The disruptive diplomacy of populist world leaders is making the world an uncertain place diplomats concluded in Embassy End-of-Year survey
It’s been a year of ups and downs and surprises as diplomats have tried to manage populist leaders who pay scant attention to international rules-based system in pursuit of national interests. “Unpredictability has become routine,” responded one diplomat. Another said: “As there was no major outbreak of conflict, instead the continuation of existing ones, I would sum up 2018 as a year of chaotic stability.”
Words to describe 2018 varied, depending on the region. They included “volatile and uncertain”; “unstable”; “scary prospects” and “prudent optimism”.
Some worried that the world leaders were too busy playing politics to spot looming crises, as one diplomat asked: “Are we on the brink of an abyss?”
But the year did have its “positive moments to compensate,” noted one Ambassador. The year started on a high. Thawing relations between North and South Korea was evident with the fielding of a joint team in the Winter Olympics in Pyeongchang, followed by the historic meeting of US President Trump and North Korean Leader Kim Jong Un.
The Houthi rebels met with the Yemeni government to sign a long-overdue and much-needed ceasefire in Yemen; a fragile peace deal is holding in South Sudan and in December there was a victory of sorts on climate change at the Katowice Climate Change Conference, that aims to make the Paris Accord operational – but is it enough?
One step forward, two steps back
However these are overshadowed by unresolved concerns on many fronts.
As one ambassador put it: “Economically, there are two billion people living under the poverty line and there are uncertainties on world trade; politically, potential international conflicts (manmade or natural) are affecting peace and security.”
President Trump’s trade policy, notably the on-off trade war between the US and China, has had a chilling effect on global markets; the Iran nuclear deal is in jeopardy with the US pulling out; and tensions are on the rise between Russia and Ukraine (and the poisoning of former Russian agent Sergei Skripal by alleged Russian agents has put UK-Russia relations in the deep freeze).
Here in the UK the parliamentary deadlock over Brexit means there is now a real chance of no-deal with the negative economic consequences that will bring. As one diplomat put it (rather undiplomatically): “Politicians are acting like petulant children rather than getting through Brexit.”
In a year of ups and downs, one diplomat summed it up: “Political stability and alliances lost and won, harnessing the human impact on nature lost and won – one step forward, two steps back.”
Erosion of rules-based order
An overarching global trend causing diplomats to fret is the erosion of the rules-based international order that their predecessors helped to build and has provided a period of relative stability in the post-WWII era. “There is the increasing role of nation states, dominance of national interests… where international institutions are losing already humble leverages to be able to intervene in times of hardship or crisis,” remarked one pessimistic diplomat.
Disruptive diplomacy and resurgent populism
“Unilateralism” of “irresponsible world leaders” had a role to play in the worrying erosion of the international order, said diplomats. One pointed to the “rise of nationalist world leaders” or who are “disregarding old alliances that have stood the test of time”.
For those who had hoped the populist wave that began in 2016 had run its course were disappointed. The election of ‘illiberal populists’ has spread beyond the US and Europe and joining the pack of populist leaders was the newly-elected Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro. Political instability even infected the usually solid and stable Australia, where anti-establishment sentiment ejected Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull in favour of Scott Morrison (aka ScoMo).
Envoys also pointed to the ‘yellow vest movement’ in France as a significant event this year, a telling sign that unaddressed grievances can spill over onto the streets – not a good atmosphere for upcoming European elections.
Pessimism is gaining a foothold again in European politics – the growing ennui among diplomats with the seemingly endless Brexit negotiations is a drag factor (especially for diplomats in London). Patience is running out: “It is time to get the deal done,” said a European Ambassador. But, as another pointed out, “For most Europeans, Brexit is not top of the agenda”.
Instead, the polarisation and fragmentation of politics is of concern to EU diplomats as evidenced in European elections, notably Italy. “The lurch to the right in politics appears to be undoing 30 years of freedom,” commented an EU diplomat.
The slowing of economic growth, and the unresolved migration crisis are still high on the agenda. And there are troubles with the neighbours, especially the recent flare up in the Black Sea between Russia and Ukraine: “Russia poses a very high political risk,” noted one EU envoy. The “pushback” against Russia from UK and its Western allies over the use of the Novichok chemical agent in the UK could “revive a new Cold War” said another diplomat.
