By Jeremy Kinsman
Part 1 of this article appears here.
Though Trump’s electoral victory was 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 percent on US 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 EU as America’s “foe.”
Trump seemed to be evacuating the international system far beyond trade. He yanked the US from the Paris Accord on climate change and then the vital Iran nuclear accord. He withdrew the US from UNESCO and the Human Rights Council, eliminated US 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 US institutions, media, law enforcement agencies, and the courts, the essential checks and balances to executive authority.
Initially, US 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 US 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 US 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 US positive leadership or even participation. They are contemplating a defensive intensification of ties and co-operation 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 US and economic exposure. But Canada has many friends in America. The links and chains are strong. We have to keep shoring them up. Our alignment is not to an anti-US defensive coalition, but to the values and co-operative 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 co-operative rules-based order foreseen at the post-war moment of creation has become imperative.
Then, as Trump says, “we’ll see what happens.”
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.