Thursday

26th Apr 2018

Opinion

Don't blame Trump for Europe's insecurity

  • Trump's disdain for pan-European multilateralism underlines the decline of the post-Cold War security architecture (Photo: whitehouse.gov)

US president Donald Trump's jingoistic approach to foreign policy has alarmed many decision-makers in Europe, and for good reason: since the end of the Cold War, Europe's security architecture had been unashamedly grounded in liberal values.

Democracy, the rule of law and free markets form the ideological core of Europe's institutional web, principally embodied in the European Union (EU), the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (Nato) and the Organizsation for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE).

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The US has now elected a president who sometimes questions the value of Nato (he has described it as "obsolete"), supports Britain's decision to leave the EU (which he has called a "vehicle" for German interests), and enjoys a long-distance bromance with Russian leaders Vladimir Putin, a man who believes that the collapse of the Soviet Union was a catastrophe he must undo.

Trump's initial approach to Nato, which emphasises the price (2 percent of GDP spent on defence) that allies must pay to enjoy America's security umbrella, appears to be completely at odds with the value-based discourse of the past 25 years on both sides of the Atlantic.

His disdain for pan-European multilateralism underlines the decline of the post-Cold War security architecture on the continent.

The tide of Western diplomats, peacekeepers, election monitors and economic advisers that swept across the former communist bloc had already started to ebb back when Trump was still firing people in his TV show The Apprentice.

To be fair, the West may have displayed signs of "irrational exuberance" (to use an expression borrowed from former US treasury chief Alan Greenspan) about the potential of their liberal strategies to transform societies torn by conflict and destabilised by the collapse of communism and the resurgence of nationalism.

Reforming countries with brittle political institutions, suffering from economic decline and saddled with complicated histories of communal relations was never going to be a five-year action plan.

The aftermath of the global financial crisis also forced many governments to tighten their belts and to cut their contributions to pan-European institutions, but these cuts were still deliberate policy choices.

Financial considerations may have been a catalyst, but disenchantment had already began taking hold after nearly 20 years of liberal orthodoxy.

Disillusion with the results (or lack thereof) of political transition in some parts of Europe, but more importantly beyond the shores of Europe, fostered a climate where policy alternatives could flourish.

Europe's engagement with its neighbourhood has been affected by these trends. EU enlargement, the main lever to induce liberal reforms in eastern and south-eastern Europe, is now officially on hold until 2020.

Since its revision in 2015, the European neighbourhood policy has also been less about promoting deep democracy than building relations with countries on the EU's borders on the basis of "shared interests".

The only way the Dutch government could acquiesce to the EU-Ukraine association pact, following a No vote in a referendum last year, was to clarify that the pact was not intended to lead to EU candidate status for Ukraine.

EU, Nato and OSCE stabilisation and pro-democracy operations in troubled parts of eastern Europe and the Balkans have also seen their combined staff significantly decrease since the global financial crisis.

Recent operations (Nato and EU naval operations in the Mediterranean or the OSCE's monitoring mission in Ukraine are cases in point) are also much more about containing crises than applying liberal remedies to troubled spots.

To return to Trump's gripe about Nato, Europe's long-term decline in defence spending has also not been fully reversed.

Terrorist attacks in Europe has played a key role in dampening the continent's liberal ardours.

German chancellor Angela Merkel found out to her own political expense that opening borders to outsiders can be damaging when people at home feel insecure.

Chronic instability on Europe’s borders, the rise of the ISIS jihadist group and the refugee crisis have seemed to vindicate those who say that it is high time Europe pulled up the drawbridge.

Against this zeitgeist, a resurgent Russia under Putin has taken advantage of Europe's faltering liberal nous, regularly challenging Nato and the EU on almost all fronts.

The first days of Trump as president have left Europe with little cause for optimism.

His "America first" slogan was a far cry from traditional US foreign policy and his presidency could well mark the end of a liberal epoque that began when the Berlin wall was knocked down in 1989.

The Trump phenomenon should be understood as such, rather than as a political aberration, however.

That would help us to recognise that Europe's security architecture was already under stress well before Trump's arrival and that it would require urgent repair work whether he had won or not.

Dominique Orsini is a private consultant on international affairs who previously worked for the EU and the UN in Brussels, Afghanistan, and the former Yugoslavia.

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