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Trump, NATO and the emerging multi-order world

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At the G7 meeting in Canada on June 9, a photo of US President Trump sitting cross-armed while German Chancellor Angela Merkel and other leaders stood around him went viral on the internet.

Pundits claim the photo captures the current contentious relationship between Washington and Berlin, and other traditional allies. Indeed, it appears this saga continued to play out at the recent NATO summit on July 11-12, where an exasperated Trump expressed his “It’s not fair to the US taxpayer” position on the heavy burden of providing defense welfare to Europe. After decades of chronic anemic defense spending by European allies, Trump reportedly threatened to pull the US out of NATO, reported Asia Times (Thailand).

In turn, there has been a barrage of articles and conferences on both sides of the Atlantic characterizing Trump as the “Disrupter- in-Chief”: threatening the US-led liberal order; undermining NATO and transatlantic ties; waging a trade war with Berlin; planning to “meddle” in German domestic politics; and prompting angry headlines ranging from “Donald Trump, Italy, and the threat to Germany” to sad ones such as “Best Friends No More?” lamenting the once strong relationship between Washington and its most important partner in continental Europe.

However, perhaps it is premature to lament, and the transatlantic rift may not be a structural one after all but rather one of miscommunication and misunderstanding between Mars and Venus. Undoubtedly, Germany has been and still is America’s most important partner in continental Europe, and even China knows the road to the EU is through Berlin and not Brussels. But a “partner” is not necessarily a “best friend” – which is a position traditionally reserved for the UK – although it will obviously no longer be a key US partner in the EU post-Brexit.

Thus, rather than for allies and partners to feel hurt or dejected about the shift in US posture in the new Trumpian era, the key point to understand about Trump is that he is not a globalist, and is actually tapping into an earlier incarnation of American exceptionalism by cementing the traditional Anglo-American special relationship, US-Israel alliance, English Speaking Union, Five Eyes, etc. In his February 2018 Foreign Affairs article, Charles Kupchan – professor at Georgetown University and former White House official in the Obama administration – argued that Trump’s “America First” is essentially the original pre-World War II/Pearl Harbor version of “American exceptionalism.”

Which version of American exceptionalism?
In this insightful article, Kupchan discussed the metamorphosis of American exceptionalism from one of spreading democracy by example, to one of spreading democracy by intrusion and invasion. He argued that prior to World War II, American exceptionalism meant insulating the American experiment from foreign threats and international entanglement, spreading democracy by example, embracing protectionism and fair trade, and preserving a relatively homogenous citizenry through racist and anti-immigrant policies. This “American exceptionalism 1.0” was essentially about America first.

However, the attack on Pearl Harbor ended US isolationism and began the era of American exceptionalism 2.0 of active foreign interventions. If the US can no longer shield itself from the world and share the American experiment by example, it would run the world by intrusion to project its power and values. The US foreign policy approach was within a clear Cold War framework, with a military component supplemented with economics. With a special focus on the Middle East, the US and its allied forces sought to advance Western interests by securing oil fields, ensuring the safe passage of shipping and inoculating formerly feudal and colonial societies against the seduction of communism.

Now, after decades of misguided regime change policies in the Middle East, a string of failed states that spawned rising terrorism and Islamic extremism, floods of refugees destabilizing the EU, and US imperial overstretch, Kupchan argues that America needs to shift to Version 3.0 of American exceptionalism. Version 3.0 is a combination of 1.0 (isolationism) and 2.0 (imperial overstretch), where Washington needs to exercise strategic modesty in the face of declining resources/material capabilities, waning ideological dominance, and look for co-governance with partners in cooperative security (inclusive), not just US-dominant military alliances in collective security (exclusive).

Kupchan believes that the US should shift its role as the world’s policeman to one of an arbiter of great power peace, emphasizing diplomatic rather than military engagement outside core areas. In this vein, the international community appears to be entering what Trine Flockhart, Kupchan’s co-author of a 2014 German Marshall Fund report, “Liberal Order in a Post-Western World,” calls a “multi-order world.”

The emerging multi-order world
Similar to Kupchan, Flockhart argues that at a time when the West is losing its material primacy and ideological dominance, with devolution of power from Western hegemony to increasing regionalism, identity (Muslim, Western, Asian, Latin American, African) is likely to be the major defining feature of new orders. While there has been much literature on a coming multi-polar world with the decline of the West and “Rise of the Rest,” and seeing different powers or poles still within the US-led liberal order, Flockhart’s argument differs in that she sees there will be various orders, with the Western liberal order being one order in a pool of different orders. This is akin to the Cold War international system when different economic orders co-existed – one was the US-led Western liberal order undergirded by US military power and the Bretton Woods institutions, another one was COMECON led by the Soviet Union and the Warsaw Pact, and a third economic order with the Non-Aligned Movement.

If a multi-order world is indeed forthcoming, we may perhaps see a consolidation of the Americas in one order, Germany/continental Europe in another order, China and Russia in a Eurasian order, Iran/northern Middle East in one order, Saudi Arabia/southern Middle East in another order, an African order, and so on. In such a scenario as also described in Kupchan’s book No One’s World (2012), where no one order, power, or pole dominates, the goal and challenge then is to weave a new normative consensus and coordination of diverse capitalist governance models in this system of decentered globalism. Thus, the sooner the Washington DC establishment realizes this and adjusts US policies accordingly, the better the prospect for a peaceful transition to this new world order. The question now is, which version of American exceptionalism will the US choose?

America at a crossroad
In the face of political cleavage at home and a transatlantic rift, it is all the more important for Trump’s America to come to some consensus and cooperation with others in this decentered global system, and likely choose Version 3.0. Trump needs to balance domestic interests with international commitments, and this calls for US allies to step up to the plate and become important partners for co-governance in the new world order, whether to immediately increase defense spending within NATO, or as military historian Andrew Bacevich suggested, to alternatively build up the EU’s own defense capabilities.

As Kupchan recommended, America can no longer be the world’s policeman but can be a new arbiter of great power peace by working with other partners. This may mean revisiting the 1989 Partner in Leadership that president George HW Bush offered Germany after reunification, but Berlin failed to accept.

Now, with a Trumpian America embarking on American exceptionalism 3.0, the timing may be right for the US in the Americas and Germany in continental Europe to partner as leaders of the Western liberal order, and continue to strengthen transatlantic ties in an increasingly multi-order world.

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