Populists in both the US and Europe espouse a return to a narrow form of nationalism and sovereignty. They believe protectionism and tight controls over the flow of labour and trade guarantee their future prosperity, by ensuring jobs go to domestic workers and not foreigners.
What Makes America Great?
As with the new 45th President of the United States, such populists fail to grapple with the complexities of a global economic environment. This may appear less critical in the context of a small or middle ranking country – but not for the US, the so-called leader of the free world.
What singles out America’s greatness is the dominant role it plays in maintaining world peace, through the international organs of the UN and NATO, as well as its leading part in stabilising the global economic order through international trade.
Has the new US regime turned its back on this world role? Protectionism and isolationism, both advocated in the 2016 campaign, have been ditched at least in part. But it is unclear if this backtrack will be sustained.
The Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP), a proposed trade agreement to lower tariffs between the EU and US is still on the table. It is likely to receive careful consideration as the US exported $270bn in goods in 2016 making the EU its biggest trading partner.
Justifiably, the US trade deficit with the EU of $146bn, in the same year, has prompted Trump to raise concerns with EU partners last week as he has done with Canada and Mexico over the US trade deficit in NAFTA.
US Foreign Policy
It is (still) early days, but if Trump’s recent visit to Brussels (for a NATO summit) and Sicily for the G7 is anything to go by, the new US administration must give more certainty to the direction of its foreign policy.
Flying first to Saudi Arabia, the president can claim, if only to a domestic audience, commercial success: he signed a lucrative $110bn Saudi arms deals – which is still subject to Congressional approval – and a tightening of the bond to defeat ISIS.
Reassuring Arab leaders that the US has no quarrel with Islam will have been a positive step – something that may assuage his critics for his unpopular directives on immigration from select Muslim-majority countries.
The NATO Summit
During the 2016 presidential campaign, Trump criticised certain NATO members’ failure to meet the 2% of GDP on military contributions. He pointed his finger firmly at France and Germany, although the two nations had already undertaken to increase expenditure.
More worrying was that no fresh assurances were given that the US would continue to abide by the terms of Article 5 of the NATO treaty, the cornerstone of the alliance’s doctrine of ‘collective defence’.
It seems to have slipped Trump’s mind that the only time Article 5 had been activated was after the September 11th bombings of the Twin Towers in New York. NATO allies gave their unreserved support for the US-led military actions in Afghanistan and Iraq that followed.
Trump remains hostage to his more isolationist supporters, disillusioned as they are with the consequences of the long US military presence in Iraq and Afghanistan, and is anxious to honour campaign pledges and present himself as putting ‘America first’ in all matters from trade issues to climate change.
The G7 Summit
On both climate change and trade, Trump clashed with partners at last week’s G7 summit in Sicily. Promoting and defending US self-interest goes down well with the folks back home. But is the US electorate really getting short-changed?
The US and its citizens need the full cooperation of the international community to defend and secure its shores against terrorism and the nuclear threats posed by the pariah state of North Korea, not to mention other powers.
Tearing up trade deals and rocking western alliances creates instability for all parties concerned. However Trump’s threat of pulling out of the Paris Accord on climate change is still up for review, with a decision to be made after Trump’s return to the US.
Chancellor Merkel has been quick to give her post-mortem on Trump’s visit. During an election rally speech in Munich on May 29th, Merkel voiced her grave concerns with the challenges she faced at both the G7 Summit and Brussels NATO meetings, saying:
“The times in which we could completely depend on others are, to a certain extent, over,” she said. “I’ve experienced that in the last few days. We Europeans truly have to take our fate into our own hands.”
She did not rule out striving to keep good relations with the US, Britain and other countries, “even with Russia”, and added, “We have to know that we must fight for our future on our own, for our destiny as Europeans.”
Emmanuel Macron, the newly elected French President, took a more positive view about the relationship with Trump, saying “I met a leader who has strong convictions on a number of subjects, some of which I share, such as terrorism or upholding our rank in the league of nations.” However, he views Trump in a similar vein to Putin and Erdogan – as men who “think in terms of power ratios”.
Macron has been hosting Putin at the Palace of Versailles near Paris to mark 300 years of French and Russian diplomacy. The setting provides a grand backdrop for high-level diplomatic discussions. Macron accorded Vladimir Putin the rank of a world statesman and referred to their talks regarding Syria and Russian involvement in Ukraine as “extremely frank and direct”.
Macron’s visit to Berlin, the first on attaining office soon after inauguration gave a clear signal to the world that he will be a dependable ally for Chancellor Merkel in dealings with both Russia and the United States. Ultimately, Germany’s post-Brexit alignment will prove to be the dominant force in Europe and a reliable counterweight to the forces attempting to unravel the European project.