Washington: Donald Trump’s election has thrown key US alliances into doubt, but could it yet destroy the liberal world order and the West as we know it?
If you thought president Barack Obama’s White House sit-down with Donald Trump was awkward, wait for Obama’s menu of meetings with foreign leaders next week.
During a three-nation foreign trip, Obama will meet the leaders of Britain, China, France, Germany, Greece, Italy and Peru among others. Most of them will have similar questions: “How on Earth did this happen? What do we do now?”
Obama has spent a year telling interlocutors that the Republican billionaire would never be elected and that he was a threat to American democracy and the global system. Now Obama will try to reassure allies that Trump’s America will not bring the global order crashing to the ground.
Trump has vowed to rip up trade deals, questioned support for allies whose security depends on American military largess and warmly embraced Russia’s Vladimir Putin. Seen from the Obama White House or European capitals, the best case scenario is that Trump’s is just another Republican White House.
Insiders point to Trump’s disinterest in policy as evidence that he plans to be a titular or ceremonial president. Vice-president Mike Pence, they argue, will be the real president or at least behave like a prime minister.
He and the constellation of Washington-based advisors already gathered around Trump—possible secretary of state Newt Gingrich, possible secretary of defence Jeff Sessions—will crank out orthodox Republican policies.
But for European capitals that kind of Trump administration would still mean a return to the deep differences seen during Bush administration. Trump would be political kryptonite in Europe, avoided like the plague by leaders like Francois Hollande or Angela Merkel who are seeking re-election. But at least the sky wouldn’t fall.
Yet some see that outlook as hopelessly optimistic. Once he gets his feet under the resolute desk, is Trump—an alpha male chief executive all his life—really likely to shrink into the background?
And if not, the world’s pre-eminent economic and military power would be run by a capricious leader with questionable respect for the rule of law. In his first week as president-elect, Trump changed course on his opposition to Obamacare and decried “professional protesters, incited by the media” in a Tweet before reversing himself.
Those asking what Trump thinks about North Korea or Syria might get a different answer depending on what day he is tweeting. Insiders say he knows little to nothing of world affairs, even on fundamental issues such as the Iran nuclear deal that he vowed to scrap during the campaign.
Japan, South Korea and other Asian allies America has vowed to defend have long doubted whether a US president would actually risk a nuclear war with China or North Korea to fulfil that vow. Under a president Trump it would be close to strategic negligence to assume America’s security umbrella was ironclad.
Shinzo Abe’s Japan has already been moving gingerly toward military self-sufficiency. If that trend speeds up considerably, or Tokyo develops a nuclear weapon—as Trump has suggested it should—the impact vis-a-vis China would be profound. In Europe there is a similar sense we may be seeing the end of Pax Americana.
Merkel—arguably the world’s second most powerful democratic leader—responded to Trump’s election by making it clear she believes this is not business as usual. “Germany and America are connected by values of democracy, freedom and respect for the law and the dignity of man, independent of origin, skin colour, religion, gender, sexual orientation or political views,” she said, reminding Trump of common values that normally go without saying.
She also made clear the relationship is conditional: “I offer the next president of the United States close cooperation on the basis of these values.” Obama likes to describe American democracy as a relay race.
If he handed the baton to Trump in the Oval Office on Tuesday, then his meeting with Merkel in Berlin may be the passing of the liberal democratic torch. But for the first time since the Cold War or World War II, there are serious doubts the flame will endure.
Merkel may now be the de facto “leader of the free world,” but Europe remains deeply divided. Germany has economic and political power, but military and diplomatic power rests in London in Paris.
Last March commentator Anne Applebaum warned “we are two or three bad elections away from the end of NATO, the end of the European Union and maybe the end of the liberal world order as we know it.” That was before Britain’s vote to leave the European Union and Trump’s election. In the next year Merkel and Hollande face their own far-right challengers. So far on Applebaum’s scorecard it’s two down, two to go.