Amid worries of declining US influence, a bright silver lining

America and the West are withdrawing from being world policemen, and a new breed of global strongman is trying to take advantage. But many of the countries now rising to prominence share America's core values. 

Ng Han Guan/AP
Philippine President Rodrigo Détente walks outside the Great Hall of the People in Beijing during a welcome ceremony Thursday.

When the Philippines’ tough-guy President Rodrigo Duterte announced in Beijing last week that “America has lost” and that he was “separating” from the United States to align with a rising China, it could only have been music to his hosts’ ears.

Here was a neighboring American ally seemingly eschewing the long-dominant Western order of democratic principles and free-market economics to embrace a more authoritarian and state-driven vision of economic and political rule.

“I’ve realigned myself in your ideological flow,” Mr. Duterte elaborated, adding that he might “also go to Russia to talk to [President Vladimir] Putin and tell him that there are three of us against the world – China, Philippines, and Russia.”

Duterte’s realignment – at least rhetorically if nothing more concrete so far – will only add fuel to an advancing global argument that the American-led Western order of governance and economics is on the wane. 

In Turkey, President Recep Tayyip Erdogan is making similar noises. In autocratic countries such as Saudi Arabia and Egypt, leaders feeling badgered by the US over human rights are turning to China and Russia, too. And even within Western democracies – from Britain to the US itself – reactionary populist movements are pushing back against the rules and systems that have defined them for decades.

But within that backlash is important nuance, some experts say. As America has become a less-dominant presence in the world, the countries that have risen to play a larger role are broadly democratic and adhering to free-market norms – from India to Japan, South Africa, Australia, and even still Turkey.

Moreover, China and Russia have been seeking to expand their influence for years – especially as America has withdrawn somewhat from its leading role. But the “authoritarian market state” has not drawn many converts, says Stefan Halper, a life fellow of Magdalene College at the University of Cambridge.

In that way, the current picture, while at times unsettling, can be seen as the birth pangs of a new world order ­– still retaining the old order’s foundation of democracy and liberal economics – but perhaps less Western-centric.

Needed: new 'firemen'

“It isn’t the fires in the world that are scary, it’s the lack of firemen, as the two pillars of the Western-order fire station, the US and the European Union, are in decline,” says John Hulsman, a longtime US foreign policy analyst now based in Germany.

Put another way, the Western-built system of international order is no longer serving the world’s needs. The US and Europe are less willing to intervene when other parts of the world are unable to respond effectively to conflicts and other global challenges. That has meant a decline in Western influence.

Yet as downbeat as that may sound, it also has a positive side: A decline of dependence. And, broadly speaking, the emerging multipolar global order is largely based on the principles that the West espoused, says Mr. Hulsman, president of the global political risk consulting firm John C. Hulsman Enterprises.

“Yes, the West as we know it has collapsed. Indeed, 500 years of the West ordering the world is at an end, and that sounds terrible,” Hulsman says. But “the good thing in all of this” is that “all these powers we have to work with are broadly on our side.”

This shift is happening as the global systems established by the West face unusual headwinds.

“Clearly we are in a period of struggle between democratic governance and a more authoritarian vision of rule both nationally and internationally,” says Mr. Halper of the University of Cambridge. “People feel that their culture and identity are under threat, they sense that governing systems are no longer working, and they want some strong response to that.”

And it’s not just countries that are more or less new to the club of Western principles.

More than a quarter of French citizens are prepared to accept a more authoritarian state, according to a recent survey. In the United States, critics see the rise of Donald Trump – who has spoken openly of reining in press freedoms, intimidated judges, and taken a generally bellicose tone – as a turn toward a strongman-like figure.

“After 70 years of a world order that has been built by the West on the architecture of Western values, it is certainly striking… how much liberalism is on the retreat – everywhere,” says a senior European diplomat with extensive experience in international affairs but who requested anonymity to more freely discuss the topic.

Frustrated populations are increasingly tempted by strong alternatives to the status quo, the diplomat says. Internationally, a breakdown of the long-reigning Western order is prompting the Russians and Chinese to promote “a new version of international relations on their side.”           

The China/Russia model

But China and Russia have made little headway.

“Already at the time of the international financial crisis, there was this notion the Chinese were putting out that their system was better than the American democratic system,” Halper says. He recalls hearing the governor of the Bank of China declare to an international audience in 2008 that “now the teachers have problems.”

In some ways, China was right. The financial crisis saw the emergence of the multipolar G20 where once the all-Western G7 had reigned. But it did not lead to a world signing on to China’s model of governance.

And as much as global leaders might envy Mr. Putin’s 80-percent approval rating at home, there is no one looking to follow in Russia’s economic footsteps, Hulsman says.

“Russia is an aging gas station with nuclear weapons,” he says. “Who wants that?”

To listen to the Philippines’ Duterte, it might sound like he does. And it’s not just the Filipino leader who seems drawn to Putin’s success in revitalizing Russia’s presence on the world stage or to China’s economic expansion.

But from there to fully embracing the strongman model may pose risks for leaders like Duterte. The Philippines has a tradition of democratic elections and governance, and Duterte could find himself in political trouble if he pushes much more in the direction of authoritarianism, says Hulsman.

“If this guy goes farther on the strongman path, there will be a backlash – and he may not last very long,” he says.

Even as Duterte was in Beijing, a national survey in the Philippines found that 76 percent of adults have “much trust” in the US while only 22 percent have “much trust” in China.

In the end, it may be the same public that brought a strongman to power that keeps him from fully embracing China and its authoritarian model.

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