Institutions can be dull, but strong men thwart them at their peril
US President Donald Trump’s foreign policy is unconventional. He puts in doubt much of the post-Second World War international architecture, which was devised and implemented largely by the United States. Whenever there is a vacuum in international politics, new players emerge to forge new realities
The withdrawal of the US from several UN agencies (most recently the Human Rights Council) weakened the organization. Trump’s skepticism toward NATO did little to engender respect from its traditional nemesis, Russia. Trade wars undermine the legitimacy of the World Trade Organization. The EU has been weakened by the euro crisis and is now undermined by Brexit, and by nationalist anti-EU governments in Hungary, the Czech Republic, Austria and Italy. Even where there are pro-EU governments, populist opposition parties are nipping at their heels — the National Front in France, Alternative for Deutschland in Germany, the Party for Freedom in the Netherlands, etc.
Meanwhile new alliances are forged. In 2001 China instigated the formation of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization. Its members are China, Russia, India, Pakistan, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan and Uzbekistan. Afghanistan, Belarus, Iran and Mongolia have observer status and Turkey is one of four dialogue partners. Its remit is economic and diplomatic, and it has a military component too.
China’s One Belt One Road initiative (OBOR) is creating new realities in Eurasia and the Horn of Africa. While its aim is mainly economic there may well be defense aspects later in countries such as Pakistan or Djibouti.
In 2013 China led the formation of the New Development Bank, whose aim is to finance projects in the five BRICS countries: Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa.
Attempts by America's leadership to tamper with the UN, WTO, NATO and other institutions that were built on fairness, democratic values and free trade may in the end run against the interests of the United States, which has been their sponsor and up to now also their guarantor.
To be fair, this shift of power from West to East is not new. Scholars referred to the 21st century as the Asian century as early as the 1970s or 1980s. This reflected the rising economic powers in the East — Japan and the four Asian “tigers.” Since the 1990s the unparalleled economic ascent of China has never ceased to amaze observers. It is no surprise that this went hand in hand with a more outward looking and assertive foreign and military policy.
While the trajectory has been clear since the 1990s, President Trump’s foreign policy creates vacuums that exacerbate the change.
This is the age of the strong men: Donald Trump, Xi Jinping, Vladimir Putin, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, Viktor Orban. They like to see results quickly and have little time for seemingly endless multilateral consultations. Nor do they look kindly on dissent.
The latest “new alliance” was announced on Aug. 12, when the five countries bordering the Caspian Sea (Azerbaijan, Iran, Kazakhstan, Russia and Turkmenistan) agreed on the legal status of the waters and the natural resources therein. Importantly, they vowed that no country other than those five would be allowed to dispatch armed forces to the Caspian neighbourhood.
Turkey’s recent troubles also showed new alliances. Qatar rushed to its side with US$15 billion — a drop in the ocean, because Turkey probably requires closer to $200 billion.
The bureaucracies of the UN, the Bretton Woods institutions, NATO, the WTO or the EU can annoy the most patient of leaders. However, they are part of a post-1945 international architecture built on fairness, democratic values and free trade. They are also part of the “Pax Americana.” Tampering with them may in the end run against the interests of the United States, which has been their sponsor and up to now also their guarantor.
• Cornelia Meyer is a business consultant, macro-economist and energy expert.