The current world order could be reset
“The current global liberal order is an aberration from a historical perspective,” warned the famous US conservative historian Robert Kagan at a conference organized by the German Marshall Fund in Brussels last April. “We have to understand that it is an artificial construction. It is not the result of a natural evolution of mankind, and there is no guarantee that it will continue to exist in the future. Forces of human nature and the logic of history tend to destroy it if we fail to protect it. ”
Probably for many people the idea of ”liberal world order” sounds like something abstract. The world built under American control after World War II, and especially what happened after the end of the Cold War, is perceived as an indefinite construction.
Sure, there were wars, there were other misfortunes on the planet, but there was no direct armed confrontation between the great powers. And especially after 1990, flagrant violations of human rights were no longer considered purely internal issues of interest.
While acknowledging all the inherent slips and issues which have occurred, the world has functioned rather well after a set of rules on security, international law and trade were agreed on and managed by a system of multilateral international institutions, with the United States positioned in a generally benevolent role.
From a Western perspective, the alliance between the United States, Europe and Asian democracies has ensured the institutional stability, preservation and even global expansion of a system of values defined as liberal democracy with intrinsic elements like free elections, rule of law, freedom of expression, etc. It has become so common place that many in the Western world cannot even imagine a different world.
The Trump Threat
But if we look at everything that is happening on the international stage today, Kagan’s warning should be taken seriously. The problem is that, in Romania, the public discourse that refers to the “Euro-Atlantic community” remains largely divided for different sectors of society, each with their automated responses, although many of the traditional landmarks on which our external positioning has been based are seriously cracked.
For example, the international press has been raising more and more questions about the future of NATO, and Donald Tusk, the President of the European Council, told European leaders in Brussels at the last summit meeting to seriously consider the possibility of NATO’s disappearance as a security umbrella for Europe.
There are fears that Donald Trump will threaten such a possibility at the upcoming summit, which is being held ironically in a new NATO headquarters on the 12th – 13th of July in Brussels. Further, the US President might press the European leaders, especially those in Berlin, on the issue of tariffs and to force them to denounce their agreement with Iran.
This will be a turning point not only because European leaders have different interests than those of the Americans, but also because they cannot afford, due to domestic political pressure, to succumb to a potential “blackmail” by the United States.
There are already signals highlighting this point-of-view. The European Union has announced that if Washington introduces punitive customs tariffs on car imports it will react with countermeasures targeting US exports of nearly $ 300 billion, which will lead to a global trade war with catastrophic consequences for everyone.
The US President recently said: “Let’s see what will happen to NATO.” It’s a formula he often uses when he wants to create a bargaining advantage in a negotiation. The problem is, of course, appealing to this kind of tactic in an extremely sensitive security area is likely to cause enormous damage with a lasting impact. But it would be a mistake to think that Donald Trump’s vision is singularly focused.
In recent years, a wider current has emerged in American political and intellectual environments that believe the United States must avoid the trap of alliances that could force them to engage in devastating conflicts with other global powers, security umbrellas offered to Europe through NATO and Taiwan, being two cases that are often discussed. Of course, from a formal point of view, the president cannot decide alone the exit of America from NATO.
Only Congress can do this, and it is unlikely that the legislative body would take this step. Yet, to a large extent, the alliance’s dissuasive force is a symbolic one based on unity.
This is based on Article 5 and the United States firm commitment to military intervention in the event of aggression against any Member State, thus creating enormous potential costs for an aggressor who would risk a direct war with America. Otherwise, to give a concrete, local example, based on a Rand think tank Report from 2016, every play through of events simulated proved that the Russian forces could be at the gates of Tallin and Riga within 60 hours.
As Donald Trump told leaders at the G7 meeting in Canada that “NATO is as bad as NAFTA” (the North American trade agreement that the president regards as catastrophic for America), he said at a rally in North Dakota that “sometimes the worst enemies are so-called friends and allies” and, according to several sources, asked the Pentagon to calculate what would be the cost of withdrawing US troops from Germany, the force of such guarantees is already considerably diminished.
The more reassuring alternative would be that it is just a bargaining tactic. But long before he arrived at the White House, Donald Trump opened his hostility to most of the international organizations like the WTO, the European Union, or NATO.
He considers them all disadvantageous, even harmful, to the United States. The Times reviewed all these alarming signals in an article titled “President Trump’s War On Western World Order“.
And the reactions inside the US diplomatic apparatus confirm the real worries on the subject. The US Ambassador to Estonia and career diplomat, James D. Melville, posted on Twitter after his resignation the reasons that made him do it: “Having served under six presidents and 11 secretaries of state, I never really thought it would reach that point for me. For the President to say the EU was ‘set up to take advantage of the United States, to attack our piggy bank,’ or that ‘NATO is as bad as NAFTA’ is not only factually wrong, but proves to me that it’s time to go.”
In an interview given to Walter Russell-Mead for the Wall Street Journal, State Secretary Mike Pompeo rejected the grim scenarios about the breakdown of the current world order, saying that Donald Trump just wants to reset it and correct what he considers to be those issues which are against America.
The core of the argument is that the economic and diplomatic structures built after the Second World War corresponded to American interests during the Cold War but are no longer aligned with these interests in the context of the current geopolitical competition.
So, says Mike Pompeo, Donald Trump wants to “rewrite the rules of world order in favour of America while maintaining stable relations with geopolitical opponents.” In this description, it is unclear to what extent classic notions such as the “free world” or “transatlantic partnership”, the idea of the Western Alliance, are still on Washington’s agenda.
A possible outcome
If we refer to the various statements from Trump in which Europe was seen as a geopolitical competitor rather than as an ally, it can be understood why the US President does not see why NATO should exist or why the United States should guarantee the security of the old continent.
Even with Pompeo’s soothing assurances, which speak at one point about the important historical relations with European and Asian partners, the demarcation line between resetting and disintegration is very fine, unclear and difficult to define. Things can get out of control at any time.
Once you have liberated the destructive spirit from the bottle, it is almost impossible to put it back in place, and this is far from a new idea. 2400 years ago, Thucydides defined in his History of the Peloponnesian War a “normal” international order as when: “the strong do what they can and the weak suffer what they must.”
Even though many voices complained that America was functioning as the “World Police,” we can now see, with discontent, what a world looks like where the United States retreats and returns to its old, protectionist habits, that is, what Robert Kagan called “the old geopolitical jungle”.
As far as we are concerned, we are in an obviously vulnerable position. Disbanded by America, Europe will be forced to negotiate, in one way or another, a new continental security arrangement with Russia. An idea travelling around Romania – that even if the United States distance themselves from Western Europe, they will remain anchored in Eastern Europe because it is more pro-American – is a complete illusion.
What this arrangement might look like is hard to say, but it is clear that new spheres of influence will be delineated on the continent because, especially after Brexit, a Europe not lacking in resources but in political will and determination will have to form a new political reality.
This is not a certainty, but the discussion is far from just theoretical. What is depressing is that both the political class and the Romanian society as a whole seem to ignore to a great extent all these seismic external geopolitical mutations.
Alexandru Lăzescu is a journalist working and living in Bucharest, Romania.