The Western Crack-Up
By imposing tariffs on US allies and cozying up to brutal dictators such as North Korea's Kim Jong-un, US President Donald Trump is sowing deep mistrust within the West. But if Trump thinks a divide-and-rule strategy can "make America great again," he is in for a rude awakening.
MADRID – After the recent G7 summit in Quebec, there can no longer be any doubt that the West is in crisis. Yes, “Western” countries have often pursued divergent foreign policies (as illustrated by the Iraq War), and “the West” is itself a vague concept. But it is one that rests on a set of common ideological pillars, which are now crumbling under the weight of US President Donald Trump’s “America First” agenda.
Trump and his coreligionists’ incessant slandering of allies – “we cannot let our friends take advantage of us” – is leaving its mark. Putting aside his apparently unconditional support for Saudi Arabia and Israel, Trump seems prepared to destroy the essential strategic understanding that the US has long maintained vis-à-vis its allies.
Just a few years ago, it would have been unthinkable for the US to refuse to sign a joint G7 communiqué. Nor would anyone have thought that an American administration could attack a Canadian leader using the language that Trump and his trade adviser, Peter Navarro, recently directed at Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau.
After his summit with North Korean dictator Kim Jong-un in Singapore, Trump insisted that he has a “good relationship” with Trudeau. Yet he hastened to add that he also has “a very good relationship with Chairman Kim right now.” Suggesting that US relations with these two leaders are comparable is not just clumsy; it is absolutely foolish, and reflects a chilling lack of perspective on Trump’s part.
If bad manners were the only issue with the Trump administration, we could all rest easier. But that administration is also pursuing concrete policies that are undercutting America’s most important alliances. The US tariffs on steel and aluminum imports from Canada and the European Union made reaching a consensus at the recent G7 summit all but impossible.
Trump’ tariffs will hurt not only foreign exporters, but also US workers and firms in sectors that depend on steel and aluminum inputs. Yet Trump seems impervious to facts and economic logic. To justify his self-defeating policies, he cherry picks isolated cases such as Canada’s high tariffs on dairy products, presenting them without any context, while overlooking the fact that America’s weighted average tariff rate is actually higher than that of the EU, Japan, and Canada.
While the G7 summit was descending into mutual recrimination, another highly significant meeting was taking place on the other side of the world. In the Chinese city of Qingdao, the Shanghai Cooperation Organization – comprising China, India, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Pakistan, Russia, Tajikistan, and Uzbekistan – was holding its annual summit. And as the Communist Party of China’s main official newspaper took pleasure in noting, the encounter between Chinese President Xi Jinping and Russian President Vladimir Putin was far more cordial than the one between Trump and the other G7 leaders.
Understandably, Trump drew additional fire at the G7 summit when he suggested that the group readmit Russia, which was kicked out after its annexation of Crimea in 2014. Still, he was touching on something that can no longer be ignored: the excessive compartmentalization of geopolitical clubs. The fragmentation of global governance is likely to prove increasingly unfavorable to Western interests. Rather than recede toward isolation and diminished influence on the world stage, Western leaders should expand the scope and scale of cooperation in the search for solutions to global problems. To that end, they should promote forums for dialogue – such as the G20 – that bring together today’s major powers.
But Trump’s conciliatory approach toward Russia faces tall hurdles. Putin’s foreign policy has become increasingly hostile to Western security arrangements, and Trump’s relationship with the Kremlin has given rise to serious concerns, domestically and internationally. This has been exacerbated by his arrogance toward America’s European allies.
To be sure, after some hesitation, Trump did affirm his commitment to NATO’s mutual-defense clause last year. But that doesn’t mean tensions have dissipated: Trump has continued to demand that other NATO members increase their military spending. What Trump doesn’t seem to understand is that such spending increases would go not toward the NATO budget or toward paying America for its protection, but rather toward enhancing each country’s own defense capabilities.
In fact, the EU has already established the so-called Permanent Structured Cooperation to increase security and defense resources and use them in a collective – and thus more efficient – manner. The Trump administration should welcome such measures. And yet it seems to respond with skepticism to every joint initiative that the EU launches.
During the 2016 US presidential campaign, Trump supported the United Kingdom’s bid to withdraw from the EU. Since taking office, his administration has not hesitated to weaken the bloc whenever it can. Just a few days ago, Richard Grenell, the US ambassador to Germany, said that he is working to “empower other conservatives in Europe” – a clear departure from diplomatic protocol. Of course, the Europeans whom Trump and Grenell would support are not really conservatives, but reactionaries. Their goal is to reverse the progress that we Europeans have made in advancing our shared project.
