The World Order Is Starting to Crack

America's allies and adversaries are adapting to Donald Trump in ways that can't easily be reversed.

An activist prepares a balloon painted to look like planet Earth and decorated with orange hair and eyebrows in the likeness of U.S. President Donald Trump during a climate protest prior to a meeting of European Union leaders at the Chancellery on June 29, 2017 in Berlin, Germany. (Sean Gallup/Getty Images)
An activist prepares a balloon painted to look like planet Earth and decorated with orange hair and eyebrows in the likeness of U.S. President Donald Trump during a climate protest prior to a meeting of European Union leaders at the Chancellery on June 29, 2017 in Berlin, Germany. (Sean Gallup/Getty Images)

When Donald Trump was first elected U.S. president, foreign observers hoped that he would moderate his more outrageous campaign positions as the practicalities of governing socialized him to adopt more conventional stances. Failing that, they hoped to contain the damage until the U.S. electorate returned to its senses. Trump’s scythe has sliced through these thin reeds.

For a onetime chaos candidate, Trump has been remarkably methodical in his efforts to destroy the liberal international order. His lacerating of trans-Atlantic relations has been on full display in recent weeks, from his disavowal of the G-7 communiqué to his trade war against U.S. allies to his undermining of NATO to his attacks on the European Union to his prostration before Russian President Vladimir Putin in Helsinki. In 18 short months, he has torn at the roots and hacked at the branches of Western solidarity that his predecessors painstakingly cultivated over seven decades.

Stunned U.S. allies are now adapting to their new normal by taking steps previously unimaginable. They are hedging their bets in dawning recognition that the America of old may never return, regardless of who succeeds Trump. They are pursuing strategic autonomy, seeking to decouple from an unpredictable United States. And they are considering how to restore some semblance of international cooperation in a world left rudderless in the wake of the U.S. abdication of global leadership.

Collectively, Trump’s actions have sent U.S. allies reeling, shaking their long-standing faith in the West as a community of shared values, interests, and institutions. In response, they are working with China to safeguard globalization, expanding their own strategic autonomy vis-à-vis Washington, and grasping to defend what remains of the open world from the depredations of its erstwhile creator.

Aligning with China to defend globalization

Trump’s trade protectionism has done the seemingly unimaginable. It has allowed mercantilist China—which flagrantly steals intellectual property, restricts foreign investment, and protects entire sectors from foreign competition—to portray itself as a bastion of multilateral trade. Shortly before Trump’s inauguration, Chinese President Xi Jinping was in Davos, Switzerland, channeling former U.S. Secretary of State Cordell Hull and depicting himself as the savior of globalization.

Europeans increasingly agree. On July 16, the EU and China held their first summit in two years. They declared their commitment to a “rules-based, transparent, non-discriminatory, open and inclusive multilateral trading system with the WTO as its core.”

The Trump administration, by contrast, has vowed to ignore adverse findings by the WTO’s dispute settlement understanding and is reportedly considering quitting the organization entirely, on the grounds that it restricts U.S. sovereignty and retaliatory options. This would be an extraordinary blunder for the nation that not only spearheaded the WTO’s founding but has won a whopping 91 percent of the cases it has brought before the dispute resolution body.

While the EU has thus far resisted Chinese entreaties to enter into a full-fledged trade alliance against the United States, that prospect is becoming more likely. Such an alliance would be a pale imitation of the high-standard, liberalizing trade deals that the Obama administration pursued in the Trans-Pacific Partnership and Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership negotiations. Otherwise, it’s clear that the bloc is not sitting still. The EU has signed a free trade agreement with Japan and is exploring another with Mercosur, the South American trade bloc.

This is not the first time that Trump’s actions have pushed the EU into China’s arms. A year ago, when the president repudiated the Paris climate accord, Brussels and Beijing jointly reconfirmed their adherence. Whatever their qualms about China’s rise, European leaders are willing to partner with the country to prevent global economic fragmentation and preserve a fragile planet.

Pursuing strategic autonomy

Since January 2017, America’s allies have grappled with a split-screen presidency. The president’s advisors and underlings, including in the Defense and State departments, have reassured NATO and U.S. allies that U.S. security guarantees are ironclad. Meanwhile, Trump repeatedly has castigated those same allies for freeloading on U.S. generosity and suggested that solemn U.S. obligations are conditional.

In a July 17 interview with Fox News host Tucker Carlson, Trump questioned the very core of NATO’s principle of collective defense, wondering why Americans should die to defend tiny Montenegro, which joined the alliance last year. Trump’s stance is likely to find support among many Americans—half of whom (according to a new Reuters/Ipsos poll) believe that the United States should not come to the aid of its allies unless they increase defense spending. That reality has sent shudders through the alliance.

