Expect 2019 to test global stability
James Mattis' resignation remarks are red flags signalling prospective fall of institutions and common policies of democratic states
The resignation of US Defence Secretary James Mattis stands not only as a radical disassociation from the actions of the president he served, but as a foreboding for the future.
The key passages of Mr Mattis' resignation letter include statements asserting the US cannot protect its interests or effectively serve its role as "the indispensable nation in the free world" without maintaining strong alliances and showing respect to its allies.
"We must use all tools of American power to provide for the common defence, including providing effective leadership to our alliances," said Mr Mattis. "It is clear that China and Russia… want to shape a world consistent with their authoritarian model."
These are implicitly harsh criticisms of US President Donald Trump, who has denigrated and insulted allies and deferred to Russian President Vladimir Putin. Mr Mattis' remarks are red flags signalling the prospective collapse of the institutions and common policies of democratic states - now in growing peril.
As the US under Mr Trump retreats to Fortress America, China under President Xi Jinping retreats behind that version of Marxism that brooks no competitor on the political or ideological levels.
The Uighur Muslims in Xinjiang have over the past year seen many of their number taken to re-education camps to purge them of their devotion to Islam; some Chinese authorities have ordered Christmas displays in shopping and office centres to be taken down.
China's news media have been squeezed into conformity with the party line for the past few years.
The Internet provides some space for dissent, but it is usually quickly cut off - consistent, as Mr Mattis might say, with Beijing's authoritarian model.
Mr Putin both retreats and advances. He publicly embraces Orthodox Christianity and refers glowingly to the doctrine of Eurasianism, which stresses Russia's separation from Europe.
At the same time, he advances - piling pressure on neighbouring Ukraine. Mr Putin is also ratcheting up pressure on Belarus to integrate more closely with Russia - a move Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko has so far resisted.
Were Russia to bring Belarus back under direct Russian control and engineer a pro-Russian government in Ukraine's capital Kiev, Mr Putin's new Slav empire would be a reconstruction of much of the Soviet Union.
India becomes both more populist and more authoritarian in the fifth year of Mr Narendra Modi's rule. The country's democratic institutions survive and debate is often robust, but a relentless centralisation of authority and sapping of the strength of relatively independent institutions are warnings of potentially unchecked executive power.
The largest project of a different kind of power, the European Union, now learns the hard way that the soft powers of education, culture, democracy, civil society and common markets can go only so far without military power to underpin them.
Next year will be a huge test for the EU - not just because Britain is due to leave it at the end of March, but also because the EU parliamentary elections in May are likely to see a large influx of populist and Eurosceptic deputies, dedicated to returning centralised power to national parliaments.
After the collapse of the Soviet Union at the beginning of the 1990s, a new spirit went abroad.
Call it the export of democracy: the certainty that democratic practices and the institutions of civil society - as non-governmental pressure groups, independent research centres, the news media - could, once released from servitude, rapidly change into free societies on the Western model. They would do so because their people wanted freedom - the revolutions in the former Soviet bloc and elsewhere seemed to prove it.
In the United Nations, steam built up behind a project named "genocide prevention and the responsibility to protect" - the view that all rulers had a duty to protect their citizens, and to refrain from subjecting them to "war crimes, ethnic cleansing and crimes against humanity".
If leaders did attack their own people - as Saddam Hussein of Iraq did - then they would be the target of sanctions and even military force.
The debacle of Iraq, above all else, convinced many Western publics and leaders that idealistic imperialism led to disaster, and always would.
Both a liberal like former president Barack Obama and a populist like Mr Trump tacitly agreed that such foreign adventures were, on any large scale, a thing of the past.
Thus, both the "new soft power" of the European Union and the idealistic imperialism to which the "responsibility to protect" gave birth have been seen to have demonstratively failed.
We are left with hard power in the ascendant - powers at whose summits are men (in every case) who use nationalism and the projection and growth of military force to bolster their popularity, and who saw liberal globalism as having offered a threat to their ruling strategies - but which is now ceasing to do so.
And because large sections of the Western population experienced marginalisation, a loss of identity and no rises in income, they, too, turned against the liberal vision. - REUTERS