Time of Uncertainty for International Politics

By Chase Bloch

The global balance of power has been shifting away from the West ever since the end of the Cold War, but few predicted that 2016 would see such a drastic increase in the rate of this shift. Before 2016, Russia was seen as a continual nuisance to western powers, but their activities were thought to be limited to just outside their own (Ukraine), or their ally’s (Syria), borders. There were very few people who anticipated that Russia’s misinformation and cyber campaigns would affect elections throughout Western Europe, and even play a role in the most important election in the world: that of the United States. Now, in 2017, there are few discussions of international security that can be had without considering Russia a key player. Also before 2016, China was seen as a rising threat to US economic power, but was ultimately incapable of competing with the US in a meaningful way. Now in 2017 China is competing with the US for economic influence abroad with claims that they will be the new champions of free market economics.

The increase in the rate of this shift can be explained by a few important events that drastically deviated from the well-established status quo; the first of these is Brexit. This was the first major global shock to exhibit the magnitude of the new populist sentiments. Although it is unlikely that the Russians directly influenced this vote, Brexit served to delegitimize the European Union, a consequence which is inherently beneficial to Russia who seeks to gain influence by weakening Western institutions.

After Brexit came the election of Donald Trump as president of the United States, a man whose isolationist rhetoric implies that he does not see the waning of Western power as a negative, but rather a time to grow and regroup[1]. Thus, the election of Trump has almost immediately brought an end, in the eyes of many Western countries and their allies, to the time of relative peace brought about by US hegemony[2]. Put simply, the global order that has defined international politics since the end of the Cold War has been traded for global uncertainty, almost overnight.

The election of Trump has many other far reaching implications. His unwillingness to denounce any of Putin’s actions, and his complete deference to the country’s human rights abuses and violations of international law has already given Russia more confidence to pursue its interests. Evidence of this being that, not long after President Trump’s inauguration, the Russian offensive in Ukraine was significantly increased in magnitude and aggressiveness[3]. Perhaps even more concerning is that, before Trump’s election, a Russian invasion of the Baltic States was unthinkable, but now military operations and personnel numbers in Eastern Europe has significantly increased due to these fears[4].

In terms of economics, President Trump’s policies have already served to strengthen China. First and foremost of these actions being the formal withdrawal from the Trans-Pacific Partnership Trade Agreement, a comprehensive multilateral trade agreement that would have served to make the United States a more competitive exporter for many years to come[5]. This formal withdrawal has prompted China to claim that it will become the new champion of free trade, a proposition that, if followed, would serve not only to diminish US global economic competitiveness, but US global economic influence as well[6].

The immediate implications of these events do not seem drastic, but when placed into the context of decades of Western dominance, they become very consequential. 2016 saw a large increase in the pace of the shift in the global balance of power, and 2017 could serve to continue this trend further. Far right nationalist groups gaining power in Western and Eastern Europe will continue to shift power to Russia, and Trump’s relatively isolationist policies will continue to shift power to Russia and China. Although it is possible that this time of uncertainty will be brief, and that by the time the next major election cycle comes around this trend will be reversed, it increasingly unlikely that the global order will ever return to the pre-2016 status quo.


[1] Bekwith, Ryan T. “Read Donald Trump’s ‘America First’ Foreign Policy Speech.” Time. Time, 27 Apr. 2016. Web. 01 Apr. 2017.

[2] Staff, Guardian. “World Leaders React to Donald Trump’s US Election Victory.” The Guardian. Guardian News and Media, 09 Nov. 2016. Web. 01 Apr. 2017.

[3] McLeary, Paul. “Putin Testing Trump Early With Ukraine Attacks.” Foreign Policy. Foreign Policy, 01 Feb. 2017. Web. 01 Apr. 2017.

[4] U.S. Army Europe. “US Army Europe to Increase Presence across Eastern Europe.” Www.army.mil. U.S. Army, 14 Nov. 2016. Web. 01 Apr. 2017.

[5] Parameswaran, Prashanth. “What Would US TPP Withdrawal Mean?” The Diplomat. The Diplomat, 24 Nov. 2016. Web. 01 Apr. 2017.

[6] Wearden, Graeme. “Xi Jinping Signals China Will Champion Free Trade If Trump Builds Barriers.” The Guardian. Guardian News and Media, 17 Jan. 2017. Web. 01 Apr. 2017.