n his final address to the United Nations, United States president Barack Obama warned the assembled leaders that the liberal world order was under threat from what he called “crude populism”. In words which could apply equally to Donald Trump, the Republican candidate to succeed him as president, and Russia’s Vladimir Putin, Mr Obama said that some were arguing that the future favours the strong man. “History shows that strong men are then left with two paths: permanent crackdown, which sparks strife at home, or scapegoating enemies abroad, which can lead to war.”
In some ways Mr Obama is ending his two terms in the White House in the same way he began. He set out to open a new page in the Middle East, reversing the Bush era’s imperial expansion, and with a view to make peace with Iran and reset relations with Russia. So joyous was the mood in Europe at that time that the president was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize on the basis of his fine words.
He would be shocked to learn that the legacy of his administration may turn out to be something quite other than what he set out to do – the rise of populism around the world.
The high point of globalisation has come and gone. Now voters all over the democratic world are more concerned by things they have lost – independent national decision-making, for example – than the benefits cited by economists and other experts of free trade and movement of people. The free trade deals with Europe and the Pacific nations championed by the Obama administration now seem a lost cause.
These tectonic shifts are clearly seen in the British vote on June to leave the European Union, a decision which is bound – in the words of financial commentator Martin Wolf – to make the country “meaner and poorer”. And in the rise of Mr Trump, whose victory in the presidential election in November is now a real possibility, although it still will be harder for him than for Hillary Clinton.
Mr Trump’s ascendance raises questions about what populism is. All politicians seek the popular vote, so what is new? And in US presidential elections it is traditional for every candidate to promise to ride into Washington like a western gunslinger and clean up the mess. This is one of the weaknesses of Mrs Clinton’s campaign: in no way can she claim to be an outsider. Her establishment credentials are painfully apparent when the super-rich gather for meetings of the Clinton Global Initiative, her family’s charitable foundation.