Donald Trump shakes postwar liberal order

President-elect challenges bipartisan principles that underpin US approach to the world

by: Gideon Rachman

As far as America’s allies are concerned, the election of Donald Trump is a case of Apocalypse Now.

Whatever they say publicly, for the governments of countries such as Canada, Japan, Germany, Britain and the Baltic states of Estonia, Lithuania and Latvia, it is simply horrifying to have a man such as Mr Trump as “leader of the free world”.

The fear of Mr Trump is linked both to his personality and to his policies. For people around the world who have looked to the US as the leading democracy, it is astonishing that the country has elected a president who has displayed such little respect for basic democratic norms, such as the legitimacy of political opposition, the rights of minorities and the independence of the judiciary.

Some even fear that the US has just elected a quasi-fascist as its next leader. The thought that Mr Trump will soon be in charge of the world’s largest nuclear arsenal is also alarming to many American allies.

Mr Trump’s proposed policies threaten to take an axe to the liberal world order that the US has supported and sustained since 1945. In particular, he has challenged two of the main bipartisan principles that underpin America’s approach to the world. The first is support for an open, international trading system. The second is the commitment to the US-led alliances that underpin global security.
Mr Trump is the first avowed protectionist to be elected US president since before the second world war. He has promised to renegotiate America’s “terrible” trade deals, such as the North American Free Trade Agreement and threatened to pull the US out of the World Trade Organisation. He has also threatened tariffs as high as 45 per cent on Chinese goods. If Mr Trump were to follow through on these threats, he would spark a global trade war and could well plunge the world into a recession similar to the depression of the 1930s, which was greatly deepened by America’s adoption of protectionist policies.

Mr Trump’s effect on the global security system could be just as dramatic. The president-elect has questioned whether the US will honour its security commitments to Nato allies and to Japan and South Korea — unless these countries pay more for their own defence. American annoyance at “freeriding” by its allies is a bipartisan concern. What is new is Mr Trump’s overt questioning of the idea that the US will defend its allies from a military attack come what may. This equivocation — combined with Mr Trump’s open admiration for Vladimir Putin, the Russian president — will raise fears that the US will not oppose renewed Russian aggression in Ukraine or eastern Europe. Asian allies — in particular, Japan and South Korea — fear that Mr Trump’s “America First” policies could extend to accepting a Chinese sphere of influence in East Asia.

And yet, for all their undoubted horror at Mr Trump’s election, America’s European and Asian allies cannot simply turn their back on the US. That is even less of an option for the country’s neighbours, Mexico and Canada. US leadership is so deeply embedded in western institutions that alternative structures do not yet exist. The US is central to Nato and accounts for almost 75 per cent of its military spending. Crucial international institutions such as the UN, the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund are based in the US. The dollar is the world’s largest reserve currency and the US is the largest economy, measured at real exchange rates. For that reason, allies will grit their teeth and attempt to humour Mr Trump.

As one senior British diplomat puts it: “We will get on with the president of the United States — we have to.”

But while supporters of a liberal world order are quaking, opponents will be cheering. Nationalists and the far right in Europe will be delighted that an opponent of “globalism” will now occupy the White House. Marine Le Pen of the National Front will now fancy her chances of winning the French presidency in May, an event that could lead to the destruction of an EU already reeling from the Brexit vote.

The one government likely to be unequivocally delighted by Mr Trump’s victory is Mr Putin’s. The two men have already formed a mutual admiration society. According to the US intelligence services, Russian support for Mr Trump and the Republicans even extended to hacking the emails of the Democratic party and of John Podesta, Hillary Clinton’s campaign manager, and releasing these emails, via WikiLeaks, at strategic moments during the campaign. If this Russian intervention made the difference in a tight election, Mr Putin can toast the world’s most successful ever intelligence operation.

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