A bimonthly magazine on international affairs, edited in Germany's capital

A Dangerous New Normal


Donald Trump has taken the US out of the leadership game. Now, no country in the world will have the luxury of free-riding on a decaying American hegemony. A new world order is in the making.

© REUTERS/Thomas Peter

One year into the presidency of Donald Trump, international affairs are in flux—not in the perennial sense that “a lot is going on across the world,” but in the more fundamental sense that things are changing structurally with an unknown outcome.

Trump has accelerated a central, structural change in international affairs that was already happening prior to his arrival in the White House: a noticeable decline in the United States’ political desire as well as capacity to lead on the international stage. Under its most recent four presidents, the US has gone from declaring itself indispensable to international diplomacy, to regretting its period of unilateral hubris, to trying to lead from behind, to not leading at all.

Today, Trump’s determination to take the US out of the leadership game is forcing America’s allies and opponents to adjust and challenging them to take greater responsibility for their future security as well as prosperity. The world is at the beginning of an uneasy new normal, where leaders across the world are driven to adopt more proactive foreign policies in order to compensate for the loss of US leadership.

The Receding Tide of US Leadership

Many people’s worst fears of a Trump presidency have not come to pass. US troops remain forward-deployed in Eastern Europe, and US-Russia relations are frozen in an uneasy stand-off of mutual suspicion. The president has appointed national security cabinet members who understand the value of NATO, and he has grudgingly committed his administration to uphold Article 5 of the Atlantic Alliance. He has re-engaged with traditional allies in the Middle East. He has not imposed the swingeing unilateral trade measures against China that he promised during his campaign.

Even in those areas where the president has taken radical steps–on climate change, the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) on Iran’s nuclear program, or Jerusalem – his dramatic public announcements disguise a near-term continuity and leave room for maneuvering. His choice of method for withdrawing the US from the Paris agreement on climate change extends US adherence to the end of his presidential term. His “non-certification” of the Iran deal transfers responsibility for deciding whether to abandon the agreement to an already overloaded US Congress. His statement recognizing Jerusalem as the capital of Israel and embassy move will not occur for another three years–also around the end of his first presidential term.

On the other hand, these ambiguities cannot disguise the fact that the Trump administration has accelerated the shift from the US being a committed, if imperfect world leader to being a more explicitly self-interested superpower. His mantra of “America First” is a declaration that the US will relinquish its core role of leading the world by example.

The Trump administration’s approach to regulation (or de-regulation), whether on the environment, financial supervision or corporate transparency in developing countries, appears designed to create market advantage for US firms versus their international competitors. This has meant the US relinquishing its role as the driver of a new wave of international liberalization of trade and investment–specifically through the Obama administration’s proposed Trans-Pacific Partnership and Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership. They would have generated a common rise in standards on issues such as public procurement, intellectual property protection, labor standards and internet governance across two of the largest regional marketplaces in the world.

Similarly, Trump has removed the US from its role as a promoter of better domestic governance and democracy. His most successful visits have been with authoritarian leaders who offer the best opportunities to secure economic benefit for the US. Trump’s references in his first speech to the UN General Assembly in September about the primacy of strong sovereign nations with different values and different dreams being able to “coexist … on the basis of mutual respect” could easily have been delivered by Chinese President Xi Jinping.

Trump supporters would counter that his administration is now simply playing the same hard ball as everyone else, and that far from all Americans benefited from the liberal, open market approach of his predecessors. This may be true, but under his leadership, America is returning to the role it played in the mid-1930s, when its beggar-thy-neighbor domestic policies contributed to the rise of authoritarian governments around the world—and ultimately to a second world war.

Ripple Effects

History may rhyme, but it rarely repeats itself, as the saying goes. So how are other countries reacting to the return of a brutally realist outlook in the White House? There are three groups to consider.

First, this has been an especially difficult year for US allies in Europe who see themselves as America’s traditional partners in upholding the liberal international order. Some European leaders, most notably German Chancellor Angela Merkel and, to a certain extent, French President Emmanuel Macron, have sought to pick up the baton of liberal leadership. A majority, including the British, are trying to look beyond the personality of the occupant of the White House and focus on sustaining the many other channels of transatlantic cooperation, including with the US Congress. Some European leaders, mostly but not all in political opposition, even welcome Trump’s ascendancy.

Wherever one stands on this spectrum, it is possible to argue that Trump has had a positive effect on Europe. Concerns over the US becoming a security insurance policy of last resort and Britain’s imminent withdrawal from the EU have forced serious steps towards higher defense spending and deeper EU defense integration. Europeans are also being drawn into a more serious debate about Iran’s destabilizing effects across the Middle East, rather than just focusing on the importance of protecting the JCPOA and hoping for the best after the plan’s expiry. They are ramping up their security relationships and presence in the Sahel, a region that matters greatly to Europe and less to the US. And the EU has completed its Economic Partnership Agreement with Japan and is seeking a mandate to begin free trade negotiations with Australia and New Zealand.

These initiatives will continue to face obstacles and expose the distinct priorities and sometimes divergent interests of EU member states. Many would prefer simply to turn inwards and focus on fixing themselves after the trials and tribulations of the European financial crisis. The White House’s nationalist discourse, actively promoted across Europe by its ideological champions and financial backers among the “alt-right” movement, could exacerbate those differences. But there is no doubt that Trump is having a catalyzing effect on efforts to create a more autonomous Europe in international affairs.

