From time to time the world changes before our eyes, and we fail to see it. At other times the shift is so evident that we can’t miss it. This time around we can see the disorder after Brexit and the US presidential elections, but struggle to understand what kind of a world order will emerge.
You do not have to hold a doctorate in international relations to understand that from the start President Donald Trump is shifting the balance of power in world politics. It is simple: you cannot lead the world or be a champion of globalisation if you reject them both.
The executive orders on trade, pipelines and immigration are only the beginning of the new nativist US agenda. Judging by his statements on Nato and the EU, Mr Trump has little faith in international institutions. I disagree with thim on many things, but at the same time I respect democracy. We should face the realities of a new America.
The US is looking inward, putting “America first”. Whenever a power vacuum emerges, someone will fill it. After the post-second world war, the US gave birth to a new world order through the Marshall Plan and the creation of international institutions. It was the driver of peace, prosperity and security, through engagement, not disangement.
The US and the Soviet Union dominated world politics for the better part of 40 years. With the Soviet collapse, the US filled the power vacuum and became the undisputed superpower of the world.
With hindsight, the European reaction was better than its reputation. Further integration through the Maastricht Treaty, enlargement to eastern and central Europe and the creation of the euro set the tone for 25 years dominated by liberal democracy, the market economy and globalisation.
The big question in 2017 is, who will begin to fill the power vacuum left by the US?
President Xi Jingping is fast becoming the champion of free trade and globalisation. His speech at the World Economic Forum in Davos, Chinese foreign commercial aqcuisitions and the failure of the Trans-Pacific Partnership are paving the way for a more engaged China.
President Vladimir Putin is also seizing the moment by getting cosy with Mr Trump and Turkey’s President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, and by being more active in Syria and Iran. He aims to put Russia back on the world stage it left in 1991. From a military perspective it is already there. In foreign policy, its role in Georgia, the Crimean peninsula and Ukraine will limit its room for manoeuvre. Economically, it will remain too small to take the lead.
The EU is looking at all this with slight bewilderement. Brexit will weaken it in both trade and world politics: the Union is losing a permanent member of the UN Security Council and more than a 10th of its economic clout. At the same time it is trying to figure out in which direction to look, east or west.
EU leaders will meet in Malta on Friday. Over the past few years Europe has been grappling with the euro crisis, asylum and populism. The focus has been internal, rather than external, while the world is changing. Whatever happens outside our borders has a big impact inside. Putting “Europe first” means taking global leadership. What should the EU do? I propose three things.
The first is to play a bigger role in promoting liberal values. The US is fast losing credibility as the leader of the free world and the EU alone can take on that mantle. It must show why freedom always trumps authoritarian rule. Previously, the challenge to liberal values came from the outside; Russia, China and radical Islam each questioned the foundations of democracy, freedom and tolerance, as interpreted in Europe. Now that same threat comes from the inside, from both extreme right and left. Thus, this year’s round of elections — in Germany, France and the Netherlands — will determine whether Europe has the moral highground on such values.
The second is to take a lead in foreign and security policy. The demise of the US will shift the balance of power to the east. The EU will have to become more pragmatic and engaged, and work with the UK wherever possible. It cannot count on US support in all conflicts around the world. It must also continue to develop its own defence policy.
The third is to take a stronger role in world trade. The Trump administration will not champion free trade. The EU, as the largest economy, should be aggressively promoting bilateral trade pacts. The EU-Japan trade deal is an example of free trade agreements to come. By the same token, the EU should reach out to Mexico.
The US is handing over the key to world politics. We should leave the door ajar for its return, but meanwhile I hope the EU will seize the moment, grab the key and start taking a more prominent role on the world stage. None of its member states can do it alone, but together, the EU will be able to punch above its weight.