Niccolò Machiavelli believed that one could become a prince “by prowess or by fortune.” In the second case, a leader assumes power “with little exertion on their own part; but subsequently they maintain their position only by considerable exertion.”

Machiavelli could have been describing British Prime Minister Theresa May and US President Donald Trump. Both have convinced themselves of their princely prowess, despite having come to power largely through luck.

Notwithstanding a long career in politics and public service, May became prime minister not through an election, but because British voters decided by a slim margin to leave the European Union, prompting the resignation of her Conservative Party predecessor, David Cameron. Similarly, Trump owes his presidency, arguably, to Russian subterfuge on his behalf, and to a fluke of the Electoral College – which was actually designed to block unqualified candidates such as him. He now presides over a country whose people supported his opponent by a margin of some three million votes.

In recent weeks, both May and Trump have suffered serious political setbacks. In this month’s snap general election, which May called in April – when the Conservatives had a 20-point lead in opinion polls – she managed to lose the party’s parliamentary majority. May is now holding on to power by the skin of her teeth, while trying to find a way forward with a hung parliament.

Meanwhile, in Washington, DC, former FBI Director James Comey delivered public testimony before the US Senate Select Committee on Intelligence, in which he accused Trump of telling “lies, plain and simple” to justify Comey’s firing. The Senate hearing, which attracted almost 20 million television viewers, was only the latest in a long series of damaging blows that have rendered Trump a virtual lame duck less than six months into his presidency.

More broadly, recent events, not least Emmanuel Macron’s election to the French presidency, and his new party’s sweeping victory in this month’s parliamentary election, have led many to wonder if the populist politics that defined 2016 are being met by an equal and opposite force in 2017. Project Syndicate commentators have been addressing that and related questions head-on. Taken together, their insights shed much-needed light on the latest developments shaping an era of profound political uncertainty worldwide.

“The People” Beg to Differ

Although few saw the United Kingdom’s election result coming, some did. Jacek Rostowski, a former deputy prime minister of Poland, reminds readers that six months ago, he anticipated that “May’s government wouldn’t last far beyond May of this year.” Rostowski based his prediction on the political logic (or illogic, depending on one’s perspective) of the UK’s decision to leave the EU. Sooner or later, Rostowski says, the British people had to realize that “the ‘soft Brexit’ they had been promised was impossible.”

In that earlier commentary, Rostowski pointed out that the “Leave” coalition “comprises two incompatible factions.” Inevitably, the “mostly middle-class, affluent pensioners who want to leave the EU because they think it is too bureaucratic and protectionist” would be pitted against the “mostly working-class voters who want to leave because they favor more protectionism,” leaving May with no way to please everyone. “British voters weren’t fooled,” Rostowski argues. “They realized that they were being manipulated – and they took their revenge at the polls.”

Indeed, as June 19, the formal start date for the Brexit negotiations, has neared, May’s government has been as cagey and defiant toward British voters as it has been toward the EU. May has all but shut down public deliberation about Brexit, notes Rostowski, by portraying it “as essentially a done deal,” though it is nothing of the kind. Likewise, Ngaire Woods, the dean of the University of Oxford’s Blavatnik School of Government, laments that May’s government has behaved as though it were “headed into battle.” It has kept “its plans secret” and engaged in “brinkmanship,” reflected in “May’s battle cry that ‘no deal is better than a bad deal.’”

May’s decision to leave so much unsaid, according to the psychiatrist Raj Persaud and Adrian Furnham, a professor of psychology at University College London, sent a clear message to British voters. Persaud and Furnham cite research by New York University’s Alistair Smith, who has analyzed “British general-election polling data and results dating back to 1945.” Early elections, Smith has found, tend to erode a prime minister’s popular support, because, as Persaud and Furnham put it, they are tantamount to “a psychological poker game in which the electorate often calls a leader’s bluff.”

The dynamic, though counterintuitive, is straightforward: A prime minister “has more information than the average voter about the country’s future prospects,” Persaud and Furnham note, and May has surely been “briefed on the UK’s near-term economic conditions and the probable outcome of the Brexit negotiations.” So, according to Smith’s theory, by “holding an election three years ahead of schedule,” May unwittingly signaled to voters that she has a weak hand, and that she is not confident in her own government’s ability to confront the challenges that lie ahead.

A Hard-Brexit Landing?

