August 13, 2017
Of all the global consequences of US President Donald Trump’s first half-year, surely one of the most surprising is the rise in multilateral diplomacy.
After all, this is the guy who came into office pledging to put America First. He downgraded the security guarantees of the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation to a definite maybe — and only if its members ponied up more defence dollars.
The Iran nuclear pact was “the worst deal ever”, and the Paris accord on climate change wasn’t much better. The Trans-Pacific Partnership was dead on arrival. Japan and South Korea’s freeriding days were over. The North American Free Trade Agreement was toast. The US would ignore the rules of the World Trade Organisation.
And from its proposed cuts in foreign aid and United Nations peacekeeping to the empty offices and embassies of the State Department, the Trump administration has made clear how little it thinks of soft power and diplomacy.
But a funny thing happened on the way to the disintegration of the international liberal order. It’s started to reconstitute itself — only not with the US at its centre. Unfortunately, that has less to do with a realisation among our allies and partners that the burden must be more equitably shared than with the increasing recognition that Trump is not, as some US diplomats liked to say about Third World dictators during the Cold War, “someone we can do business with”.
That sentiment found its most trenchant expression in German Chancellor Angela Merkel’s declaration, following Trump’s May trip to Europe, that the continent “must really take our fate into our own hands”. The net result of the Trump administration’s antipathy to free trade and co-operation on climate change and refugee resettlement was a united front against the US at both the Group of Seven and Group of 20 meetings.
Jilted by the US, the other 11 members of the Trans-Pacific Partnership are moving ahead on their own. Canada and Mexico are working together more closely than ever to save NAFTA. Asian nations are hedging their bets between the US and China. Trump’s tough talk on Mexico has prompted it to reach out to its hemispheric rival Brazil on defence co-operation.
Serious differences among allies are nothing new. During the Ronald Reagan administration, for instance, hardline US attitudes towards a planned gas pipeline from the Soviet Union to Europe caused a transatlantic breach that strained even the “special relationship” with the UK. And the call for fairer burden-sharing by American treaty allies — the “free riders” — is also as old as the alliances themselves, even if Trump turned the volume up to 11.
Yet as destabilising as Trump’s transactional mindset — we’ll protect you if you pay us — has been, his temperament has been even more destructive. In Latin America, his brash bullying plays to the worst caricature of Yankee behaviour. No wonder the foreign ministers of 12 nations in the Americas who pledged this week in Peru not to recognise Venezuela’s new constituent assembly — a remarkable regional diplomatic achievement — chose to keep the US mostly out of it.
Then there is Trump’s uncoordinated impulsiveness. His “fire and fury” outburst towards North Korea upended earlier efforts by Secretary of State Rex Tillerson and Secretary of Defence James Mattis to reassure South Korea and Japan that the US was not about to put them in danger.
Tillerson has seen Trump repeatedly sandbag his efforts to broker a rapprochement among the US’s fractious Gulf allies. And transcripts of Trump’s phone conversations with Australia’s Malcolm Turnbull and Mexico’s Enrique Peña Nieto suggest that both men could be forgiven for thinking they were dealing with Homer Simpson, not the Leader of the Free World.
Every hegemon has a sell-by date, and the US is no exception. Even during the halcyon days of the 1990s — remember when the US was being called a “hyperpower”? — President Bill Clinton’s administration was focused on creating institutions and a rules-based international order that it hoped would constrain China’s economic and strategic rise and extend the half-life of US supremacy. For a variety of reasons, that didn’t work out so well.
In that and other respects, the willingness of other democracies to step up on the world’s non-zero-sum challenges is welcome. Moreover, whether in matters of security or trade, Trump’s strong preference for bilateral deals that allow the US to make the most of its leverage could yield clear benefits.
If he and Chinese President Xi Jinping achieve a compact that balances their respective interests, so much the better. That approach could apply to US relations with Japan, the UK, and other US allies and partners. Strong bilateral agreements, after all, can provide a basis for stronger multilateral ones in years to come.
Obama understood the importance of Asia and Xi’s China
But even bilateral agreements require a degree of discipline and co-ordination that Trump has yet to display. For now, Trump’s reflexive trashing of President Barack Obama’s policy choices without offering any coherent alternatives has left the US on awkward ground. It’s one thing for other countries to fill a diplomatic vacuum created by a gradual US withdrawal; it’s another for them to do so in the wake of a scorched-earth retreat. If and when the US recovers its strategic senses, it might find itself reduced to occupying a much less attractive seat at the multilateral table.
•James Gibney writes editorials on international affairs for Bloomberg View. He was features editor at the Atlantic, deputy editor at the New York Times op-ed page and executive editor at Foreign Policy magazine. He was a foreign service officer and a speechwriter for Secretary of State Warren Christopher, National Security Adviser Anthony Lake and president Bill Clinton