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The Western crack-up

Jun 24,2018 - Last updated at Jun 24,2018

MADRID — After the recent G-7 summit in Quebec, therte can no longer be any doubt that the West is in crisis. Yes, “Western” countries have often pursued divergent foreign policies, as illustrated by the Iraq War, and “the West” is itself a vague concept. But it is one that rests on a set of common ideological pillars, which are now crumbling under the weight of US President Donald Trump’s “America First” agenda.

Trump and his coreligionists’ incessant slandering of allies, “we cannot let our friends take advantage of us”, is leaving its mark. Putting aside his apparently unconditional support for Saudi Arabia and Israel, Trump seems prepared to destroy the essential strategic understanding that the US has long maintained vis-à-vis its allies.

Just a few years ago, it would have been unthinkable for the US to refuse to sign a joint G-7 communiqué. Nor would anyone have thought that an American administration could attack a Canadian leader using the language that Trump and his trade adviser, Peter Navarro, recently directed at Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau.

After his summit with North Korean dictator Kim Jong-un in Singapore, Trump insisted that he has a “good relationship” with Trudeau. Yet, he hastened to add that he also has “a very good relationship with Chairman Kim right now”. Suggesting that US relations with these two leaders are comparable is not just clumsy, it is absolutely foolish, and reflects a chilling lack of perspective on Trump’s part.

If bad manners were the only issue with the Trump administration, we could all rest easier. But that administration is also pursuing concrete policies that are undercutting America’s most important alliances. The US tariffs on steel and aluminum imports from Canada and the European Union made reaching a consensus at the recent G-7 summit all but impossible.

Trump’s tariffs will hurt not only foreign exporters, but also US workers and firms in sectors that depend on steel and aluminum inputs. Yet, Trump seems impervious to facts and economic logic. To justify his self-defeating policies, he cherry picks isolated cases such as Canada’s high tariffs on dairy products, presenting them without any context, while overlooking the fact that America’s weighted average tariff rate is actually higher than that of the EU, Japan, and Canada.

While the G-7 summit was descending into mutual recrimination, another highly significant meeting was taking place on the other side of the world. In the Chinese city of Qingdao, the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation, comprising China, India, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Pakistan, Russia, Tajikistan and Uzbekistan, was holding its annual summit. And as the Communist Party of China’s main official newspaper took pleasure in noting, the encounter between Chinese President Xi Jinping and Russian President Vladimir Putin was far more cordial than the one between Trump and the other G-7 leaders.

Understandably, Trump drew additional fire at the G-7 summit when he suggested that the group readmit Russia, which was kicked out after its annexation of Crimea in 2014. Still, he was touching on something that can no longer be ignored: the excessive compartmentalisation of geopolitical clubs. The fragmentation of global governance is likely to prove increasingly unfavourable to Western interests. Rather than recede towards isolation and diminished influence on the world stage, Western leaders should expand the scope and scale of cooperation in the search for solutions to global problems. To that end, they should promote forums for dialogue, such as the G-20, that bring together today’s major powers.

But Trump’s conciliatory approach toward Russia faces tall hurdles. Putin’s foreign policy has become increasingly hostile to Western security arrangements, and Trump’s relationship with the Kremlin has given rise to serious concerns, domestically and internationally. This has been exacerbated by his arrogance towards America’s European allies.

To be sure, after some hesitation, Trump did affirm his commitment to NATO’s mutual-defence clause last year. But that does not mean tensions have dissipated: Trump has continued to demand that other NATO members increase their military spending. What Trump does not seem to understand is that such spending increases would go not toward the NATO budget or toward paying America for its protection, but rather towards enhancing each country’s own defence capabilities.

In fact, the EU has already established the so-called Permanent Structured Cooperation to increase security and defence resources and use them in a collective, and thus more efficient, manner. The Trump administration should welcome such measures. And yet, it seems to respond with scepticism to every joint initiative that the EU launches.

During the 2016 US presidential campaign, Trump supported the United Kingdom’s bid to withdraw from the EU. Since taking office, his administration has not hesitated to weaken the bloc whenever it can. Just a few days ago, Richard Grenell, the US ambassador to Germany, said that he is working to “empower other conservatives in Europe”, a clear departure from diplomatic protocol. Of course, the Europeans whom Trump and Grenell would support are not really conservatives, but reactionaries. Their goal is to reverse the progress that we Europeans have made in advancing our shared project.

Trump evidently feels more comfortable when he can engage with other countries bilaterally. It is little wonder that the EU, a bastion of multilateralism, is not to his liking. But Europe and America have always been most successful when they have supported each other, while operating within a framework of institutions based on shared norms. Trump’s preference for a divide-and-rule strategy produces a game that will create only losers, beginning with the West and ending with the world at large.


Javier Solana was EU high representative for foreign and security policy, secretary general of NATO, and foreign minister of Spain. He is currently president of the ESADE Centre for Global Economy and Geopolitics and Distinguished Fellow at the Brookings Institution. Copyright: Project Syndicate, 2018.

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