The Singapore summit is indeed historic. First, it is so because just a few weeks ago we were closer to a nuclear war than to even the semblance of a peace process. The way we got here is surprising, because it did not obey the usual rules.
A few days ago, during the G7 summit held in Canada, US President Donald Trump upheld his decisions on tariffs and his positions on the trade deficit. These stances followed his decision to pull out of the Paris climate change agreement and the Iranian “nuclear deal”. It is clear that the new US administration challenged the alliances inherited from the Cold War. President Trump, a businessman, not a politician — one of the reasons he was elected — is asking America’s trading partners just to have “free, fair and reciprocal” agreements. It is probably not all that unusual to feel affronted when asked for money or to regard the person asking for it as mercenary or adversarial. It does not always mean that this feeling is justified.
In short, President Trump’s arguments, which sound like a leitmotif, go back to the economic aspect of things. NATO? Why should it be normal that, in order to defend Europe, the American taxpayer pays the heaviest part. Free trade? Why should America suffer a trade deficit with so many countries? Climate change? The results of the Paris Climate Change conference, COP 21, were apparently not only costly but questionable, and to critics, looked like a list of unenforceable promises that would not have come due until 2030 — if ever.
A new paradigm is shaping up on the international scene: This is the first time that the US domestic policy is to prevail over its so-called “strategic” role — sometimes possibly to the detriment of allies.
Ambassador John R. Bolton, before he was appointed National Security Advisor, rejected any external constraints or supranational authority — starting with the WTO’s trade dispute body, the Dispute Settlement Understanding (DSU):
“The unspoken objective is to constrain the U.S., and to transfer authority from national governments to international bodies. The specifics of each case differ, but the common theme is diminished American sovereignty, submitting the United States to authorities that ignore, outvote or frustrate its priorities…. While many European Union governments seem predisposed to relinquish sovereignty, there is scant hint of similar enthusiasm in America…. By reasserting their sovereignty, the British are in the process of escaping, among other things, the European Court of Justice and the European Court of Human Rights.”
Unfortunately, Europe is the first to suffer from this new reality. But is the European Union able to stage a showdown? Probably not. The populist wave flooding the EU countries is primarily the result of the social impacts of the fiscal policy imposed by Germany. While the US has an unemployment rate effectively past full employment, the rather sluggish growth in Europe produces a near-zero effect on this indicator. With 27 members, and because of the rule of “one country one vote,” as well as a possibly outdated view of how to incentivize growth and finance pensions, Europe has been slowing down even the possibility any development on issues such as immigration or common defense. Europe is shattered, all the more that there does not seem to be any solution on the horizon.
The group called the European Union does not weigh much against the forced march of Donald Trump. The US president only believes in bilateral agreements when it comes to international relations. The use of the principle of ex-territoriality, or diplomatic immunity, has taken the agreement with Iran out of the equation. The big French and German companies have already withdrawn from it.
Diplomacy is changing before our eyes. “The Western camp,” it seems, is becoming nothing more than a specter that does not rest on any on-the-ground reality.
Inevitably, each power will have to adapt, according to its own interests. As Europeans continue to cast their votes, these adjustments may, in turn, feed current divisions even more.
Ahmed Charai is a Moroccan publisher. He is on the board of directors for the Atlantic Council, an international counselor of the Center for a Strategic and International Studies, and a member of the Advisory Board of The Center for the National Interest in Washington and Advisory Board of Gatestone Institute in New York.