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The Decline of the Informal American Empire

Portugal: Published in Público on 15 November 2016 By Francisco Bethencourt. Original language: Portuguese // <i>A climate of xenophobia is the most visible legacy of Brexit and of Donald Trump’s victory. In the case of the United States, Trump’s words signaled the emergence of the extreme right, which had been absent from the political game for many years.</i>

2016 will be remembered as the year in which there was a significant shift of international politic’s tectonic plates. Brexit produced a shock that may lead to the breakdown of the European Union, while Trump’s victory may bring about the isolation of the United States, making way for the reconstruction of the Russian empire and the realignment of Asian countries under China.

The domino effect of the United Kingdom’s exit from the European Union will not be immediate. We are in a moment of reaction and unity, although the relative stagnation of the European economy exerts a strong power of erosion. The EU may be renewed if it has the courage to calmly leave the euro behind. It does not appear that Germany is willing to let go of a currency below the mark. Under these circumstances, Italy will probably be the first country to abandon the euro, thus accelerating the crisis. If the extreme right comes to power in France, the end of the European Union will be in sight.

Trump’s victory has its parallel in the victory of Brexit. Anti-immigrant policies are the name of the game in both cases. The differences between the United Kingdom and the United States, however, are abysmal. While there is relative unanimity in favor of the National Health Service in the U.K., Obama’s health care law’s days are numbered in the U.S., foreshadowing the exclusion, again, of 20 million poor people. The reduction of taxes and the reduction of the state are promoted in the United States. So far this has not been echoed by the U.K., where there has instead been a reversal of George Osborne’s policies and promises of compensation in the face of tax increases from Brexit.

Protectionism, clearly promised by Trump, does not seem compatible with the total dependence on the flow of capital and the international services economy that defines the United Kingdom. Industry is falling and productivity is at an all-time low.

A climate of xenophobia is the most visible legacy of Brexit and of Trump’s victory. In the case of the United States, Trump’s words signaled the emergence of the extreme right, which had been absent from the political game for many years. In fact, well-known representatives of the extreme right were directly involved in Trump’s election campaign. Racist and sexist abuse has now become banal, invading the media and halting the social and cultural achievements of the past 50 years.

The election of the first U.S. president to decline to publish his tax returns does not suggest the beginnings of a serious and healthy government. The problems of the American political system, where the legalization of lobbies attempted to demonstrate the insidious corruption that overshadows legislative institutions, are likely to grow deeper in this legislature. Foreign powers know the possibilities offered by the system and have used them extensively. These powers will have reason to reinforce their presence. They have already begun during the election campaign.

The decline of the informal American empire is at an advanced stage, threatening to implode the Western world. Such an implosion would not be dramatic if participatory and representative democracies were gestating in other parts of the world. This is not the case. The attacks on workers’ rights will enter a new phase in this nationalist, isolationist and protectionist climate. It has been one of the factors contributing to the stagnation of the economic system.

Moreover, the favorable economic impact of immigrants in various countries, including the United Kingdom, is known. Unfortunately, statistics are not reflected in political opinion, which is dominated by competition for resources, namely social benefits that are believed to be static and unchanging. The economic system itself may be at stake in this new environment. Robotics and nanotechnology will continue to have a huge impact on the labor market. The political devolution we are witnessing comes at the worst time. It will perhaps contribute, through the impending rupture, to a profound re-evaluation of the capitalist system.

<i>The author is a professor at King’s College in London.</i>

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