Many of those challenges do indeed concern the UK economy, which, according to Diane Coyle of the University of Manchester, would be heading into rough waters even without the additional disruption from Brexit. Among other things, the UK suffers from a persistent “chasm between the winners and losers from trade and technology” and “shockingly low” productivity – now “some 16% lower than the G7 average.”

In addition, notes Rain Newton-Smith, Chief Economist at the Confederation of British Industry, “the changing dynamics of the labor market” mean that “average wage gains are not likely to be much more than 2.5%” this year. In fact, with inflation “set to peak at close to 3%,” Newton-Smith points out, “average household incomes are likely to remain flat or even shrink, undermining the UK economy’s crucial consumer-spending engine.”

Poor economic conditions will probably undermine May’s already-tenuous position in the weeks and months ahead. Of course, one way that May could improve the UK’s economic prospects, says Anatole Kaletsky of Gavekal Dragonomics, would be to abandon “hard Brexit.” An arrangement similar to that of Norway, Kaletsky argues, “is the only model that could attract public and political support in Britain, without threatening EU principles or inflicting serious economic costs on either side.” Under the Norwegian model, the UK would stay “outside the EU’s institutional structures,” but it would accept “most of the obligations and costs of EU membership in exchange for the commercial benefits of the single market.”

Kaletsky points out that the “institutional arrangements for this option already exist, in the form of the European Economic Area,” and thinks that “a Brexit negotiation based on EEA membership should be a perfectly acceptable, even welcome, outcome” for EU members. After all, EEA membership would rule out “British ‘cherry picking’ of EU benefits.”

Perhaps. But, as Mark Leonard of the European Council on Foreign Relations observes, “the Brexit debate tends to bring out EU elites’ worst instincts.” And because “the one thing EU member states can agree on” is that any final Brexit deal should discourage other member states from following suit, British negotiators should not expect to be offered an easy way out.

Europe’s Rising Star

For Leonard, an even bigger question for Europeans is whether they can get behind Macron, and “look forward to a new project, rather than backward to old struggles.” Fortunately, this could be an opportune moment for reform. After populist defeats in Austria and the Netherlands, Macron’s victory provides further evidence that, as Ian Buruma of Bard College suggests, “Trump may be serving as a deterrent, rather than a boost, to populist extremism.” Likewise, Princeton’s Harold James suspects that “the United States’ experience since electing Donald Trump” may have inoculated Europeans against the contagion of right-wing populism.

And yet James’s Princeton colleague Jan-Werner Mueller pushes back against the larger narrative about a populist “wave” slamming into Western shores and now receding. What pundits describe as “populism,” Mueller argues, is really just establishment conservatism married to an insistence on the “fundamental illegitimacy of all other contenders for power.”

Figures such as Trump and former UK Independence Party leader Nigel Farage are populists because they “claim that they alone represent the ‘real people,’” Mueller notes. But they also have “needed the help of established Conservatives such as Boris Johnson and Michael Gove” and Republicans such as Newt Gingrich and Rudy Giuliani, respectively. “To this day,” notes Mueller, the author of What Is Populism?, “no right-wing populist has come to power in Western Europe or North America without the collaboration of established conservative elites.”

To be sure, Macron, too, came to power as a kind of insider’s outsider. But while Macron “hails from the modern, pro-globalization center left,” write Kemal Derviş and Caroline Conroy of the Brookings Institution, he has managed to break “through traditional party and political-identity barriers, by reaching out to voters across the political spectrum, except for those on the extreme left and extreme right.” Macron’s approach amounts to what James calls “centrist populism, which blends support for globalization with a healthy dose of social protection and a generous pinch of patriotism.”

But not all Project Syndicate commentators agree that Macron can deliver on what he has promised, even if they welcome his victory. Mueller argues that framing every election as “a win or a loss for populism” is “simplistic,” because even when populists have lost, they have forced mainstream conservative candidates to adopt parts of their agenda. Similarly, Sławomir Sierakowski of the Institute for Advanced Study in Warsaw does not believe that Macron’s election marks “the defeat of populism in Europe,” warning that Macron’s approach to politics “comes with its own set of problems.”

