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Trump's retreat from the west and the demise of the world order

After the fiasco of the recent G-7 Summit in Ottawa all eyes are now turned towards the forthcoming NATO Summit in Brussels. The reason seems clear: a strong public disagreement between the allies would symbolically exemplify the rapid demise of the West. Not that the US will announce its withdrawal from the Atlantic treaty and other Western groupings. But a further drift between the US and its European allies would confirm what many call the ongoing estrangement of the two sides of the Atlantic along new divides in strategic vision, values and behavior. 

For one year and a half, US president Trump has increasingly imposed the mark of his “America First” foreign policy, characterized by a mercantile, unilateral and zero sum approach of world affairs at odds with a 70 years’ tradition of US leadership. During the first year of Mr. Trump’s tenure, the composition of his cabinet, which included a few internationalist personalities, could fuel the illusion that beyond the volatility of the president’s narratives, continuity in the US posture could prevail over rupture. But now with a Cabinet firmly supportive of the boldest traits and mindset of Mr. Trump, the rupture in the US posture is hardly deniable.

There is no doubt that the G-7, a Western club of the most developed countries, had long demonstrated its obsolescence in terms of global governance. It is superseded, since 2008, by the more representative - but not always more efficient - G-20. Nevertheless, the G-7 has retained a role as a Western forum, where challenges on issues of common interest could at least be addressed and joint position possibly forged, so far. The last Summit demonstrated that it is now stuck by fundamental differences between the US and its allies on international issues. So, its possible demise would be mainly symbolic, but certainly a telling symbol of the degree of confusion, or division, within the Western world.

The Atlantic Alliance is not a symbol. But its merits and very existence as the security pillar of the West in Europe have been questioned by Mr. Trump since the presidential campaign. He now seems to concentrate his ire on the failure so far of US allies to meet their security obligations under the alliances (commitment to spend 2% of GDP to defense purposes). He recently warned of “growing frustration” towards the fact that Europeans - in particular Germany - are “taking advantage of the US”, hinting at possible consequences. For many, that sounds, after 70 years of unbroken security guarantee to Europe, like a disguised US threat to relinquish part of its Atlantic engagement. It raises alarm, above all within Eastern European states, at a time of significant tensions with Russia.

Thus, a failure of the forthcoming NATO Summit, demonstrated by open disagreements on a possible reduction of the American commitment, would not only replicate that of the G-7. It would also provide an unprecedented signal to Mr. Putin, on the eve of a bilateral Summit with Mr. Trump in Helsinki, that the Atlantic Alliance - his strategic foe – may be in the process of disintegrating.

To further complicate the matter for Europe, Mr. Trump is averse to the European project. He has never hidden his contempt of the EU, the flagship of regional and free trade integration. He loudly supported Brexit and more recently suggested Mr. Macron, the French president, to withdraw from the EU. Some of his advisers have managed to secure strong relations with far right national-populist leaders in Europe and anti-EU voices. But his anger goes mainly against Ms. Merkel, the German Chancellor and leader of the strongest European economy, which runs a large trade surplus with the US and is at the center of the trade dispute with the US.

In a further attempt to promote what he calls the US interests in the name of “America first”, Mr. Trump has undertaken to deconstruct globalization by destabilizing another pillar of the liberal worlds order, the international free trade. The recent imposition of massive US import tariffs on its allies in Europe and Asia, as well as on China, is triggering a trade war between the world’s largest economies, with unpredictable consequences. The unilaterally imposed tariffs, while breaching international rules and practices, are starting to affect the international markets, while infusing deep resentment towards the US from both allies and competitors. They consider these moves, in the form as well as in substance, as a demonstration of willingness to disrupt, if not destroy, the international trade system, a purpose openly claimed by some of Mr. Trump’s most hawkish advisers. The WTO, which is the governing body of international trade, has become the target of intense pressures and manoeuvers from the Trump administration to block the conflict resolution mechanisms that lie at its core.

