Who will defend global institutions from White House sledgehammer?
Coming out of a BBC interview in London last week, I was engulfed by vast crowds demonstrating against Donald Trump’s visit to the UK. As a journalist, I was fascinated to discover what motivated people to participate: Many had been horrified at Prime Minister Theresa May’s unseemly rush to invite him for an official visit. Yet, in this nation of etiquette and protocol, even leftist republican protesters were appalled at the disrespectful indignities heaped upon May and the Queen by this man, who, upon his arrival, conducted a newspaper interview designed to undermine the PM personally and torpedo her Brexit policy. Only 24 hours later, he stood shamelessly alongside May decrying this interview as “fake news.”
Trump performed similar antics at the NATO summit: Brutally savaging German Chancellor Angela Merkel’s immigration, energy and trade policies; but, after meeting face-to-face, described their relationship as “tremendous.” Trump slavishly praises dictatorial strongmen like Vladimir Putin, Rodrigo Duterte and Kim Jong Un, yet treats the world’s most powerful women with excruciating contempt.
Meanwhile, Trump’s warning that Europe risks “losing its culture” is an alt-right euphemism for the white, Christian West becoming diluted with Muslims. One can clearly discern the racist motivations behind his vicious attacks against London Mayor Sadiq Khan, as well as his “Muslim ban.”
Trump was merely echoing previous US presidents when arguing that NATO members should increase military spending. However, his aggressive shock therapy approach risks killing the patient. These tactics aren’t designed to strengthen NATO; the US president calculatedly undermines the alliance by inciting his supporters against it. Experienced Western leaders stoically tolerate these rhetorical hand grenades so Fox News viewers in Nebraska may enjoy their pound of raw flesh.
Rather than commending progress by NATO members toward the 2 percent military spending goal, or even taking credit; Trump unleashed a rant, impossibly demanding budget increases to 4 percent and darkly threatening that the US could walk away from its NATO commitments if nations didn’t acquiesce to his constantly shifting demands.
The Bush-Blair dismemberment of Iraq sowed the seeds of the anarchy ripping the Middle East apart today. We are still reeling from that eight-year reign of George W. Bush and the neocons; yet this US administration after just one year — with its vandalism of international institutions, the surrender of Jerusalem, policy confusion toward Syria, and open contempt for Islam — is like President Bush on steroids. Let’s take our heads out of the sand: Trump could conceivably win an eight-year term; but what would the consequences be for the Middle East, for global institutions, for the world?
After the 9/11 attacks, it was NATO states that rallied around America, based on their ethos of collective self-defense. Faced with an aggressive Russia and an increasingly assertive and powerful China, these principles of mutual support can’t be taken for granted. However, the threat to NATO is bigger than one US president. Trump is part of a wider current of nativist, illiberal tendencies bubbling away under the NATO umbrella; from encroaching authoritarianism and the throttling of democratic institutions in Poland and Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s Turkey to xenophobic populism in Hungary and Italy. In France, Germany and Spain, the far right has surged into the mainstream and is hungry for power. Along with their hostility to NATO’s founding aspirations and their cosy relations with the Kremlin, these forces are diametrically opposed to the cosmopolitan, liberal values of Europe’s traditional political classes, fuelling a polarized, poisonous atmosphere within Western institutions.
Dysfunction and paralysis within global institutions precedes Trump, but he is accelerating their demise and exacerbating the international fallout.
We know how Trump’s Helsinki meeting with Putin will go: Trump will deferentially offer flattery and praise, will perform rhetorical cartwheels to avoid criticism, will stoutly assert Russian non-interference in American elections, and will trumpet every dubious concession from Putin as proof of his deal-making genius. This is despite Putin’s promises meaning nothing, and his ability to nimbly run circles round Trump.
Powerhouses of global decision-making — the G-7, NATO, the World Trade Organization and the UN — have almost ceased to function. The issue for world leaders attending these summits is no longer the policy agenda, but managing fallout from predictable bouts of pique and sabotage from the US. This US administration is, meanwhile, about to discover the bitter consequences of its global trade war.
Dysfunction and paralysis within global institutions precedes the Trump administration, but it is accelerating their demise and exacerbating the international fallout. As the number of failing and conflict-wracked states continues to grow and liberal democracy is bludgeoned into decrepitude by the twin curses of authoritarianism and neo-fascism, who is there to prevent the lights of civilization and progress being snuffed out altogether?
America and Europe need one another but, with a hostile White House, European states can’t afford to lapse into confused disunity. Rather than allowing themselves to be isolated and bullied — or pandering to Trump in the hope of a fair hearing — Merkel, May, Justin Trudeau and Emmanuel Macron must forge their own common agenda. This doesn’t mean provoking or opposing the US, but rather setting an example about how pragmatic and mature multilateral diplomacy should be conducted; presenting an enlightened and globalist bulwark against the irrational, illiberal, racist rantings of the populist far right. The US Republican Party and Congress must likewise step out of this administration’s shadow and reassert the enlightened principles of the American constitution.
The world should not throw out the diplomatic rulebook simply because of one administration. However, if at any point Trump or his successor were so minded, they would find the institutions of multilateralism ready to welcome America back from self-imposed isolation into the community of civilized, law-abiding nations. Let us simply pray that the damage wrought upon the world until that moment isn’t more than we can bear.