrayal of the Good Friday agreement and Donald Trump’s abandonment of the US’ Kurdish allies demonstrate not only the capriciousness of populist authoritarianism but also how little both men understand about where their power comes from.
Three years on from the Brexit referendum and Donald Trump‘s election, the radical insurgencies-come-governing regimes on both sides of the Atlantic are facing their biggest challenges yet. Will traditional norms of liberal democracy reassert themselves? Or will the populist-authoritarians consolidate their rule?
Motivated by the prospect of forthcoming elections, US President, Trump, and UK Prime Minister, Boris Johnson, have taken new steps to shore up their basis of support by dramatically breaking promises with international partners and abandoning vulnerable, battle-scarred communities, to what are likely to be dismal fates.
Not only do these examples show how self-serving demagogues will put their own short term interests above even making a pretence of honouring their word, but they also show the limits of these men’s understanding of where the power – that they are so keen to misuse – originates.
Starting with the UK, it is well known that the Johnson was initially ambivalent about which side of the referendum to join and, in the view of his predecessor, he sided with the leave campaign “because it would help his political career.”
However, far worse is that, since becoming prime minister, Johnson has demonstrated his willingness to abandon UK commitments that there would be no border checks between Northern Ireland and the Republic. This is no small betrayal. Indeed Johnson’s plan for Brexit would not only impose these checks but would also give his allies, the Democratic Unionist Party, a de facto veto over the province’s constitutional future. Thus in one act, Johnson has effectively forsaken UK government’s obligations under the Good Friday Agreement (that – albeit imperfectly – ended The Troubles, a 40-year military conflict that cost nearly 5,000 lives).
Johnson and Trump tout positive and optimistic visions of a world that would be created under their leadership (not to mention their own intellects), they are both obviously clueless as to the fact that contemporary international relations differ substantially from these fantasies.
Similarly, Trump, abruptly announced the withdrawal of all remaining US military forces from northern Syria, thus deserting long-standing allies, the Kurds, who did the bulk of the fighting in the campaign against Daesh.
Trump’s decision apparently came after a verbal lashing from Turkish President Erdoğan, and without prior coordination with The Pentagon, his congressional allies or the unsuspecting Kurds. Moreover, while Trump’s efforts to defend himself have grown progressively more unhinged, Turkish forces have already begun an invasion, effectively opening a new front in a brutal war against the Kurds (which has already lasted 40 years and killed more than 50,000 people).
Both examples clearly demonstrate the gruesome callousness of UK and US foreign policy. But there is also a deep irony in evidence. While both Johnson and Trump tout positive and optimistic visions of a world that would be created under their leadership (not to mention their own intellects), they are both obviously clueless as to the fact that contemporary international relations differ substantially from these fantasies.
Since 2016, the world has changed dramatically. Long-standing alliances have been brought into question, established norms undermined and, most pressing of all, the very basis of the trust that has undergirded a post-World War II international order has fractured. And a good proportion of this disorder is, of course, the product of Trump’s ineptitude and the uncertainty created by Brexit.
A challenge to this world order does not necessarily need to be entirely a bad thing. The presumed virtues of the world order prior to Trump and Brexit are not uncontested.
Instead, seen through a critical lens, the ‘liberal international order’ represents a de facto agreement between already rich and powerful states to adopt a common rule book for international relations that ultimately serves their own ends.
To be sure, for every success credited to the ‘liberal international order’ around preventing great power conflict, there are plenty of shortcomings. These failings tend to exist on its periphery, in places like Vietnam, Palestine, Afghanistan inter alia, where the oft-lauded principles of universal liberalism, democracy and human rights are undermined by the action (or inaction) of Western governments and their proxies.
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Yet it is also important to note that the perspective from which this critique comes is one that advocates for greater inclusivity, greater respect for the rights and value of others and – in general – for greater international cooperation. Thus, it stands in stark contrast to the backward logic inherent in both Trump’s and Johnson’s nationalism.
Indeed, while Brexiteers argue that British power will increase once it is separated from its continental allies, the progress of the negotiations thus far serves to demonstrate how wrong they are. As Fintan O’Tool has argued, for the first time in nearly 1000 years Ireland is now arguably more powerful than the United Kingdom – historically it’s most dangerous near neighbour – precisely because the Republic can depend on the goodwill of its allies within the EU, while the UK has squandered it.
Similarly, Donald Trump’s abandonment of the Kurds of Northern Syria will not only devastate the US’ erstwhile allies but also it shows that only a fool should take the US president at his word. Erdoğan has left little doubt that he will use whatever force is necessary to suppress the national right to self-determination of the Kurdish people. But the long-term effects will also recoil on the US itself.
No one could ever again take us seriously after they to add to the list of failed interventions – ranging from Somalia to Libya – the time when the US withdrew its armed forces in order to enable a humanitarian catastrophe in Northern Syria.
By vacating the region so quickly the US may allow space for their old enemy, Daesh to regroup and renew itself as a threat. If this were to be the case – or if similar circumstances were to emerge elsewhere in the world – then it would be extremely difficult for the US, under this president or any other, to win the support of local allies once again.
Finally, how many times, in the decades since the end of the Cold War, have we in the West wrung our hands over the question of military intervention in foreign countries ostensibly to prevent or end humanitarian crises? Well, no more. The argument will be over before it begins because no one could ever again take us seriously after they to add to the list of failed interventions – ranging from Somalia to Libya – the time when the US withdrew its armed forces in order to enable a humanitarian catastrophe in Northern Syria.
Of course, in neither case is this the first time that a British Prime Minister or an American President betrayed their professed values or the welfare of their supposed allies. However, we would do well to learn from his mistakes of the past, be they Balfour’s declaration, the Sykes-Picot agreement, or the US’s various interventions against democratic regimes in the name of fighting communism.
Even now, a hundred years on from some of these events, the pain that these betrayals created lingers as festering sores; polarizing identities, acting as recruiting sergeants for extremism and souring the potential for a more cooperative form of international relations. Short term opportunists like Trump and Johnson won’t care about this, of course, but the consequences of their recent actions will likely ripple through time to create a more perilous and uncertain world for the rest of us.