Trump's erratic foreign policy means the EU needs to step up


Picture of Fraser Cameron
Fraser Cameron

Director of the EU Asia Centre

Fraser Cameron is Director of the EU Asia Centre

There have been foul-mouthed bullies in the White House before but none has actively sought to dismantle the pillars of the post-1945 US-led international system.

Yet this is exactly what President Trump is doing by undermining the United States’ commitments to climate change, nuclear non-proliferation, NATO, the European Union, the World Trade Organization, TPP and longstanding treaty relationships with Japan and South Korea.

This is a president whose worldview is shaped by Fox News, the daily news cycle and his experience in real estate. More than a hundred leading Republican experts refused to work for Trump so there are very few capable officials briefing him or willing to stand up to him.

Make no mistake: the US remains the only real superpower with a global footprint and massive military and technological superiority over any other rival. However, Trump seems not to recognise this and instead focuses on blaming his predecessor for just about everything he judges wrong. The President’s foreign policy looks like ‘anything but Obama’, as reflected by his denouncements of TPP, climate change and the Iran Nuclear Deal.

The common thread is his unshakeable belief that he can do deals in his personal meetings with leaders. What is also striking on the US domestic front is the failure of Congress to act as one of the checks and balances. With the passing of John McCain, the liberal, internationalist wing of the Republican Party has vanished.

Trump’s ‘America First’ approach is based on the false premise that most other countries are taking advantage of American weaknesses

Trump’s ‘America First’ approach is based on the false premise that most other countries are taking advantage of American weaknesses. International institutions are another target of Trump who fails to recognise that they were essentially an American creation.

The credibility and trust of the US is eroding fast; the country has become something of a rogue state, and the uncertainty created by Trump has led to some strange re-alignments in global politics.

Meanwhile, the BRICS – Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa – have been given a new lease of life, as demonstrated in the recent summit in South Africa. China and Russia are cosying up in the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation and North Korea was threatened one minute and praised the next – allowing China to quietly pull the strings.

Trump has refused to criticise Putin, and to the astonishment of his G7 partners, proposed that Russia be readmitted to the G8. His performance at the Helsinki Summit in July, when he trashed his own intelligence services with Putin smirking at his side, is one of the most shameful episodes in American foreign policy.

China is perhaps the biggest winner from the Trumpian view of the world. Although it may suffer some short-term economic hits from increased US tariffs, Beijing also prefers a foreign policy based on deals and spheres of influence. Trump is not bothered about human rights in China and turns a blind eye to Chinese island-building activities in the South China Sea. This makes it more difficult for the EU and like-minded partners to continue pursuing a values-based foreign policy.

The EU – which Trump described as a foe – has also had to adjust. French President Emmanuel Macron and German Chancellor Angela Merkel have both stated that it was time for Europe to take on responsibility for its own security after experiencing Trump at the G7. Although Trump, like his predecessors, is arguably right to call out the EU on its lack of defence spending, none have been as blunt or threatening as the current president. The EU is finally becoming more serious about defence, but there is a long way to go.

One of the most interesting consequences of Trump’s foreign policy has been a rapprochement between the EU and Asia. The constant refrain from all Asian leaders in recent months is that they do not wish to see the current rules-based international system destroyed. ‘Hedging’ is now the name of the game. Asian leaders can no longer rely exclusively on ‘Uncle Sam’ and they do not wish to fall under the Chinese steamroller. There is thus a newfound enthusiasm for the EU as the principal defender of a rules-based order.

This was notably marked in the recent signing of the EU-Japan FTA. Prime Minister Abe – despite his multiple golf rounds with Trump – has concluded that it is not sensible to place all his eggs in the American basket and realised it is time to deepen relations with the largest trade bloc in the world. The FTA was complemented by a wide-ranging political agreement that should lead to closer foreign policy cooperation between the EU and Japan.

If Trump remains in the White House for a further six years there could be an even greater realignment of global politics

Remarkably, the July EU-China summit showed that Brussels and Beijing are more on the same page when it comes to Iran, climate change and preserving the UN system than with Washington. There are, of course, areas of disputes between the two. It also remains to be seen how China’s highly ambitious Belt and Road Initiative can be linked to the EU’s forthcoming policy on enhancing connectivity between Europe and Asia.

Federica Mogherini has seized an opening to present the EU as the defender of the rules-based order during her recent trip to Asia. The EU now has further opportunities to deepen EU-Asia ties when the biannual Asia-Europe Meeting is held in Brussels in October. Although connectivity will be top of the agenda, you can expect leaders to discuss how to deal with Trump in the corridors.

Mogherini has the full support of EU foreign ministers who recently agreed to enhance the EU’s security cooperation with Asia through intensified consultations, capacity building, training programmes and joint exercises. The EU is already working with ASEAN on sensitive issues of maritime security, cyber security and the prevention of violent extremism. Now the plan is to expand on this by engaging with Asia on common security challenges in and around Africa and the wider Middle East.

Trump’s foreign policy has led to many unintended consequences. If he remains in the White House for a further six years there could be an even greater realignment of global politics. The message for the EU is clear: it will have to take on more responsibility for not just its own security, but for the international community as well.

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