2016 has been a rotten year. At least it has been so for anyone who likes Western liberal values. It has been the year when the core of the Anglo-Saxon sphere, the United States and the United Kingdom, the foremost champions of liberal values, have democratically decided to give up on those values. The United Kingdom has decided by referendum that it cares more about keeping hard-working European immigrants out of the country than it cares about its place in the world. And the United States has decided in a presidential election that the liberal world order it has built since WW2 and which has underpinned American power for over 70 years should end, because paranoid navel-gazing was more important.
But on the other side of this culture war, reactionary populists, wherever they are found, have much to celebrate. Just as the conference halls of Washington DC were resounding of chants of “Heil Trump” last month, the extreme right across the world was celebrating. In the Phillipines, President Rodrigo Duterte, a self-confessed murderer can now happily continue the orgy of extra-judicial killings in his country without having to suffer the censure of some “b******” like Obama. In Hungary, President Victor Orban will soon be able to get back to his pogroms against the Roma, because everyone else will be too busy to stop him. In Austria, a neo-Nazi is well within reach of winning the upcoming presidential election. In France, fascist Marine le Pen is fancying her chances in the presidential election next year. In the Netherlands, Geert Wilders’ mob of merry racists is tipped to become the largest party in next year’s general election. Almost everywhere we look, the former stallwarts of Western civilisation are opting, democratically, for barbarism.
No one has had more cause to celebrate this year than Russia’s Vladimir Putin. As the countries of the NATO sphere of influence are ripping themselves apart in this culture war, just about everything is going Mr Putin’s wayDr Azeem Ibrahim
Hostile to Nato
But no one has had more cause to celebrate this year than Russia’s Vladimir Putin. As the countries of the NATO sphere of influence are ripping themselves apart in this culture war, just about everything is going Mr Putin’s way. He has, throughout the year, managed to outmanoeuvre the outgoing liberal president of the US in Syria and the broader Middle East. As we speak, resistance to his Syria campaign in Aleppo is crumbling and the end of the Syrian civil war is in sight with just the ultimate result he was hoping for.
He has helped along the election of a man in his own image for the incoming President of the United States in Donald Trump - a man that is almost as hostile to the NATO world order and the post-war defence arrangements of Europe as he is. In doing so, he has neutered much of the opposition to his foreign-policy designs in the Middle East and Eastern Europe. And he continues to successfully wage war against Western institutions and Western cultural infrastructure, with wave after wave of cyber-attacks and an extremely efficient propaganda machine.
What is most remarkable about all this, however, is that President Obama’s analysis of Putin’s position was in fact correct: Putin is fighting from a position of weakness. The Russian economy has been in disarray ever since the Western-imposed sanctions in the wake of the invasion of Crimea. Putin can scarcely afford his military adventures even as he is attempting to upgrade his capabilities, not least his nuclear arsenal. And all is not well on the domestic front either. The extended period of economic hardship is taking its toll on the legitimacy of his government, and the only thing carrying him over for the time being is his success in foreign affairs. He has had to carry out extensive purges of old allies to maintain his grip on power, but the vultures are still circling, and they are patiently waiting for him to trip up.
But he has not tripped up. He has successfully balanced the tightrope, and has come out as the biggest winner of 2016. He has much to celebrate this holiday season, and yet more to look forward to in the new year. And we largely have ourselves to blame for it.
Azeem Ibrahim is Senior Fellow at the Centre for Global Policy and Adj Research Professor at the Strategic Studies Institute, US Army War College. He completed his PhD from the University of Cambridge and served as an International Security Fellow at the Kennedy School of Government at Harvard and a World Fellow at Yale. Over the years he has met and advised numerous world leaders on policy development and was ranked as a Top 100 Global Thinker by the European Social Think Tank in 2010 and a Young Global Leader by the World Economic Forum. He tweets @AzeemIbrahim