Recognizing and exiting our troubled times

How Britain manages the fallout of its exit from the European Union remains a work in progress, but the world is already reacting as leaders reshape their approaches to integration, immigration and nationalism. 

Brexit has taken the romance out of regional integration projects that might have used a once-rising and inclusive Europe as a model.  The 10 nations of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations are a case in point.  The not quite one-year-old ASEAN Economic Community – akin to but much less ambitious than Europe’s grand experiment – is touted now as showing the wisdom of a go-slow and ultimately wiser approach to regional integration and cooperation. 

Brexit's victory at the ballot box also has strengthened "right wing" and parochial tendencies in large parts of continental Europe. Politicians taking a lesson from the Brexit campaign's rhetoric must now be more circumspect about "open immigration."

Shared challenge

The call of nationalism has become a powerful one. In an age of fractured media and financial crisis, it is refreshingly simple to attract a hard core of passionate voters with a populist, nationalist message. Witness election politics in the United States today, the ascendance of Duterte in the Philippine, and the rise of Marine Le Pen in France. 

Nationalism can be a unifying force for good. History, however, has shown that the forces of nationalism, once unleashed, are not easily contained. Blaming shadowy foreign powers and immigrants is much easier than analyzing the root cause of economic problems and devising a strategy to overcome them. 

Another implication of Brexit is a generational one. With technology’s growing disruptive force, the millennial generation of the developed world has lost the certainties that the post-World War II generation enjoyed: security of jobs and an ever-expanding economy. They face an uncertain future. Radical promises whether on the left or right offer a siren's call. 

Voters may well choose to look beyond the hypocrisy and inconsistency of anti-elite politicians. Still, the sense of betrayal by and distrust of the elites is likely to endure no matter how Brexit unfolds or the US election concludes. What remains to be seen is how our leaders will address this discontent and anger.  Witness the Philippines, where Duterte once elected has, at least in words, turned his nation's domestic and international politics upside down.

Our challenge, as individuals in this era of discontent, is to ensure that amid the madness, our own sanity endures. Even more so, our shared challenge is also to ensure that we can still come together to move forward and improve the lives of all. –


Curtis S. Chin, a former U.S. ambassador to the Asian Development Bank, is managing director of advisory firm RiverPeak Group, LLC.  Meera Kumar, also formerly with the ADB, is a New York-based Asia analyst and communications consultant.  Follow them on Twitter at @CurtisSChin and @MeeraKumar212.