Moving On: The West Adjusts to a Rogue U.S. President

PM Trudeau speaks with President Trump during the G7 in Charlevoix. June 8, 2018. Adam Scotti photo


The daily exclamations and all-caps exhortations of Donald Trump often obscure the systematic damage he is doing to the multilateral institutions of which America was principal post-war architect and moral choreographer. Veteran Canadian senior diplomat Jeremy Kinsman, our foreign affairs writer, examines the toll Trump has taken and how America’s alienated allies are responding.  


Jeremy Kinsman  

The summer of 2018 has shaken the rules-based world order that emerged from the devastation of the Second World War. A rogue president of the United States has apparently chosen unilateralism and nationalist competition over the multilateral norms and cooperative principles that America itself did so much to shape.

Donald Trump’s style in domestic politics is to disrupt, and to take a wrecking ball to the achievements of his predecessors in the White House, especially Barack Obama’s. But in recent months he took his uniquely destabilizing act on the global road. In June and July, at the G7 Summit, the NATO Summit, in Britain, and finally Helsinki for a bilateral summit with Russian President Vladimir Putin, he seemed to challenge the value and purpose of America’s basic alliances, undermining American friends in the G-7 and NATO with open hostility, while very controversially deferring to the worldview of President Putin. Will this storm blow over, as other storms have in the past? Or is it the beginning of a dislocation of the trans-Atlantic ties at the core of our diplomatic world since WWII?

It is clear key European leaders are now hedging their reliance on the United States, while distancing themselves personally from Trump, whom they view as belligerent and unreliable. For Canada, the situation is more problematic because of geography and the extent of Canadian exposure, especially on trade. But the view of events is the same, prompting the Trudeau government to strengthen solidarity bonds with key European and other partners to reinforce the resilience and effectiveness of international cooperation. The summer of 2018 marked a turning point in the free world’s engagement with Donald Trump as the face of a suddenly miscreant America. It is important to understand what is at risk in this dynamic as long as Trump remains in office: the legacy of a cooperative, internationalist world order forged from the chaos and destruction of WWII.

Fifty years ago, former U.S. Secretary of State Dean Acheson wrote his seminal narrative of the construction of the cooperative post-war world order, “Present at the Creation.” He recalled historian
C. V. Wedgwood’s comment about history—that usually, “We know the end before we consider the beginning…We can never wholly recapture what it was to know the beginning only.” Acheson’s is a “tale of large conceptions, great achievements, and some failures, the product of enormous will and effort,” led by the U.S. It focused on the world’s “free half,” where shared democratic values would overpower the forces of competitive economic and militaristic nationalism that had spurred the rise of fascism and the genocidal war it produced. 

It is worth recalling that when he wrote the book in 1968, America was in acute disruption. Acheson found the U.S., “and particularly its young people,” in a “mood of depression, disillusion, and withdrawal from the effort to affect the world around us.” America was then in turmoil over Vietnam, a sexual and cultural revolution, and unresolved injustices that exploded when Martin Luther King was assassinated, igniting inner cities. Shortly after, hope was further dashed when Bobby Kennedy was murdered. The social unrest spread: The student protests of the soixante-huitards shut down France. NATO sat helpless as Soviet troops smothered the Prague Spring. In China, Mao’s manic Cultural Revolution turned the country inside out. But the multilateral institutions founded by creative internationalists after WWII survived the whirlwind. U.S. confidence did recover. The European Union grew increasingly cohesive and prospered. China began to rise and transform itself. 

In 1989, the end of the Cold War rendered obsolete the world’s division into two halves, free and unfree. Multilateral institutions became increasingly universal, absorbing nations that were beneficiaries of both the end of the Cold War and the end of colonialism. Global inter-dependence lifted hundreds of millions out of poverty. We assumed that humanity’s great challenges—from climate change to pandemics to international crime—must be solved collectively. History, of course, doesn’t move forward in a straight line; it circles back, moves sideways, and then proceeds again. Since 1989, harsh counter-developments and events have bent the arc of progress. International terrorism, notably the catastrophe of September 11, 2001, altered the world.

After the 2008 financial crisis, Western economic leadership and globalization’s merits began to be doubted. Developed societies resented the relocation of jobs to lower-cost locales. Millions living in poor countries untouched by globalization’s economic benefits formed a flood of migrants who joined refugees from the wars of Syria, Iraq, and the Horn of Africa to pour into Europe, testing the tolerance of residents whose own earnings had stagnated amid widening income disparities. Populist, identity-driven politicians like Poland’s Kaczinski, Hungary’s Orban, La Liga in Italy, Le Pen in France, Wilders in Holland, and the new German alt-right blamed political elites and multilateral institutions, and implicitly questioned whether liberal democracy itself was up to coping with the challenges. 

Prominent authoritarian regimes pressed forward with increased confidence. Russia interfered with democratic elections, in the US and in Europe, ostensibly in favour of nationalist populist candidates, in the hope of dividing Western allies. China expanded its influence globally, in Africa, South America and throughout the decreasingly democratic countries along its Belt-and-Road initiative, where China spent billions in infrastructure investment.

The divisive, populist right-wing opposition to the European political establishment also attracted favourable comments from the U.S. president and active encouragement from members of his political circle. Trump’s flagrant sabotage in Charlevoix, Brussels, and the UK was a further destabilization. As European Commission President Juncker quipped, “With friends like that, who needs enemies?”

