As Trump disengages from the world, Europe and others can take the lead

Frankly Speaking

Picture of Shada Islam
Shada Islam

Managing Director at New Horizons Project

America’s retreat is an opportunity


The new President of the United States, Donald Trump, is upending liberal democracy, spreading ‘alternative facts’ and smashing civilised values.

The loss of US leadership in championing democracy and human rights is worrying. But America’s retreat from the global stage is also an opportunity for others to craft a different vision for living together in the 21st century.

As Trump puts ‘America first’ and disengages from the world, other nations must take the lead in fashioning more inclusive societies, rethinking global governance, reforming and galvanising multilateral institutions and creating new networks and coalitions.

Europe can and should be at the forefront. It can do so by rebuilding its fractured unity but also by revamping and reinforcing its still-fragile global profile. Given the rapidity with which Trump is enacting his campaign promises there is little time to lose.

The European Union’s response should be in three steps.

First, EU leaders should use their forthcoming summit in Valetta to take a hard look at just how Europe is going to conduct itself in the Trump era.

Second, the EU must rethink its stance on refugees and immigration, its trade and aid policies, and its relations with key emerging powers – including Russia and China, which have markedly divergent views on Trump.

And third, ahead of the Treaty of Rome anniversary on 25 March and elections in the Netherlands, France, Germany and possibly Italy, Europe’s mainstream democratic parties must work harder to forge a new and inspirational narrative to counter populist rhetoric and reconnect with citizens.

America’s retreat from the global stage is an opportunity for others to craft a different vision for living together in the 21st century

The EU must act quickly. The German Chancellor, Angela Merkel, has already told Trump that the war on terrorism is not an adequate reason to renege on the 1951 Geneva Convention, which requires signatories to help people fleeing from conflict.

The Valetta summit should go further. It should send an even stronger message to the new American administration on the ‘Muslim ban’ and other controversial edicts of the last few weeks.

If it is to be taken seriously, however, the EU must practice what it preaches and stop EU leaders who are also spreading anti-Muslim and anti-migrant hate and fear.

Individual EU governments and leaders who think they can forge bilateral bonds with Washington should learn from the British Prime Minister, Theresa May. Even holding the President’s hand and showering him with compliments is no guarantee he will spare you major embarrassment just hours later.

EU policymakers are also well advised to bury the illusion that Trump’s appointments will be more Euro-friendly than their boss.

For further proof, European leaders should listen carefully to Trump’s likely pick for ambassador to the EU, Ted Malloch. He told the BBC that he was looking forward to being in Brussels because he had previously “helped bring down the Soviet Union. So maybe there’s another union that needs a little taming.”

Time must not be lost in rethinking Europe’s refugee, migration, trade, aid and foreign and security policies.

Certainly, all European nations should meet the NATO commitment to spend two percent of gross domestic product on defence. But the EU’s global security strategy, adopted last summer, needs to be revised to take account of new geopolitical realities triggered by Trump’s isolationism.

EU leaders should now grab the opportunity to grow up, and morph Europe into a global actor in its own right

The EU is certainly on the right track. The last few years have seen Europe stepping up its engagement in Asia, Africa, Latin America and the Middle East, even though discord remains on key issues, such as relations with Russia.

Significantly, as President Trump moves to make the his country more insular, transactional, and narrowly interest-driven – saying the US will buy American and hire American – China has set up stall as the defender of economic globalisation and free world trade. As Chinese President Xi Jinping warned at the Davos World Economic Forum last month, “No one will emerge as a winner in a trade war”.

And as Trump pulled the US out of the Trans-Pacific Partnership trade agreement, Australian Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull made clear he was ready to press on with the TPP with China, rather than US, at the centre.

Others are also stepping into the space being vacated by America. When Trump signed an executive order known as the ‘global gag rule’, withholding US government funding from aid groups that perform or promote abortions, the Dutch and Belgian governments said they would help set up an international abortion fund.

The EU has so far been more than happy to play second fiddle to the US, shadowing Washington on most international issues, and waiting for the US to make up its mind before taking a stance.

But all has changed. EU leaders should now grab the opportunity to grow up, and morph Europe into a global actor in its own right.

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