Monday

18th Jun 2018

Opinion

With Trump, this might not be fine

  • "This is fine" has been the dominant response of Europe’s political leaders to Donald Trump’s electoral victory. (Photo: Gage Skidmore)

Nothing captures the zeitgeist of 2016 better than the “This is fine” meme, depicting a dog calmly sitting at a table drinking coffee, in a room that is on fire.

The dog acts calmly, as flames continue to engulf it, before melting in the fire.

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“This is fine“ has also been the dominant response of Europe’s political leaders to Donald Trump’s electoral victory.

In European capitals like Warsaw, Budapest, and Bratislava, Trump’s election is being openly welcomed.

Others, including the heads of EU institutions, appreciate the possible risks but are unwilling to make any moves.

“We need to wait until we know who is cabinet picks are and what he wants to do,” a high-profile EU diplomat told me recently.

Perhaps everything will be fine.

But acting on such an assumption is reckless, particularly given what we already know about the foreign policy outlook of the new administration.

We know, for example, that Rex Tillerson, the new US secretary of state, is generally opposed to sanctions and is also a recipient of the Kremlin’s Order of Friendship.

We know that the president-elect has a reserved attitude towards Nato and America’s duty to defend allies, should they come under attack.

Neither is it a secret that Trump has peculiar ideas about trade and liberalisation and is unlikely to champion further trade liberalisation with the EU or other trading blocs around the world.

“It is not a free market,” he said recently, “when [companies] go out … sell back into our country.”

Also expect break with the age-long tradition of using America’s soft power to promote democratic values around the world.

Perhaps individually insignificant, these snippets add up to a coherent view of the world in which America abandons much of its global responsibilities.

It can no longer be expected to act as the world’s policeman, the leading voice in free-trade negotiations, nor a country that necessarily holds its friends and allies to high standards of democracy and rule of law.

From an American perspective, such a shift might or might not be a bad thing.

Trump’s specific proposals need to be assessed on their own merits, not haughtily dismissed.

Things might not be ok

However, history shows that when global hegemons become derelict in their duties, turmoil ensues.

After World War I, as the economic historian Charles Kindleberger argues, the United Kingdom was not in a position to be the world’s leading nation.

Its natural successor, the United States, was not willing to take on the responsibilities.

Both countries might have had good reasons not fill the role that was expected of them.

When the economic crisis of 1929 hit, there was no government willing to step in and prevent the Western world from descending into protectionism and competitive devaluations.

It was the near-collapse of international trade that made the Depression Great.

With nobody to organise their efforts, liberal democracies were unable to stop Mussolini and Hitler in Abyssinia, Spain, Austria, or the Sudetenland.

Today’s prospects are not necessarily as bleak. For one, we know that the president-elect cares about what people think about him – to the extent to which he is willing to respond to critics on Twitter at odd times of the day.

Trump needs to understand that he will not be remembered fondly if he presides over the demise of Nato, another Great Depression, or a world war.

European leaders need to reach out to him quickly and explain what is at stake. There might be more common ground than we imagine.

Earlier this year, Trump said he admired Angela Merkel. Like Melania Trump and Trump’s first wife, Ivana, the German chancellor was born on the other side of the Iron Curtain – and two of the president-elect’s children, Donald Jr. and Ivanka, even speak Czech.

In his foreign speech in April this year, Trump praised the role played by the United States in defeating communism.

It should not be impossible to explain to the Trump family just how much the post-Cold War order depends on America’s leadership.

More importantly, Europeans have to be prepared also to do things – to invest in their security, to step in where they know America will be absent, and to be prepared to lead by example on questions of trade liberalisation.

After all, these are the right things to do even if Trump’s administration turns out to be perfectly benign.

If it is not, however, being ready is what will stand between Europe and a geopolitical disaster of proportions unseen since 1945.

Dalibor Rohac is a research fellow at the American Enterprise Institute.

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