Four months into Donald Trump’s presidency, the sky has not fallen in on the system of global governance the U.S. did so much to construct since World War II. It is, however, in deep trouble.
Trump has not followed through on pre-election threats to declare the North Atlantic Treaty Organization obsolete, abandon the North American Free Trade Agreement, accept Russia’s annexation of Crimea or declare China a currency manipulator.
And yet, as he flew back to Washington at the weekend, Trump’s meetings with traditional U.S. allies during his nine-day tour of the Middle East and Europe appeared to leave them more, rather than less worried about the inventory of issues that caused such concern last November.
They emerged unsure of his commitment to NATO’s collective-defense principle, unclear as to his stance toward Russia, deeply concerned about his distrust of free-trade agreements and in suspense as to whether he’ll withdraw the U.S. from the 2015 Paris Agreement to slow climate change. Trump said in on Twitter he’d make the decision this week.
“We are not in good shape at all,” said Francois Heisbourg, a veteran analyst of the trans-Atlantic alliance and chairman of the International Institute for Strategic Studies. “In some ways it’s worse than I thought.” He described those as issues of Trump’s impetuous character and governance style.
German Chancellor Angela Merkel, a trans-Atlanticist who managed to get on well with former U.S. President George W. Bush when other continental Europeans could not, seemed especially despondent after spending three days with Trump, first at NATO and then a Group of Seven summit in Sicily.
“The times when we could fully rely on others are to some extent over — I experienced that in the last few days,” she told supporters at a campaign event in Munich on Sunday. “We Europeans must really take our destiny into our own hands.”
To be sure, for some allies, like the Arab Gulf States and Israel, Trump’s election is proving to be a win, delivering clear U.S. support in their rivalry with Iran. Saudi Arabia also struck a deal to buy more than $100 billion worth of U.S. arms and got a pass on its poor human rights record. Like Trump, these countries believe their relationship with the U.S. is recovering, after significant strain during the administration of former President Barack Obama.
However, the alliances and institutions the U.S. built with like-minded democracies fared less well.
“On the alliance front, we’re having to engage in permanent damage limitation. There clearly isn’t much we can do together,” said Heisbourg, dismissing Trump’s success last week in getting agreement to focus the alliance more on counter-terrorism. “NATO is as equipped to deal with counter-terrorism as the Vatican.”
At NATO, Trump omitted to clearly state his commitment to the alliance’s pledge of collective defense, known as Article 5, in a speech to commemorate it. While White House officials said the speech should be read as re-affirming his support, the encounter left allies still uncertain whether the U.S. would come to their aid if attacked.
As he watched footage of Trump’s meeting with Merkel, Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe and other G-7 leaders in Sicily while on Bloomberg television, Ian Bremmer, president of the risk consultancy Eurasia Group said he was witnessing “the first ever formal meeting of the G-zero.”
That’s a reference to Bremmer’s forecast that the familiar institutions of the liberal world order built by the U.S. and other democracies since World War II — the G-7 and G-20, NATO, the WTO and the European Union — will become dysfunctional and irrelevant.
Indeed, as the G-7 and NATO struggled just to hang together, arguing over trade late into the night and splitting six-to-one on climate change, China had just finished hosting a summit with about 30 nations to promote its One Belt, One Road initiative. Unlike the G-7, said Bremmer, that event had “real coordination, strategy and money behind it.” One Belt, One Road is a multi billion-dollar infrastructure building program to connect China’s producers with markets across the globe, at the same time boosting Chinese economic and political influence.
By contrast, Trump’s “America First” positions on trade and climate change led to concern among some of the allies he met in Brussels and Sicily that he risks abdicating the U.S. role as global leader and rule-maker to China. He has already pulled the U.S. out of negotiations on the Trans-Pacific Partnership trade deal, a strategic as well as economic measure aimed at binding other Pacific nations more closely to the U.S.; China was not invited.
Japan in particular pushed at the G-7 for a re-commitment to supporting a rules-based global order, whether on trade, freedom of navigation in the South China Sea, nuclear non-proliferation or climate change.
TRUMP DECLARES VICTORY
As he prepared to head back across the Atlantic, Trump brushed such concerns aside.
“We made historic gains to advance the prosperity and security of the United States and our allies,” he told U.S. troops at Naval Air Station Sigonella, Sicily, before flying back to Washington on Saturday. In his view, his first overseas tour as president had been “a home run.”
Trump’s aides recognize the need to build trust with European allies made skeptical by some of the campaign rhetoric that got him elected. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson and economic adviser Gary Cohn each told U.S. reporters during the trip that it was important for the president to travel to meet his counterparts face to face, to learn more about their expectations and the issues themselves.
Whether on relations with Muslims or climate change, the two Trump aides said, the 45th U.S. president is evolving.