With the inauguration of Donald Trump as U.S. president, America is set to move into a more isolationist and more self-interested direction. The rest of the West must now stand up to defend our values.
A Commentary by Ullrich Fichtner
Our current times have all of the elements of a good television series, but they are not the kinds of things you want to see in real life. Behind every corner there’s a juicy surprise, a sudden change, a shock.
China’s president is now apparently the foremost proponent of free trade, who would have thought. The British prime minister is eschewing compromise in Brexit negotiations in favor of a full break. In France, the right-wing populists are dangerously close to power and same is true in the Netherlands. In Germany? Who knows? And Trump? He crowns everything, with a fat “T” embossed in extra-thick gold. NATO? “Obsolete.” Merkel and Putin? Six of one, half-dozen of the other. BMW? Can start saving for punitive tariffs. The Iran agreement? A scrap of paper. Trump talks like a caricature of a used-car salesman who sees the world as a marketplace for Donald’s great deals.
We need to prepare ourselves for the following: From now on, the most powerful person on the planet, along with his entourage made up primarily of billionaires like himself, will be regularly stomping on that which the international community has spent decades negotiating with effort and care. Who thinks, for example, that Trump’s troupe will feel bound to the Paris Climate Agreement for the reduction of greenhouse gases? That anybody in the White House will still care for the protection of animals, oceans or forests? That Trump could have any priority other than maximizing his own profits? Does anyone think he will support culture? Strengthen women’s rights? Show consideration for minorities? That he would be willing to think about the limits of capitalism? Of course he won’t.
Once it has pushed Islamic State further into retreat, the U.S. will withdraw as far as possible from its role as the world’s protective power. There have been similar phases in American history, periods of isolation and self-interest, and we are likely headed for another. America has always been the standard bearer for Western values, even if it hasn’t always managed to abide by them itself, but now the country will send those values into hibernation. From now on, there is a risk that active global policy might primarily consist of Trump, in the middle of lonely nights, inciting diplomatic crises on Twitter — insulting the Chinese, provoking India and denigrating Europeans.
It’s Time to Defend Our Principles
This won’t be fun. It reflects a new American desire for the survival of the fittest — in a world where the U.S. is still the strongest. Trump’s government won’t strive for global compromise, opting instead to try to get the most it can out of negotiations with individual nations. This president will do everything he can to weaken international organizations like the UN, the EU or the G-20 in order to make space for bilateral deals — just like his counterpart in the Kremlin. Maybe this will allow him to achieve a small American economic miracle, but a great many will pay the price: more global inequality, unchecked climate change and, in his own country, an even more jittery society with marginalized minorities.
The depth of the ultimate tragedy will depend on how quickly the opposition forms. Even the power of a U.S. president is not unlimited. He isn’t an absolute ruler, answerable to no one. Trump will be faced with the strength of civil society, the intelligence of his opponents, the courage of American citizens. This president cannot allow himself even the smallest litigable mistake for fear of being chased out of office.
Until then, the rest of the world needs to get to work to block American machinations against international standards, to ward off unfair American economic greed and to protect global agreements. What’s needed is a front against Trump.
The UN will need to show that it can be a countervailing power in the civil sphere and an advocate for its especially vulnerable members. The European Union should see Trump as a new justification for its existence and make the best of it. It’s very possible that previously unthinkable constellations might emerge — that Europe and China, for example, could act in concert on some issues. Impossible? That’s what we thought. But in the now-dawning Trump world, it’s not about believing or about hoping. We have no choice but to forcefully defend our interests and our principles.