Trump evidently feels more comfortable when he can engage with other countries bilaterally. It is little wonder that the EU – a bastion of multilateralism – is not to his liking. But Europe and America have always been most successful when they have supported each other, while operating within a framework of institutions based on shared norms. Trump’s preference for a divide-and-rule strategy produces a game that will create only losers, beginning with the West and ending with the world at large.
Why the G7 Is a Zero
Since its creation in the 1970s, the Group of Seven has become increasingly irrelevant in a world of new emerging powers. An institution that excludes the BRICs while still including economic basket cases like Italy cannot possibly claim the legitimacy required to exercise global economic leadership.
LONDON – Though US President Donald Trump’s appearance at the Group of Seven (G7) summit in Quebec last week was not particularly well received, I find myself sympathizing with his skepticism toward the group. I have long doubted that the annual meeting of leaders from Canada, France, Germany, Italy, Japan, the United Kingdom, and the United States serves any useful purpose.
Back in 2001, when I coined the BRIC acronym, I predicted that the growing economic importance of Brazil, Russia, India, and China would eventually require a significant change to global economic governance. At a minimum, I observed, global-governance bodies should include China, if not all of the BRICs.
At the same time, I pointed out that there was little reason for France, Germany, and Italy to be represented individually, given that they share a currency, a monetary policy, and a framework for fiscal policy (at least in principle). And I questioned whether Canada and the UK should still be included among the world’s most important economies.
It has now been 17 years, and the G7 is still serving little other purpose than to keep its member states’ civil servants busy. Yes, it still comprises the seven Western democracies with the largest economies, but barely so. At this point, Canada’s economy is not much bigger than Australia’s, and Italy’s is only slightly bigger than Spain’s.
The G7 is an artifact of a bygone era. In the 1970s, when the G5 was expanded to include Canada and Italy, the new grouping really did dominate the world economy. Japan was booming, and many expected it to catch up to the US; Italy was growing, and nobody was thinking about China. But this year, China is projected to overtake the entire eurozone. And at its current rate of growth, it will effectively create a new economy the size of Italy in less than two years. Moreover, India’s GDP is already larger than Italy’s, and crisis-ridden Brazil is not far behind.
In other words, the only global legitimacy that the G7 can claim is that it represents a few major democracies. But 85% of the increase in world GDP (in US dollars) since 2010 has come from the US and China, and nearly 50% from China alone. Another 6% has come from India, while the dollar value of the Japanese and EU economies has actually declined.
In light of these realities, the G7 would be much more relevant if Canada, France, Germany, and Italy were replaced by China, India, and a single delegation representing the eurozone. But, of course, there is already a body that represents the current G7 countries as well as the BRICs: the G20, which was formed 1999.
Since its first formal summit in 2008, the G20 has served a clear purpose as a forum for the world’s leading economies. For any smaller club to be justified, it must have the same legitimacy as the G20. Representing the democracies that had the largest economies in the 1970s is no longer good enough. After all, India and Brazil also have functioning democracies, and could soon become more prosperous than France and the UK.
Trump provoked outrage when he demanded last week that the G7 re-incorporate Russia, which was kicked out following Russian President Vladimir Putin’s 2014 annexation of Crimea. But it is worth asking what global challenges the current G7 is even capable of addressing, outside of narrow economic issues. From terrorism to nuclear proliferation to climate change, there are hardly any issues that can be solved without the help of non-G7 countries. And though the Western media depicted Trump as the black sheep of the summit, Italy, too, now has a government that favors rapprochement with Russia.
The recent G7 circus has added to the impression that Western policymakers are incapable of getting a grip on some of the world’s most pressing issues. To be sure, global financial markets showed little concern about the disarray in Quebec last weekend. But, among other things, that may simply reflect the fact that the G7 no longer matters.
Looking ahead, it is clear that the G20 offers a better global-governance forum than does the G7 in its current state. Although a greater number of participants makes it harder to reach a viable consensus, it is also much more representative. Most important, the G20 includes the countries that will be indispensable for solving global problems now and in the future.
That said, a smaller, representative group of countries could still have a future role to play alongside the G20. But only if it is properly conceived. To that end, the world’s leading think tanks should start offering specific ideas about the future of global governance. For my part, I will look forward to leading the charge when I assume the chairmanship of Chatham House next month.