Mixed bag in Latin America
The assessment of 2018 for Latin America was mixed. Many countries went to the polls this year with results spanning the political spectrum from left to right. A key moment for one Latin American ambassador was the election of the populist Jair Bolsonaro in Latin America’s largest country, Brazil.
The ongoing instability in Venezuela generating migrants in neighbouring countries was a concern and yet the caravan of migrants from Central to North America was described as “heroic” by one Latin American envoy.
Despite some concerns over the continued social and economic problems, Latin Americans ended the year in a relatively optimistic mood.
Much like Latin America, Asian diplomats were ambivalent about 2018. On the positive side, respondents pointed to the talks between North and South Korea and President Trump’s meeting with Kim Jong-Un in Singapore – both with the aim of denuclearising the Korean Peninsula. “Reducing tension between India and China was also a positive in 2018,” added an Asian diplomat.
However not everyone was optimistic: “China’s growing encroachment in domestic, economic and security affairs of the region is negative,” commented an Asian diplomat.
Glimmer of hope in the Middle East?
For several years Middle Eastern diplomats have had a bleak assessment of their region, but this year there is a glimmer of hope. Respondents cited the murder of the Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi in the Saudi consulate in Turkey as a key event in the region. The incident put pressure on Crown Prince Mohammad Bin Salman of Saudi Arabia. This, and mounting international alarm over the crisis in Yemen, may have provided a vital catalyst to start negotiations in war-torn Yemen.
In Syria, diplomatic efforts managed to avoid a much feared bloodbath in the province of Idlib, the last rebel stronghold, while elections in Iraq were another significant moment – having defeated ISIS, a peaceful transition of power was seen as an important step forward in the country’s recovery.
Trump’s trade wars
The impact of US President Trump’s foreign policy – particularly in the area of trade – was the main concern for envoys from North America (and indeed more generally elsewhere). However, President Trump’s meeting in North Korea and the subsequent moves towards denuclearisation were seen as a positive.
Out with the old in Africa
On the whole, African diplomats were cautiously upbeat in 2018, notably due to a series of well run elections leading to “changes in leadership to more open and accountable leaders,” responded one African diplomat. In the Horn of Africa the election of the dynamic Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed has been transformational for regional stability.
In Southern Africa, elections in Zimbabwe saw Emmerson Mnangagwa taking over from the ousted Robert Mugabe while in South Africa Cyril Ramaphosa was installed after Jacob Zumba was removed from office, ahead of elections in 2019. While both are from the ruling parties, they have very different styles of governance to their predecessors.
But not everyone was cheery. Corruption remains a feature on the African continent as one African diplomat pointed out: “We still have the politics of the stomach” and there was a worry that the growing inequality between rich and poor may store up problems for the future.
Brexit, Brexit, Brexit
2018 was a bad year for Britain, mainly due to ongoing deadlock in Parliament over the Brexit deal. “The polarisation of society has continued with the toxic Brexit debate, which has affected Britain’s economy and prestige,” remarked one Ambassador. Another said: “Imploding politicians are looking after their own interests ahead of the country as they are trying to derail the Brexit deal.”
Whereas last year, some envoys from non-European regions were prepared to give Britain the benefit of the doubt that Brexit may have some positives, this year the response has been almost entirely negative.
Britain’s long hot summer even made the survey – although diplomats attributed it to yet another sign of climate change. Concern that there was not enough urgency in tackling climate change was a recurring theme.
Could do better
So has it been a good year for diplomacy? Envoys responding to the Embassy Survey awarded themselves a six out of ten. Dialogue – although too little too late – may have prevented real catastrophe in places like Yemen, Idlib or South Sudan. A deal, however imperfect, was struck at the Climate Change Summit, which will add impetus to the Paris climate accord. And finally, a Brexit deal was reached. But whether it will gain parliamentary approval is yet to be seen.
On the plus side, there were no major outbreaks of conflict, but “there is more work to be done,” said one diplomat. However diplomacy has its challenges, concluded an Ambassador where “populism, isolationism and national rhetoric limits the power of diplomacy”