Donald Trump is dismantling the West


The gestalt of “the West” — the postwar community of institutions and liberal values that bound, primarily, Europe and North America — was already hobbling when Donald Trump took office as US President a year and a half ago.

But Trump’s belligerent statesmanship, together with the actions of his soulmate, Russian President Vladimir Putin, could well lame it forever. The tandem are fully capable of pulling this off unless their democratically minded counterparts on both sides of the Atlantic, those partially responsible for the West’s current sorry state, react with purpose — and so far there’s little indication that they will.
Indeed, what European democrats and American Atlanticists have to face is the fact that Donald Trump is not their ally — and thus the NATO treaty isn’t worth the paper it’s written on. Trump means them ill and therefore in many ways he’s more dangerous than Putin.
Thus, there’s no sense in currying favor or somehow convincing him to “listen to reason.” On the contrary, there has to be a fight back, which doesn’t mean salvaging what’s left of the Cold War-era order but rather thinking it anew — if not all at once, then piece by piece.
Trump is ransacking what’s left of the West out of spite and nationalist conviction. Trump’s not off the mark when he calls today’s Western organizations “obsolete,” as he did NATO earlier this week. He sees NATO as a club in which the Europeans pay Washington for protection — and if they don’t pay more, he threatens, he’ll wreck it, which he made clear in Brussels earlier this week.
The postwar security alliance looks ever more outdated in the post-Cold War world, its members at odds with one another and incapable of handling either modern-day threats such as terrorism, migration and climate change, nor even its traditional foe number one: Russia. Is there anything that NATO could have done — short of full-blown war — to counter Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and annexation of Crimea? Are NATO troops in the Baltics actually deterring Russia from meddling in the region?
The West — in fact, many say “the former West,” so greatly is its cache diminished — hasn’t been in good shape for some time.
The EU is weathering its greatest crisis ever, rocked by Brexit and besieged by hard-right nationalists across the continent. Global trade continues to aggravate the discrepancy between the well-off North and the poor global South. There are only snippets of strategy to address the sources of terrorism, migration, poverty, nuclear proliferation and global warming.
Trump rightly sees these institutions and this order as broken-down and redundant, but for the wrong reasons, and his remedy of choice will only exacerbate the crises at hand.
The American President falsely believes that the US is stronger on its own than together with its traditional allies, even in a globalized world that obviously bespeaks the opposite.
The businessman who makes deals off the cuff and always has the final word transfers that logic to international affairs. Trump’s world is a zero-sum equation in which only one can win. Europe’s strength is America’s weakness, he believes, as does Putin for Russia.
Trump’s foreign policies are accelerating a process of decline that began after the Cold War, when the world changed from divided by the superpowers into East and West to one with multiple power centers, such as China as well as India, Russia and Iran. Demographic projections tell us that Asia’s growth will massively outstrip Europe’s and America’s in a decade.
In such a world, neither Europe nor the US will be stronger without the other. This is why it’s time to rethink the global order, but not along the lines of the Trumps and Putins.
The West, in the aftermath of the Cold War when the Atlantic alliance was still vital and in possession of a generous peace dividend, had a window during which it could have overseen a restructuring of much of the order that it had established after World War II.
It could have done it in a way that incorporated Russia into its strategy, which would have meant shutting NATO down and creating a new pan-European security alliance. And anytime over the past two decades the EU could have instituted reforms to revitalize its structures. Instead of insisting on Bretton Woods-era neoliberal economic solutions for the world, the US-led West could have attempted to distribute wealth more evenly across the globe.
But the diplomats and politicos didn’t have the vision or the gumption. Instead, they followed the path of least resistance, leaving well enough alone.
Today they’re little better, save perhaps for Emmanuel Macron. The French President understands that the EU and eurozone desperately require reforms, like the creation of a European Monetary Fund and eurozone budget that tie the zone members tighter together and reaches out to the southern Europeans.
Also, in terms of European defense cooperation, a step in the right direction is Macron’s proposal for a combined EU military force that could be deployed to trouble spots around the world. After all, the Europeans spend billions each year on their militaries, together many times more than Russia. Much of it, though, is wasted on redundant weaponry.
The spoiler, however, is Germany. Chancellor Angela Merkel’s conservatives haven’t stepped up to the challenge, opting instead to play a German version of Trump’s America First jingoism.
A year ago there was loose talk of Merkel “leading the West” in the era of Trump. But she’s not even proven capable of leading the EU together with France. She wholly lacks the long-term vision to outfit Europe, and that includes Germany, for the future.
The Europeans have to snatch back the script from Trump and Putin — and write their own narrative for the future. But this involves wide-angle thinking, instead of mimicking the obstreperous, nationalistic posturing of those who can do nothing but destroy.