Trump must make clear US role on world stage
US president’s first overseas trip has only caused friction between his country and its most important allies in Europe over issues ranging from climate change to globalisation
The fallout from the discordant European leg of US President Donald Trump’s first major overseas trip continues to reverberate in capitals around the world. It is difficult to exaggerate its potential geopolitical significance. German Chancellor Angela Merkel, referring to Trump’s abrasive diplomacy in all but name, said that based on her experience during the previous few days, the United States was no longer a reliable partner and that Europe should “take our fate into our own hands”.
This assessment signals a potentially seismic shift in trans-Atlantic alliances, seen as fundamental to world order, that have prevailed for more than 60 years. She was prompted to make it by Trump’s failure to endorse a number of common security and economic positions, most notably the core Nato doctrine of collective defence, which has only ever been invoked after the September 11, 2001 attacks on the US, or to maintain US commitment to the Paris climate accord. Trump, it must be said, hailed “extraordinary gains” on trade and security not only on visits to Saudi Arabia and Israel, but to Nato and the G7, where he “laid out my vision for economic growth and fair trade”.
Nowhere was this rhetorical disconnect between the US and its European allies more apparent than on climate change in a meeting of the Group of Seven major economies. “It’s six against one,” Merkel said. Trump has tweeted a promise that he will make a final decision this week on whether the US will honour the Paris accord in which nations agreed to try to curb their greenhouse emissions.
I will make my final decision on the Paris Accord next week!
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) May 27, 2017
The US has been pivotal to the post-war global economic and security architecture. Now, on the defining issues of the times such as climate change, European security and free trade, the US projects doubt that long-standing allies can count on it any longer for anything. In an understatement, US officials said Trump had changed the way many people were thinking about America’s goals and priorities.
That said, recently elected French President Emmanuel Macron conveyed a less downbeat impression after his first meeting with his US counterpart, expressing confidence that multilateralism was intact and that a shared vision prevailed. He said Trump had listened to arguments on climate change. But Merkel, in pre-election mode, was unpersuaded, saying the Paris accord was central to globalisation.
Speculation about Trump’s motives behind non-commitment includes using it as leverage in negotiations on other issues and avoiding foreign military intervention. The question of whether Europe can continue to rely on him awaits unambiguous, coherent clarification. Meanwhile the doubt enhances Chinese – and German – leadership on globalisation and climate change.