Sierakowski, like Mueller, worries that the emphasis being placed on individual elections comes at the cost of losing sight of “the structural factors – above all, economic globalization in the absence of political globalization – underpinning the rise of populism” in the first place. In a separate commentary, Buruma, too, shares this concern. “While France has dodged the xenophobic bullet this time,” he argues, “the dust has not yet settled. Left and right may be in flux, but the old divisions that emerged after 1789 are still there, perhaps more than ever.”

French philosopher Bernard-Henri Lévy adamantly disagrees. Macron, Lévy believes, represents the “apogee” of a change that began “in Cambodia’s faraway killing fields of 40 years ago,” where the “revolutionary reason and imagination” that has structured Western politics since 1789 “were smashed to bits and neutralized.” Without the “fixed star” of revolution, there can be no left and right. For Lévy, Macron is thus a world-historical figure, a leader who “has seen what his predecessors only glimpsed,” and whose victory makes him “the instrument or the foil of a long-term event taking shape before our eyes.”

Whether or not Macron lives up to that billing, Collège de France’s Philippe Aghion and Benedicte Berner of Sciences Po highlight one certainty: with the president’s La République en Marche ! party set to capture a “huge parliamentary majority,” he will be in a position to achieve far more than symbolic victories. Like Derviş and Conroy, Aghion and Berner believe that Macron’s presidency offers the best opportunity “in recent memory” – and perhaps since the time of Charles de Gaulle – “to reform France’s economy in ways that will foster innovation-led growth while offering better social protection and education to French citizens.”

The World vs. Donald Trump

Moreover, Macron will not be alone in his quest to defend Western values. As former German Foreign Minister Joschka Fischer reminds us, he will have a formidable partner in German Chancellor Angela Merkel, who, like Macron, wants “to stabilize the eurozone, restore economic growth, and strengthen Europe’s security with a joint border force and a new refugee policy.” And, like Macron, Merkel has publicly rebuked Trump and other populist leaders. After meeting with Trump at a recent G7 summit, she declared an end to “the times when we could completely rely on others,” and she called on Europeans to “take our fate into our own hands.”

As Fischer is quick to point out, taking control is not synonymous with going it alone. Trump’s administration is, in fact, providing Europe and the rest of the world with many opportunities for cooperation, even as it seeks to undermine multilateral agreements. Nowhere is this truer than in the global effort to combat climate change. To be sure, as Columbia University’s Jeffrey D. Sachs argues, “Trump’s withdrawal of the United States from the Paris climate agreement is not just dangerous for the world; it is also sociopathic,” in that “Trump is willfully inflicting harm on others.” But, at the same time, Trump’s decision has united even rival powers around a single cause like never before.

For example, two of the world’s largest greenhouse-gas emitters – China and India – have both responded to Trump’s announcement by reaffirming their commitments to reducing carbon dioxide emissions and shifting toward renewable-energy sources. As Shashi Tharoor, who chairs the Standing Committee on External Affairs in the Lok Sabha (the lower house of India’s parliament), notes, India was once regarded as an unreliable partner in the global fight against climate change. But Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi is now promising to go “above and beyond the Paris accord.”

Trump’s isolationist moves are surely welcomed by his chief strategist, Steve Bannon, an architect of the administration’s “America first” nationalism who lobbied for renunciation of the Paris accord. But, contrary to what Bannon may have intended, Trump is isolating only himself and his administration – not America. “This is a good time to remember that the United States is a federal system, not a unitary state with an all-powerful central government,” says Barry Eichengreen of the University of California, Berkeley. Municipal and state governments can take measures to “oppose the contraction of social programs and revocation of progressive federal legislation” under Trump.

Many of them already are. “Pittsburgh Mayor Bill Peduto and Paris Mayor Anne Hidalgo have now joined forces to combat climate change,” points out former Swedish Prime Minister Carl Bildt, thereby “giving the lie to Trump’s claim that he was elected to ‘represent Pittsburgh, not Paris.’” More generally, “State- and city-level climate action is sweeping across the US, increasing in scale and ambition,” says Laurence Tubiana of Sciences Po. Just last week, California Governor Jerry Brown met with Chinese President Xi Jinping to discuss how California – the world’s sixth-largest economy – can work with China to reduce emissions and develop green technologies.

At the same time, many foreign leaders, according to former Mexican Foreign Minister Jorge G. Castañeda, are starting to question whether they should “engage with Trump at all.” As Castañeda notes, “Mexico’s President Enrique Peña Nieto has postponed a meeting with Trump indefinitely, and other countries, too, are placing ties with the US on hold.” With Trump’s scandals mounting, and his approval rating plumbing new lows, it is becoming less likely that “his presidency will even survive its entire four-year term.”

