As the great powers keep on leaning towards nationalist and unilateralist positions, the world becomes an increasingly polarised – and thus more dangerous – place. It is no surprise for countries like China to question the international status quo, built by Western powers (read: US) after World War II.
After all, it is the only country challenging the American role as sole superpower, and it has quite different economic, political, social, and cultural views and structures – quite different interests, to sum up – than those of the West.
Russia, on the other hand, might only be considered a great power in military terms – but it is also challenging international order on a daily basis, as it continuously quarrels with Europeans and Americans in order to reaffirm its power and influence, at least in the Eurasian region. What comes as a surprise, though, is Trump’s America joining – some even may say heading – this group determined to re-shape the international order; a rules-based, multilateral, and liberal order shaped, in fact, by America itself.
The 2017 NATO Summit was the first one for newly elected President Trump. It provided him with the first chance to lecture his allies, illustrating the new American stance towards multilateralism. However, one of the most remembered images of those days, if not the most defining one of them all, is the one with President Trump pushing Montenegro’s PM aside, in order to be at the centre of the picture. A show of force and power to make clear who is in charge, quite indicative of what would be the new policy line of the – for the moment – most powerful country on Earth.
Yesterday, the EU and the US agreed to stop the commercial escalation started by President Trump and his steel and aluminium tariffs. Further tensions and countermeasures, which had already been prepared by both sides, have come to a halt, but mistrust towards the unpredictability of Trump’s America will last. The very fact that the President of the European Commission had to travel to Washington expressly to address this issue with President Trump – managing to then strike a deal after a three-hour meeting – proves that the American stance on foreign relations has completely changed.
Since President Trump took office, the American policy on multilateralism has been tough to say the least: criticism on the UN, NATO, and WTO have been constant, with even some hints of the US leaving them. Under President Trump, America has already exited the UN Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization (UNESCO), and the UN Human Rights Council (UNHRC), as well as several multilateral treaties such as the Paris Agreement, the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP), or the Iran nuclear deal (JCPOA).
Based on a zero-sum conception of international relations, President Trump’s stance is to look after what he perceives to be the immediate interests of the US in all fields, including climate, security, or, especially, trade.
The view of international relations – especially international trade – as a cake in which a bigger portion shrinks the others is wrong; it has been thoroughly proven that globalisation and international trade actually make that cake bigger. The problem is that they do so slowly, on a long-term, global basis, which inevitably generates winners and losers. The effects of attacking international trade are also long-term: erosion of confidence and trust among institutions, investors and businesses make economic growth slow down or even decrease.
Thus, while the global percentage of people living in poverty is three times smaller now than in 1990, thanks to the growth of middle classes in developing countries, globalisation has affected in a mainly negative way the middle classes of the developed countries. This layer of Western societies has seen low-value-added jobs fleeing to developing countries, were they are much less paid – and they are not coming back.
In addition, many feel their cultural identity threatened by multi-culturalism. Combined, it all contributes to the widespread conception that the rest of the world is taking advantage of America – or Britain, or France, or the Netherlands –, while the governing elite fails to put the interests of their nationals first.
If we add to this the increasing inequality in wealth distribution, it is not difficult to guess what is behind the wave of populism and anti-establishment messages across the West: fear not to matter anymore. That fear, or anger, drove, to a large extent, events like the election of Donald Trump. In the global scene, it translates into the rough shift of American foreign policy from multilateralism to unilateralism.
On the other hand, outside the West – and even within the West in some cases – autocracy is on the rise. The leaders of China and Russia have managed to ensure decades-long mandates, putting into practice an assertive, force-based foreign policy in issues such as South China Sea or Ukraine. This trend seems unlikely to change in the near future, and the possibility of new confrontation fields among global powers is increasing (Arctic, space, etc.).
The international arena is rapidly turning into a multi-polar system of powers (US, EU, China and Russia), with powerful regional actors developing (Brazil, India), and Africa facing a huge demographic boom in the coming decades. The West, and European countries within it, will be less and less significant in the global scene in demographic, economic, and military terms. Meanwhile, the challenges of this century will test this new global configuration: climate change, energy security, economic relations, spheres of influence, migration flows, etc.
Now that the US cannot be expected to lead a rules-based order, it is time for the EU to fill that void and propel multilateral approaches to all these challenges, ensuring that international organisations and agreements remain as the primary way to address them. It is certain that global powers will gain weight in international relations for the decades to come, but a rules-based order must be ensured to avoid a further force-based one, in which international norms are applied only whenever it is convenient for powers.
It is the only way to properly address the challenges ahead without increasing geopolitical tension, and the EU should use its role as ‘normative power’ in fields such as climate, trade, or cybersecurity, in which it has already proven to set trends (Paris Agreement, IUU Regulation, GDPR, multiple free trade agreements recently signed). Helping strengthen – and improve – organisations such as the UN or WTO, and protecting citizens from the adverse effects of globalisation (digital education, R+D investment, etc.) should also be a priority.
However, in order to do that, the EU must urgently overcome its own internal challenges, which are the biggest obstacle for it to assume more responsibility: the East-West divide, brawls over migration, and lack of further integration in economy, energy, or even foreign policy, hamper the global role of the Union.
This global scenario with the EU acting as a major political, economic and military power is despised by Russia, and it is not well regarded in China – maybe not even in the US. All these powers would rather have 27 small and medium European countries striving to influence global decisions, so it is on Europe’s hands to assume this global role.
US President Donald Trump recently addressed the EU as a ‘foe’ to his country, at least in commercial terms. He doesn’t seem to have so much reluctance towards Russia, regarding his last meeting with President Putin. Before that, he had given his European allies a hard time in the 2018 NATO Summit, after which he even hinted the US would not defend an ally such as ‘tiny’ Montenegro in the event of an attack.
The response of the Montenegrin government was quite clarifying on the global scenario: “In today’s world, it does not matter how big or small you are, but to what extent you cherish the values of freedom, solidarity and democracy”.