By R. Vorster
Recently I wrote about the upcoming G20 summit. As I wrote at the time, Bush first called a leader summit for the then largely irrelevant Group of Twenty in 2008. Ironic how it seems that his fellow Republican president has shown nothing but diplomatic ineptitude or plain absentia. The tides have indeed turned; the US’s position has weakened as the Trump administration seems to have no interest in global leadership, while China’s domestic problems negate its interest in a similar leadership role. All the while Europe has shrugged off its recent wave of right-wing populism. Economic stability followed political stability as the Union self-handedly recovered from its lows, rewinding the economy to pre-crisis level. It was now the EU’s turn to set the tone.
Before attending the G7 summit on his previous foreign trip, Trump took the time to increase tensions in the Middle East by sympathizing with Saudi-Arabia and affronting Iran, after which Trump seemed perfectly content with letting Palestine and Israel find a way of solving their increasingly complex conflict. Safe to say, Trump was more of a crowd-pleaser than he was a problem solver then, visiting only the countries he knew welcomed his electoral college victory.
Similarly, preceding the G20 summit, Trump took to the stage in Poland, a country that shares with Hungary its illiberal, right-wing government. PiS, the ruling Law and Justice party, strongly opposes immigration and espouses values of Euro-skepticism unseen elsewhere in the union. Its party leader, Jaroslaw Kaczynski, unsurprisingly hailed Trump’s visit as a “new success.” The underlying strategy seemingly entails first to do something that can’t possibly go wrong and can only be touted as a ‘success’ by his base, only after these successes come the summits. Besides cozying up to his supporters at home and in Poland, commentators swiftly described his visit as an attempt to deepen divisions within the European Union, hoping to spur the populists who only reached second place in many of Europe’s elections, much akin to Vladimir Putin.
A tug of war between a protectionist Trump and a globalist EU seemed underway before the summit started with a new trade deal between the EU and Japan, ratified the night before. This deal not only establishes an economic relationship between the two countries, it entails further cooperation with regard to defense and cyber-security. Less evident than these obvious benefits, however, is the political statement that it symbolizes. Hastily finished before the gathering, it sounds a strong voice against protectionism and isolationist economic policy, showing that Japan and the EU hold hands whilst Trump is letting them go.
With her reelection at stake, host Merkel had presented herself as the front woman of the liberal west and free trade, with ‘difficult tasks’ ahead, she had to be careful not to give away too much of these values in negotiations with Trump, Putin and Erdogan: The Terrible Trio – as the Economist once named them. After all, however, it wasn’t Merkel, who assiduously persevered and dabbled between the top and the fierce protests in Berlin, who will be remembered. It isn’t for the meager fifteen page communique, full of boilerplate and cliche statements either. Quite frankly, it will be remembered for its stark contrast with previous international gatherings, when Obama helped lay the foundation for the Paris accord or Bush helped set up regulations to prevent another economic crisis.
These dynamics are worrying, the aforementioned terrible trio casts a looming shadow over global relations, possibly setting the stage for decades to come.
Many leaders question Trump’s unpredictability. On the one hand, Trump’s disdain for international cooperation seems clear; on the other hand, this message seems to show only in general diplomatic incompetence, not in actions.
In the case of Putin and Erdogan, it’s not so much a case of questioning, it’s a case of fear. Putin leaves Russia with severe domestic problems, however, his presence on the world stage is prominent as ever. Leaders fear his ever growing sphere of influence in the Eastern parts of Europe, where Putin supports the pro-Russia, illiberal and isolationist countries, one of which is the aforementioned Poland. More worrying is his relationship with Erdogan, the self-made autocrat whose one-man control in Turkey abolished the once secular NATO member. With Turkey moving to Russia, the recent refugee treaties with the EU aren’t as sure a case as they seemed; furthermore Turkey is a key NATO-member as a result of its location and a possible EU-member – although accession talks have stalled – making further cooperation with Russia a frightening development.
It’s these factors combined that divide the world into a small number of huge power-blocs, competing in the arena that Trump’s economic- and national security adviser called for in a recent WSJ op-ed. If anything, it seems to bring the EU closer together; the EU may lose control over its Eastern members, the bonds between its core nations grow stronger. Whether that is a good thing or not is to be debated, however, as a result of blocs such as Russia, China and the US isolating themselves, the EU has to take matters into her own hands, leading the way to closer cooperation within the Union and a possible pan-EU defense initiative.
Now, I’d not argue that the world will be at war within the foreseeable future, nor that the world will return to a competition of Western civilizations much akin to the world before the first World War. Nevertheless, these dynamics do make for a worrying – albeit quite interesting – future that, however speculative, shouldn’t be ignored.