Perhaps more worrying, from Trump’s perspective, is that markets are losing patience, as evidenced by a decline in the value of the US dollar since April. Jim O’Neill, a former chairman of Goldman Sachs Asset Management, suspects that foreign-exchange markets have built in a risk premium on the dollar, which may reflect fears that Trump will “pursue a deliberate policy of isolationism.” Given the US’s “high dependency on net foreign capital,” O’Neill explains, a Trump administration that continues to “pick fights and retreat from the world” could force the US into a deeply painful structural adjustment that would fall especially hard on average households.

Après America, le Déluge?

Since taking office, Trump has consistently confirmed his critics’ worst fears. With or without a strong counter-movement against him, he could still tip America into a spiral of economic and geopolitical decline. Even if he is removed from power, Castañeda notes, that process itself could be “highly damaging to the US and the rest of the world.” A stable America actively participating in world affairs, he argues, “is indispensable to international cooperation.” Castañeda, no fan of Trump, is a realist, reckoning that “a distracted or disrupted America could be much worse” than a scenario in which “the next three and a half years are as successful – or at least as resistant to disaster – as possible.”

Of course, there is no consensus about what a world without American leadership would look like. If we really are “at the end of the historical epoch that began in 1789,” asks Lévy, “will we be returned to the Age of Enlightenment?” Or will we once again “pass through the tragic radicalization of Europe and the brewing or raging of world wars?” Fischer, for his part, warns that an abdication of American leadership will all but surely create “a power vacuum, marked by chaos.”

For Buruma, one need not mourn fallen empires to worry about the bloodletting that often follows in their stead. And even barring a replay of the twentieth century’s worst episodes, the “common values” that have long “held the West together” could start to erode without American leadership. “In a world dominated by China,” Buruma warns, “criticism will quickly lead to repercussions, especially in the economic sphere.” In fact, “Hollywood studios are already censoring the content of movies expected to make money in the Chinese market,” and struggling news organizations might eventually feel inclined to do the same.

Since Trump’s election, Xi has been openly bidding for global leadership. He offered a robust defense of globalization at the World Economic Forum in January this year, and he recently held a forum to tout China’s Belt and Road Initiative, which would connect Eurasia through infrastructure and trade. As Harvard University’s Joseph S. Nye notes, some observers view the project – which is 12 times larger than the post-1945 Marshall Plan – as an “effort to fill the vacuum” created by “Trump’s abandonment of Barack Obama’s Trans-Pacific Partnership trade agreement.”

But Brahma Chellaney of the New Delhi-based Center for Policy Research argues that China does not always behave as responsibly as one would expect for a regional or global power. In addition to its provocations in the South China Sea, Chellaney notes that China has also stepped up its “terrestrial aggression” toward India, with an average of “one stealth incursion into India every 24 hours.” Similarly, Benjamin J. Cohen of the University of California, Santa Barbara, observes that last month, China “effectively reneged” on its monetary-policy obligations, by reasserting government control over the renminbi’s exchange rate.

If the Trump administration has a strategy for shielding America’s partners and allies from Chinese aggression, or for responding competently to foul play in the global economy, it has not made its approach known. And its handling of geopolitical conflicts elsewhere does not inspire confidence. In the Middle East, New America’s Barak Barfi observes, Trump has been unnecessarily “perpetuating the rift” between Qatar and the other Gulf Arab powers. After Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain, and Egypt severed diplomatic ties with Qatar, Trump “lambasted Qatar on Twitter,” whereas in the past, the US has always “managed to keep the peace” among these strategically important countries. Barfi expects the current conflict to “persist for months, if not years, further unraveling a fragmented Middle East – and underscoring the ineffectiveness of America’s tweeter-in-chief.”

History is not kind to leaders who bring chaos to an already chaotic world. One of Machiavelli’s most prescient recommendations to political leaders is “to escape being hated.” That advice is less likely to be lost on May than on Trump, who seems to thrive on antagonizing America’s allies, alienating a growing swath of the US electorate, and even (or perhaps especially) demoralizing those who serve him. The US president may owe his position to fortune, but he alone is responsible for his administration’s fate.

Source: The Project Syndicate 16-6-17