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Playing Defense in Europe

LONDON – The most frightening periods in history have often been interregnums – moments between the death of one king and the rise of the next. Disorder, war, and even disease can flood into the vacuum when, as Antonio Gramsci put it in his Prison Notebooks, “the old is dying and the new cannot be born.” The dislocation and confusion of 2016 do not rival the turmoil of the interwar period, when Gramsci wrote, but they are certainly symptoms of a new interregnum.

After the end of the Cold War, the world was held together by an American-policed security order and a European-inspired legal order. Now, however, both are fraying, and no candidates to replace them have yet emerged. Indeed, unlike in 1989, this is not a crisis of a single type of system. Countries as different as Brazil, China, Russia, and Turkey are coming under heightened political and economic pressure.

Even if the nightmare of a President Donald Trump is avoided, as appears increasingly likely, the United States can no longer be the world’s policeman. Powers such as Russia, Iran, and China are probing US reactions in Ukraine, Syria, and the South China Sea. And US allies like Turkey, Saudi Arabia, Poland, and Japan are forging independent and assertive foreign policies to make up for a US that cannot and will not carry its previous burdens.

Meanwhile, the European Union’s declining cohesion is undermining its moral authority on the world stage. Many of the global institutions that reflect European values and norms – from the World Trade Organization and the International Criminal Court to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change – are gridlocked.