By 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 co-operative 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 has taken 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 G7 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 co-operation. 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 co-operative, internationalist world order forged from the chaos and destruction of WWII.
Fifty years ago, former US Secretary of State Dean Acheson wrote his seminal narrative of the construction of the co-operative 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 US. 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 US, “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. US 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 interdependence 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 US president and active encouragement from members of his political circle. Trump’s flagrant sabotage in Charlevoix, Brussels, and the UK was further destabilization. As European Commission President Juncker quipped, “With friends like that, who needs enemies?”
Part 2 of this article appears here.
Jeremy Kinsman is a former Canadian ambassador to Russia, Italy, the UK, and the EU. He is affiliated with the University of California, Berkeley, and also with the University of Ottawa, where he is working on a joint research project with Ferry de Kerckhove. This article was first published in Policy Magazine on 24 August 2018.