Trump’s Gift to China
In just the past few months, Donald Trump has taken a wrecking ball to the US-led post-war order and many of America's most important alliances. But it is worth remembering that Trump is merely a symptom of a much larger historical realignment that will continue long after he is gone.
BERLIN – It is now clear that the twenty-first century is ushering in a new world order. As uncertainty and instability associated with that process spread around the globe, the West has responded with either timidity or nostalgia for older forms of nationalism that failed in the past and certainly will not work now.
Even to the most inveterate optimist, the G7 summit in Quebec earlier this month was proof that the geopolitical West is breaking up and losing its global significance, and that the great destroyer of that American-created and American-led order is none other than the US president. To be sure, Donald Trump is more a symptom than a cause of the West’s disintegration. But he is accelerating the process dramatically.
The roots of Western malaise can be traced back to the end of the Cold War, when a bipolar world order gave way to economic globalization, allowing for the emergence of new powers such as China. In the ensuing decades, America has apparently come to regard its longstanding alliances as more of a burden than an asset.
This applies not just to Europe, Japan, and South Korea, but also to America’s immediate neighbors, Canada and Mexico. Trump’s decision to impose tariffs on imported steel and aluminum left the US and Canada deeply divided at the Quebec summit, and their split over trade is certain to have much broader political implications.
Europe and the North Atlantic dominated the global economy for four centuries. Not anymore. And the new geography of power implied by the shift in the world’s economic center of gravity from the transatlantic region toward the Asia-Pacific region does not conform to the conceptual map of twentieth-century – let alone nineteenth-century – geopolitics.
Though the US remains the world’s leading superpower, China has emerged as both a new and ancient geopolitical force. With a population of 1.4 billion people and an enormous domestic market, China is already challenging the US as the world’s economic, political, and technological leader.
Anyone who has ever visited the corridors of power in Beijing knows that Chinese leaders have their own map of the world. On it, China – the “Middle Kingdom” – lies at the center, while Europe and the US drop off the left and right sides, respectively. In other words, the US and Europe – that odd miscellany of small and medium-size nation-states – are already divided and consigned to the margins.
The US initially reacted to this century’s geopolitical changes intuitively, with a “pivot to Asia.” But America has long had a presence in both the Atlantic and the Pacific; and, as the last remaining global power, it is in a position to anticipate historic geopolitical changes in such a way as to guard its own interests.
Europe, on the other hand, has been sleepwalking through today’s historical interregnum. Europeans have concerned themselves largely with introspection, ancient animosities, and sweet dreams of the nineteenth century, when they still ruled the world. And that narrow outlook has been reinforced by events such as Trump’s election and the United Kingdom’s Brexit referendum.
Still, rather than dwell on Trump’s bizarre behavior, we would do well to remember that today’s global developments predate his presidency. The “pivot to Asia,” after all, was inaugurated by former US President Barack Obama. Trump has merely carried it forward, most recently by meeting with North Korean leader Kim Jong-un in Singapore.
Insofar that Trump’s policies pose serious risks, it is not because they represent a strategic reorientation for the US, which was happening anyway, but rather because they are self-contradictory and unnecessarily destructive. For example, when Trump calls for a reduction in US military involvement in the Middle East, he is merely echoing Obama.
Yet by reneging on the nuclear deal with Iran, Trump has made war in the region more likely. And by going out of his way to alleviate North Korea’s international isolation, while getting almost nothing in return, he has strengthened China’s position in East Asia.
Trump’s global trade war is equally self-defeating. By slapping tariffs on America’s closest allies, he is practically driving them into China’s arms. If European and Japanese exporters are facing protectionist barriers in the US, what other option do they have than tapping the Chinese market? Despite Russian President Vladimir Putin’s militarism in Eastern Ukraine and efforts to influence the outcome of Western elections, a Europe without its North Atlantic backstop has no choice but to turn toward Eurasia.
Moreover, even without US protectionism, Japan was going to have to accommodate China’s growing economic power sooner or later. The last chance to contain the Chinese heavyweight disappeared when Trump scrapped the Trans-Pacific Partnership, which would have created a US-led Pacific Rim bulwark against China.
The “pivot to Asia” will thus play out very differently on each side of the Atlantic. In the absence of joint US-EU policies to maintain transatlantic cohesion, the West will quickly become a thing of the past. With the US looking westward across the Pacific, and Europe looking eastward toward Eurasia, China will be the sole winner. The real strategic danger of the Trump era, then, is not merely that the global order is changing. It is that Trump’s policies are guaranteed to “Make China great again.”