Though Trump’s electoral victory had been a shock, allies hoped it was hyperbole when Trump declared in his inaugural address in January, 2017, that he placed the interests of America first, “always America first.” But that doctrine was confirmed when his original national security and economic advisers (H.R. McMaster and Gary Cohn) touted, in a Wall Street Journal op-ed, Trump’s view that “the world is not a global community” but “an arena where nations, nongovernmental actors, and businesses engage and compete for advantage.” They issued the every-nation-for-itself statement of principle that “Rather than deny this elemental nature of international affairs, we embrace it.” It marked a radical departure from America’s half-century postwar legacy of destiny-defining foreign policy.

Trump removed America from the Trans-Pacific Partnership. He opposed NAFTA (“a terrible deal for us. We have been treated very, very badly…….”), trashing Ronald Reagan’s vision of a North American community of peoples with shared economic interests. He launched a trade war with China. He disseminated his displeasure with the World Trade Organization, impeding its dispute settlement capacities. 

He wanted only bilateral trade deals. Weaponizing uncertainty, he unilaterally imposed tariffs on aluminum and steel imports from trading partners, including Canada, on the spurious and insulting grounds of “national security.” He upped the protectionist, unilateralist ante by threatening crippling tariffs of 25 per cent on U.S. imports of automobiles and parts. That the partners were America’s principal allies was of no apparent consequence; indeed, he indicated he believed NATO was “obsolete,” later designating the E.U. as America’s “foe.” 

Trump seemed to be evacuating the international system far beyond trade. He yanked the U.S. from the Paris Accord on climate change and then the vital Iran nuclear accord. He withdrew the U.S. from UNESCO and the Human Rights Council, eliminated U.S. contributions to the UN Population Fund, and cut contributions to the UN’s budget for peacekeeping. Meanwhile, Trump seemed to bond personally with authoritarian leaders, apparently abandoning America’s national commitment to support human rights defence. America’s own reputation as a democracy wavered as Trump attacked U.S. institutions, media, law enforcement agencies, and the courts, the essential checks and balances to executive authority. 

Initially, U.S. partners had persisted in believing Trump would “normalize.” Then, some banked on appeasing him into exempting them from his vindictive assaults. “Flatter him,” was the U.S. insider advice to the still-new Canadian government, and for over a year, they did. The erratic president showed increasingly over his first 18 months that there was no cajoling, placating or reasoning with him. Angela Merkel warned that “Europe can no longer count on the US and must take matters into its own hands.” But his performance at the G7 and NATO Summits and then the Helsinki bilateral with Putin sealed the perception he was beyond intractable. He was destructive. 

America’s traditional allies transited to another phase in their assessment of how to deal with Donald Trump. Having come to dislike him and now distrust him, leaders decided they would have to revisit their assumptions about his motives and diffuse their dependence. Their preoccupation now is how to protect global institutions, stability and predictability from his manic wrecking ball. 

Germany became a hub in an effort to reach out to like-minded allies. It’s not just the Atlantic nations: China and Japan are hustling to shore up the international trading system Trump has been trashing. The New York Times put it succinctly: “The only thing you could say in Trump’s favour is, he’s brought the world together on trade…It’s Trump versus the world,” a point illustrated on the hard economic issue of unilateral U.S. tariffs on imported cars, when Canada joined other auto producers from the EU, Japan, South Korea, and Mexico in preliminary meetings to discuss a coordinated response.

More broadly, Germany is talking to other multilateralist stalwarts, especially Canada, about creating an informal alliance to reinforce, and where necessary reform, key UN and other agencies and common causes, from climate change to migration, which could otherwise be debilitated by the withdrawal of U.S. positive leadership or even participation. They are contemplating a defensive intensification of ties and cooperation among fellow inclusive democracies to reinforce the positive example of effective liberal democracy to others. 

So, the summer of 2018 has been a critical moment, possibly the beginning of a tectonic shift in close relationships. Canada is in a uniquely challenged position, along with Mexico, for obvious reasons of adjacency to the U.S. and economic exposure. But Canada has a lot of friends in America. The links and chains are strong. We have to keep shoring them up. Our alignment is not to an anti-U.S. defensive coalition, but to the values and cooperative purposes that Acheson’s generation of Americans gave to the post-war world and on which we have come to rely for security and progress in confronting trans-national issues. Of course, as in 1968, perhaps the immediate storm will pass, leaving estrangement in its wake, but not a destructive catastrophe.

We can always hope America will so tire of the psychodrama and animosities Trump foments, that he will not have a second term. Soothing alternatives like Mitt Romney eye the Republican stage Trump has hijacked. Democrats are holding challenger tryouts. But Trump’s cultish loyalists seem unyielding. The world can’t count on an internal American solution. It is up to like-minded Europeans, Canadians and other internationalists to save ourselves as necessary. A counter-strategy to preserve the multilateral and cooperative rules-based order foreseen at the post-war moment of creation has become imperative. 

Then, as Trump says, “we’ll see what happens.”  

Contributing writer Jeremy Kinsman is a former Canadian ambassador to Russia, Italy, the UK and the EU. He is affiliated with the University of California, Berkeley.