Furthermore, Mr. Trump has withdrawn from various international institutions and agreements, from the Trans Pacific Partnership (TPP) to, inter alia, the Paris Accord on Climate Change, the UN Human Rights Council and the Iran Nuclear Agreement, while decreasing involvement in other UN bodies (at the exception of the UN Security Council where the US enjoys a veto power). This pattern seems in line with the “America first” brand, since unilateral approach of world affairs hardly fits with collective decision making that stand at the core of the global institutions.

The decay of the West

All these uncertainties point to the same direction: the decay of the West. Although never clearly defined, the West is a community of states tied by common values and institutions. At the core of which lies the principle that the rule of law and human freedom rather than the rule by force must govern international and domestic affairs. Still, hard power has never been discarded, as demonstrated by the West’s reliance on military might, first to counter the Soviet Union during Cold War and then for less obvious reasons (terrorism, Iraq, WMD, etc.). But the West is above all a community of values and institutions, which underpin the liberal world order since the end of the Cold War. The rise of emerging powers, in particular China, but also India, Brazil and others, increasingly puts this framework to the test. With China now emerging as the direct competitor of the US and Russia striving to extend its sphere of influence along the old Soviet lines, the coming split of the West is the last thing the Europeans would have expected.

Indeed, this fracture demonstrates that the demise of the world order is no longer the exclusive consequence of the evolving global landscape and pressures from long opposed states as Russia, or even emerging powers like China. It is also the result of deepening divisions between its main pillar, the US, and the allies. If “America first” means, in the way of Mr. Trump, disregard of alliances and aversion of the instruments of collective governance, this betrays a vision of world affairs alien to Europeans (and other Western countries) and in stark opposition to US policies and practices for the past 70 years. Indeed, the very principle of US leadership was to strike a difficult balance between perceived common benefits and US domestic interests. This seems no longer the case in Mr. Trump’s unilateralist world and transactional approach of international affairs, where the winner takes all and allies and foes are rejected into the same basket.

These developments illustrate a defined pattern of American retreat from Western and world affairs. Although the latter was already witnessed under previous Administrations in the Middle-East and Asia (and considered a consequence of the relative decline of the US in the face of emerging economies), this process is now impressively strengthened by Mr. Trump’s policies. It is likely to lead to increasing forms of isolation of the US at the world stage, further enhanced by an erratic and antagonistic presidential behavior. At public level, it is no accident that, according to recent polls, Mr. Trump is less trusted that his Chinese and Russian counterparts, in Europe and Canada. Still, the White House may believe that US power can afford it. After all, it may say, many states, in particular allies in Europe, East-Asia and elsewhere, will continue to need and expect US security support, in the hope to withstand Chinese expansion and Russian infringements.

That would be at a high cost. China, the sole US competitor, was rather content to see Mr. Trump at the White House (perhaps thanks to Mr. Putin’s help), as a nationalist businessman unaware of and unconcerned by geopolitical realities who might accelerate US retreat from the world stage. Indeed, over recent months, China has started to fill the vacuum left by the US in international organizations, in particular the UN, while further boosting its economic and political clout in Eurasia and beyond, in particular thanks to the Belt and Road Initiative. Still, a full-fledged trade war with the US could hurt the Chinese economy, but most experts concur that it would actually weaken both economies, and therefore affect Mr. Trump’s support base in the US, since China has means to retaliate. Large segments of the US economy have already warned against such disruptive policies toward the allies and China (if the US market is still stable, most others, including the European, have already lost ground in anticipation of coming troubles).

The national-populist revolt engineered by Mr. Trump is not only threatening the international economy through emerging trade wars, it is increasingly disrupting the world order and the Western alliances’ system that underpins the international security. Recently, a former German minister summarized it bluntly: “Mr. Trump is the greatest destroyer of the world order”. In parallel, the American president is also at the lead of a social-political insurgency at home, which is supported by the “losers” of globalization. This aggravates the divisions within the American society, by advocating revolt against the elites, undermining the judiciary, delegitimizing the information system, legitimizing racist narratives and behavior, and fueling anti-migrants fury. Similar national-populist regimes follow the same path in Europe, in particular in Hungary, Poland, and Italy, under increasingly authoritarian leaderships.  

The Trump revolution, at home and abroad, is underway; nobody knows how it will end.