The Double Threat to Liberal Democracy
Illiberal democracy – or populism – is not the only political menace confronting Western countries. Liberal democracy is also being undermined by a tendency to emphasize “liberal” at the expense of “democracy.”
CAMBRIDGE – The crisis of liberal democracy is roundly decried today. Donald Trump’s presidency, the Brexit vote in the United Kingdom, and the electoral rise of other populists in Europe have underscored the threat posed by “illiberal democracy” – a kind of authoritarian politics featuring popular elections but little respect for the rule of law or the rights of minorities.
But fewer analysts have noted that illiberal democracy – or populism – is not the only political threat. Liberal democracy is also being undermined by a tendency to emphasize “liberal” at the expense of “democracy.” In this kind of politics, rulers are insulated from democratic accountability by a panoply of restraints that limit the range of policies they can deliver. Bureaucratic bodies, autonomous regulators, and independent courts set policies, or they are imposed from outside by the rules of the global economy.
In his new and important book The People vs. Democracy, the political theorist Yascha Mounk calls this type of regime– in apt symmetry with illiberal democracy – “undemocratic liberalism”. He notes that our political regimes have long stopped functioning like liberal democracies and increasingly look like undemocratic liberalism.
The European Union perhaps represents the apogee of this tendency. The establishment of a single market and monetary unification in the absence of political integration has required delegation of policy to technocratic bodies such as the European Commission, the European Central Bank, and the European Court of Justice. Decision-making increasingly takes place at considerable distance from the public. Even though Britain is not a member of the eurozone, the Brexiteers’ call to “take back control” captured the frustration many European voters feel.
The United States has experienced nothing quite like this, but similar trends have made many people feel disenfranchised. As Mounk notes, policymaking is the province of an alphabet soup of regulatory bodies – from the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) to the Food and Drug Administration (FDA). Independent courts’ use of their prerogative of judicial review to promote civil rights, expand reproductive freedom, and introduce many other social reforms have encountered hostility among considerable segments of the population. And the rules of the global economy, administered through international arrangements such as the World Trade Organization (WTO) or the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA), are widely perceived as being rigged against ordinary workers.
The value of Mounk’s book is to highlight the importance of both of liberal democracy’s constitutive terms. We need restraints on the exercise of political power to prevent majorities (or those in power) from riding roughshod over the rights of minorities (or those not in power). But we also need public policy to be responsive and accountable to the preferences of the electorate.
Liberal democracy is inherently fragile because reconciling its terms does not produce a natural political equilibrium. When elites have sufficient power, they have little interest in reflecting the preferences of the public at large. When the masses mobilize and demand power, the resulting compromise with the elites rarely produces sustainable safeguards to protect the rights of those not represented at the bargaining table. Thus, liberal democracy has a tendency to deteriorate into one or the other of its perversions – illiberal democracy or undemocratic liberalism.
In our paper “The Political Economy of Liberal Democracy,” Sharun Mukand and I discuss the underpinnings of liberal democracy in terms similar to those Mounk uses. We emphasize that societies are divided by two potential cleavages: an identity split that separates a minority from the ethnic, religious, or ideological majority, and a wealth gap that pits the rich against the rest of society.
The depth and alignment of these divisions determine the likelihood of various political regimes. The possibility of liberal democracy is always undercut by illiberal democracy at one end and what we call “liberal autocracy” at the other, depending on whether the majority or the elite retain the upper hand.
Our framework helps to highlight the fortuitous circumstances under which liberal democracy emerges. In the West, liberalism preceded democracy: separation of powers, freedom of expression, and the rule of law were already in place before elites agreed to expand the franchise and submit to popular rule. The “tyranny of the majority” remained a major concern for elites, and was countered in the US, for example, with an elaborate system of checks and balances, effectively paralyzing the executive for a long time.
Elsewhere, in the developing world, popular mobilization occurred in the absence of a liberal tradition or liberal practices. Liberal democracy was rarely a sustainable outcome. The only exceptions seem to be relatively egalitarian and highly homogeneous nation-states such as South Korea, where there are no obvious social, ideological, ethnic, or linguistic divisions for autocrats of either kind – illiberal or undemocratic – to exploit.
Today’s developments in Europe and the US suggest the vexing possibility that liberal democracy may have been a passing phase there as well. As we rue liberal’s democracy’s crisis, let us not forget that illiberalism is not the only threat that confronts it. We must find a way around the pitfalls of insufficient democracy as well.