Stepping In: China and Russia

A second group to consider are America’s main challengers for leadership around the world: most prominently China and Russia. In many ways, they are the main beneficiaries at this stage of America’s withdrawal from global leadership.

President Xi has been quick to step into the leadership vacuum, from his pro-globalization speech a year ago in Davos to hosting a major international conference last May on the Belt and Road Initiative. With US domestic politics in turmoil following Trump’s election, and the same in Britain following the Brexit decision, China’s soft power among its neighbors and the wider world is rising by default. The Chinese are looking for ways to exploit their new-found influence, whether in UN bodies or on international debates such as over regulating the internet.

In the absence of a US strategy for the Middle East, Vladimir Putin has doubled down on his military intervention in Syria and is now deepening relations with Egypt and Saudi Arabia. He can also stir up European popular discontent in order to weaken the EU with no fear of US retaliation. And he takes every opportunity to demonstrate equivalence between Russia’s amorally self-interested approach to international affairs and that of the United States under Trump.

At the same time, however, America’s more selective engagement in regional conflicts will lessen the options for low-cost Russian interference. The case of Syria shows that if Russia wants to play a more active role in the Middle East, it will have to bear the financial, security, and reputational costs itself. The same can be said for China’s growing military presence in the South China Sea and its broader neighborhood. If China is now seen as Asia’s regional hegemon, this will create opportunities for the US to play the role of counter-weight, much as China has done while the US has been in the dominant position.

An Inevitable Adjustment

The third group of countries are those that lack the protection of a strong regional institution and that still depend individually on the United States for their security. They include countries that are part of the broader democratic “West,” like Japan and South Korea, as well as some non-democratic countries now experimenting with more representative forms of governance and more inclusive models of economic growth, like Saudi Arabia. They are the most vulnerable in this more barren international landscape, where US protection from dangerous neighbors is increasingly conditional as well as unpredictable.

Like the Europeans, these US allies are being forced to build up their defense capabilities and rely more on their own diplomatic agility, including by triangulating their foreign policy beyond the US to the world’s other major powers. This is a less safe geopolitical space for these countries to inhabit; the fate of their economic and physical security is tied as much to their leaders’ personal chemistry, or lack thereof, with President Trump as to America’s formal security commitments, whose credibility had already come into question during the Obama administration.

It was inevitable that this adjustment from a period of US global leadership would happen at some point, and it seems unlikely that there will be a return to the status quo. The net result is that no country in the world has the luxury any more to free-ride on what has become a decaying American hegemony.

Hinge points in 2018

When all is said and done, it will be healthy for allies to escape their over-dependency on the United States. Although poll numbers continue to fluctuate, much of America’s population has become at best more ambivalent and at worst increasingly resentful of playing such a costly leadership role on the international stage.

But if other countries must take greater responsibility for their futures, this will pose new challenges, some of which will come to bear in 2018.

First, negotiations over Britain’s departure from the EU must not fall into a “cliff-edge” Brexit, with no clear sense of what the country’s future relationship will be with the EU. This should be economically and geopolitically self-evident for the British, although it might not seem so by the quality of the domestic British debate. But nor can the EU afford to lose the UK into a “splendid isolation” off the edge of the European continent, while grappling at the same time with a more anti-EU United States. Finding a resolution to its relations with the UK is largely in the EU’s gift, whereas this is not the case with the US.

If the two sides can arrive at a compromise, the EU may evolve into the UK’s second special relationship. And the prospects for a more strategically autonomous Europe could improve, with the UK committed to the security of its European neighbors through NATO and more comfortable with its post-Brexit security relationship with the EU, and with its EU neighbors more willing to integrate their security capabilities through EU institutions without British obstructionism.

Learn To Do Without US Leadership

This will also be the year where other nations need to demonstrate that coalitions of the willing can drive positive change on issues of global importance, even without US leadership. The successful follow-on summit to the Paris climate change agreement that President Macron held in Paris in December 2017 has shown that leading governments, working in tandem with major multinational corporations and international NGOs, can on occasion mobilize political and public action towards shared goals in the absence of US leadership.

On a more negative note, there is a high risk that US efforts to re-negotiate aspects of its key trading relationships, whether with Canada and Mexico in NAFTA or with China, will fail in 2018. With Congressional mid-term elections due in November, President Trump will be tempted to take unilateral action to demonstrate to his political base the seriousness of his intent to re-draw America’s terms of trade with some of its major partners. The EU, Japan, China, and others will have to work hard either to avoid this outcome or demonstrate that they can hold meaningful plurilateral and bilateral trade negotiations without US engagement.

The other wild card for 2018, of course, will remain North Korea. Here, there is no escaping the centrality of the US in any solution or, at least, the avoidance of a major escalation. But it would be far healthier in the future if the US administration could focus on critical questions of this sort, rather than having to apply its diplomatic time and capital simultaneously towards multiple other stand-offs where regional actors could play more constructive roles.

In the end, the rest of the world cannot and should not wait for the US to keep the world safe. Each country, each actor of scale–nationally, regionally, internationally–needs to step up to its own set of responsibilities as a beneficial stakeholder in the current system of international prosperity and relative stability that America has played such a central role in building.