Trump’s improvisational style—including announcing the suspension of what he called provocative military exercises on the Korean Peninsula without informing Seoul (or even the Pentagon)—and his readiness to appease Moscow, for instance by advocating for the loosening of Western sanctions imposed after Russia’s annexation of Crimea, have unnerved U.S. allies. Reassurances from U.S. diplomats and defense officials increasingly ring hollow. They remind one of Richard Pryor’s famous question: “Who you gonna believe, me or your lying eyes?”

To cope with uncertainty, the allies are hedging, building their own defense capacities as a form of self-insurance and decoupling themselves from life-or-death decisions made by the capricious, transactional leader in Washington. In Asia, Japan is spending unprecedented sums on defense, and South Korea is seeking national control over its military in the event of war with North Korea, rather than continuing to accept U.S. command.

But in Europe the fallout has been most intense. Trump’s insults have engendered impatience with being America’s “doormat” and stimulated a quest for “strategic autonomy.” A swelling chorus calls on the EU to take responsibility for its own defense and to develop capabilities outside of a NATO dominated by a supreme allied commander who takes orders from the White House.

This European bid for autonomy is in its infancy, but the signals are clear. In November 2017, the EU approved what it calls Permanent Structured Cooperation (PESCO), an initiative permitting 25 of its 28 members to pool defense efforts. While a far cry from the integrated European Defense Community that the Europeans considered the 1950s, PESCO could be the kernel of a full-fledged continental defense arrangement. For those reasons, the U.S. ambassador to NATO, Kay Bailey Hutchison, has criticized it as a threat to the alliance’s integrity and a diversion of allied resources.

But the Trump administration cannot have it both ways. It cannot simultaneously insist on increased European defense spending while undermining allied confidence in U.S. security guarantees—and then be surprised when Europeans invest in autonomous capabilities. After all, the principle of collective defense presupposes a strong collectivity. This sense of solidarity is precisely what Trump undermines with his my-way-or-the-highway leadership style, which assumes that followers have no alternatives.

If Europeans had any doubts about who the president thinks calls the shots, the scales fell from their eyes in May when Trump abandoned the Iran nuclear deal, despite entreaties from the leaders of France, Germany, and the United Kingdom. French President Emmanuel Macron, who had sought to win over Trump by cultivating a warm personal rapport, was denied—though not before Trump reportedly asked him, “Why don’t you leave the EU?” promising a bilateral trade accord as a sweetener.

Filling the void

In embracing the doctrine of America First, Trump has signaled that henceforth the United States will look after number one, rather than serve as the custodian of world order and the champion of human freedom. The U.S. return to a pre-1941 mindset has left its democratic partners wondering: Now that Atlas has shrugged, who will fill the void?

Pundits have variously anointed Macron, German Chancellor Angela Merkel, and even Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau as the new leader of the free world. But none of these leaders commands anything close to the national power and diplomatic heft to assume that burden. If the rules-based international order is to survive, it will be a collective enterprise, spearheaded by the European Union, in close cooperation with other democratic partners both established (such as Japan, South Korea, and Australia) and emerging (such as India).

“Can Europe save the world order?” ask Anthony Dworkin and Mark Leonard of the European Council on Foreign Relations. The odds seem long. The bloc has been weakened by successive crises over mass migration, terrorism, the eurozone, and Brexit, and populist nationalists are on the rise in Italy and Eastern Europe. Trapped between a customs union and a political union—and overly reliant on a Franco-German axis without which nothing can happen but which often fails to deliver—the EU lacks the unity, dynamism, and decisiveness long associated with the United States. And without the latter by its side—in the Human Rights Council, among other places—the EU will find it hard to hold the line against authoritarian attacks from Russia, China, and other enemies of political freedom and liberal order.

To lead the world, the EU will need to redouble its own internal reform efforts, hold the line against populist and nationalist forces, reaffirm its commitment to open trade, expand its autonomous military capabilities, ramp up its contributions to global public goods (particularly on climate change), and find its voice as a consistent champion of human rights. This is a tall order.

The EU remains, however, the best hope for liberal internationalists as they wait to see whether the Trump revolution proves an enduring course correction in America’s global role or merely a temporary national detour at the hands of an impaired, sui generis leader.

“As ye sow, so shall ye reap,” the Bible instructs. Donald Trump suggests that the reverse may also be true. The grim reaper of the liberal international order has sown discord that will outlive his departure.

Stewart M. Patrick is James H. Binger senior fellow in global governance and director of the International Institutions and Global Governance (IIGG) Program at the Council on Foreign Relations (CFR).

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