Trump is dismantling the liberal world order. What can countries do to preserve it?
In a matter of a week, President Donald J. Trump has managed to anger some of America’s closest allies and cozy up to one of its most intransigent enemies. During the G7 Summit in Quebec, Canada, the putative leader of the free world was at his combative best, undermining much of the agenda, refusing even to attend a meeting on climate change and ultimately pulling his name off the end of summit communique. After leaving the summit, he fired off virulent tweets calling Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau “dishonest” and “weak”. Two days later, Trump was in Singapore shaking hands with North Korean strongman Kim Jong-un. After the meeting, he called Kim “very smart” and “tough”, accolades critics say have legitimized an authoritarian leader accused of massive human rights violations. Is Trump on the path to destroying the existing world order?
►The U.S. President appears to be on a mission to make friends with America’s enemies and make enemies of its friends. What do you make of this?
In fact, it seems Mr. Trump does not distinguish between what we think of as his traditional allies and what we think of as his rivals or enemies. He seems to have a mindset that tends to perceive the United States as being alone and interacting with all other countries in the world in ways it sees appropriate, which is not the way we are used to conducting international politics. In international politics, we have groupings of countries where some are closer to each other and communicate more frequently so as to work and do things together. They try to iron out differences without having a falling out, especially a public one. Mr. Trump simply doesn’t seem to fit the mold of an ordinary political leader with an understanding of how to conduct international politics the way we have been used to conducting international politics. I think Mr. Trump is just a unique breed that we have to get used to and try to discover what kinds of behaviors we can expect from him.
►The Canadian foreign minister pointed out during a speech on June 13 that this kind of authoritarian, isolationist attitude is spreading. Is Trump alone in this or do you see a bigger trend in the world?
There does seem to be a rise of populist leaders with an authoritarian bent all around the world. They seem to be arrogant in their dealings with other countries and to be oriented toward treating foreign policy as an extension of domestic politics. Clearly, domestic politics always prevails in their thinking. However, not all leaders are in the same power position as Mr. Trump and therefore they are forced to be more restrained in their behavior. But in terms of their manners, their approach, the way they deal with other heads of state, the way they talk about matters of foreign policy, there seem to be a lot of similarities. We don’t know if this populism will continue. Certainly, it is undermining the international order that we have built carefully to manage conflicts among states and contain them. Now, this order is being undermined on a number of fronts. Mr. Trump, as the leader of the most powerful state in the world, encourages other populist leaders to emulate his behavior.
►Trump claims the summit with Kim was historic and has made the world a safer place. Do you agree?
Mr. Trump has a proclivity to present himself as an iconoclastic figure. The complete reversal of the American approach to North Korea is a manifestation of this iconoclastic thinking. North Korea was treated as the outsider in the international system but now suddenly Mr. Kim is a respected figure who negotiates with the American president. But we haven’t seen the end of it yet. We’re talking a lot about building peace on the Korean peninsula and the Pacific region. In Singapore, these leaders have issued mainly statements of good will and intention to overcome problems. If you go back to the behavior in earlier times, however, we have seen North Korea entering negotiations to extract some concessions from its rivals, mainly the U.S. After it gets what it wants, it returns to its old position, violating the very promises it had made. I find it extremely difficult to believe that the North Koreans would be willing to give up their nuclear arsenal, however small it may be, until and unless American nuclear weapons are cleared out of the Pacific, which is unlikely. There seems to be an aura of optimism and a spirit that things will get better. But I would be very cautious. Currently, no concrete plan or road map is yet agreed upon, what we have is just a statement of good intentions toward building a more peaceful future.
►The existing world order was shifting even before Trump. How has he contributed to these shifts and what should the rest of the world do about it?
He is accelerating them. He’s putting these shifts in very crude terms and he’s not leaving many things to be salvaged. In the end, what we don’t want is a total breakdown of the existing order. Rather, we should aim to make incremental changes, adjusting the global system to changing circumstances. Mr. Trump seems not to be interested in making such gradual adjustments. He just ignores the rules and barges through the system with no respect to what exists. We have to recognize that the existing arrangement has many valuable features. Though it may have problems, we should not aim to destroy it but reform it. Despite the challenges Trump poses, I think, other countries should continue to cooperate with each other and try to preserve the system, leaving for the moment the Americans aside. We have to remember that Trump may not even be re-elected and if we destroy what has been built, it would be very difficult to reconstruct it. If we can muddle through this period and try to preserve the essence of the system, it may be possible to make the adjustments once the American administration changes. But we need to have the U.S. eventually return to the values of a liberal democratic order because otherwise there is no country powerful enough to lead the global system. What concerns me is that the type of populism that has engulfed the U.S., and it seems Austria, maybe Italy, and possibly other states soon, may lead to conditions for the total breakdown of the liberal-democratic global order. Trump has not only led the way but he has legitimized it. Trump’s behavior elicits similar behavior in others. We should try to resist this trend and ride the Trumpian crisis through rather than respond to it in a way that is destructive of global economic and political governance. Hungary or Poland cannot fundamentally alter the values of the global order; the U.S. can.