In the midst of the current global political turmoil, incoherent populist political solutions are on the rise at the expense of subtle policy solutions. Over the last several decades the international relations and tendencies of foreign policy have evolved immeasurably in scale, scope, reach and form. Global political developments and countries are confronted with a new set of challenges, the scale and complexity of which are virtually unprecedented, such as ongoing economic crisis with prolonged and dull return to growth and profitability in the aftermath of the worst financial crisis since the Great Depression; unsustainable economic and social developments; and heightened security threats. The impact of these challenges on governments, international organizations, firms and civil society, invites the research community to intensify its efforts to supply useful insights, answers and innovative ideas.
The most glaring examples of intermediate unilateralism include US President Donald Trump’s unilateral moves and Britain’s decision to leave the European Union. Today, the controversial agendas of Washington and London represent a struggle to adapt their unilateralism into the expected bilateral order.
The emerging order will transform international institutions, investment, trade, security and global governance, posing crucial challenges in the years ahead. In the short term, economies, security and foreign policies will evolve according to the new bilateral world. Contradictions and inconsistencies will also arise.
As we are in the early stages of the re-emergence of bilateralism, the world is simply watching what are, in many cases, surprising developments. Nobody expected the hegemon to quit the 20th-century game. Many view the current turmoil as temporary turbulence due to Trump’s election and the rise of nationalism in the West, but this is merely a comforting delusion.
Recent developments are warping the status quo and creating a “new normal”. It would be a better idea if all concerned actors began to adapt and work on possible solutions or a soft landing. The “America First” strategy has already set the stage for what comes next: America Last. This global earthquake that shook the 20th century’s modern world system has triggered other fault lines.
Worse still, the adaptation strategy will create a “London Millennium Bridge dilemma” which is also known as the “synchronous lateral excitation”.
The rise of bilateralism will affect conflict zones around the world, including vicious civil wars. In many cases, proxy wars have unfolded, requiring urgent multinational political responses. Bilateralism will not only diminish policy options, but provide unanticipated room for non-state actors and authoritarian regimes.
Syria is the best example of bilateralism killing hopes for a resolution: Bilateral understandings between the US and Turkey, Russia and Turkey, the US and Europe, Turkey and Iran, Russia and the US, and Iran and Russia are not enough to bring lasting peace. In many cases, one negates the other.
Inevitably, in the initial stages, the rush to bilateralism will operate in the waters of unilateralism. It is not easy to discern one from another, and it would be naive to expect weighty political and economic developments as a consequence. Bilateralism tends to rely on conjecture and partnerships – such as the US-Israeli ideological marriage – rather than a profound geopolitical understanding. As a result, emerging bilateralism will continue to be a prisoner of unilateralism.
This further erodes hopes for repairing the current global order. Although Western actors have criticized Trump’s style, they must accept that the power-maximization strategies of the 20th-century political economy are long gone. Globalism, which helped them – along with the rest of the world to a certain degree – prosper immensely – is the only path towards a more equitable future.