America’s new president has the potential to thoroughly shake up international relations. Volker Perthes lays out five theses that researchers and policymakers will need to address.
Prof. Dr. Volker Perthes is director of the German Institute of International and Security Affairs (SWP). SWP advises the German Bundestag and government on all questions of foreign and security policy. The text is also available as a Point of View on the SWP website.
The election of Donald Trump raises justifiable concerns over how he will handle the crises and conflicts he inherits: war in Syria, conflict in Ukraine, tensions in the South China Sea, North Korean provocations and the fight against terrorism. Yet Germany and Europe – and policy-relevant research – must also examine the broader repercussions for international relations. The following five initial theses require deeper analysis.
A defeat for liberalism
Donald Trump’s victory represents a hard knock for the West’s normative bedrock of liberalism. Liberal values of the kind Chancellor Angela Merkel emphasised in her congratulatory message to the president-elect are on the defensive – first and foremost within the United States. Autocrats and supporters of various strands of illiberal democracy, like Putin, Erdogan or Orban, may feel vindicated and energised, while the EU will have to work harder to champion liberal democratic values. European states will inevitably see impacts on their external relations. Although Europe has shown little enthusiasm for talk of the “end of history”, both Europe and the United States have tacitly or explicitly assumed that the liberal democratic models will gradually win the day. Internationally, the EU member states must expect to hear increasing arguments that their form of liberal democracy is only one of several acceptable governance models. This could also have effects on international efforts to stabilise and rebuild fragile and failed states.
Change at the top of the world’s most powerful country will transform political conventions internationally too. Personalised, charismatic and populist forms will be boosted, to the detriment of the analytical, fact-based style represented not least by Chancellor Angela Merkel and President Barack Obama. One could speak of a “Berlusconisation” of politics – except that the US president shapes international trends much more strongly than an Italian prime minister ever could. Such an extreme personalisation of politics could further amplify the already elevated significance of the G7 and G20 summit meetings, along with an even stronger tendency to stage international relations as the business of strong leaders of powerful states. Donald Trump will attend his first G20 summit in Hamburg next summer.
Bilateral deals versus multilateralism
Internationally, a US administration led by Donald Trump will lean more towards transactionalism (bilateral deals based on a quid pro quo rationale) than towards multilateralism. In the case of certain crises, this may even bring temporary relief. For example, it would not be inconceivable for Trump to quickly reach an understanding with Russian President Vladimir Putin on how to move forward in Syria. But policies based on a direct quid pro quo are detrimental to long-term legal commitments, and thus counterproductive for multilateral regimes in fields as diverse as trade, environment, climate, sustainability and arms control, and for the UN system as a whole.
Overall, the signs are that the president-elect may lean towards partially or completely renouncing America’s role as liberal hegemon, its leadership in guarding an open world order based on free trade and free choice of external alliances. Donald Trump appears ready to call into question American-led alliances and accept a division of the world into spheres of influence – a proposal not seen since the Yalta Conference in 1945. This would mean fewer American interventions in other parts of the world, but also less influence on states that have to date been dissuaded from dangerous unilateral moves, not least by US security assurances. Potential troublemakers will quickly seek to test how firmly the United States and other powers are willing to defend central elements of the existing order. The responses of states in geopolitical fracture zones that have to date relied on US security guarantees – a span encompassing Japan, Saudi Arabia and Ukraine springs to mind – is not easily predictable. They might strengthen their own deterrence capacities, or equally conceivably adopt a policy of appeasement towards larger regional powers.
Perhaps, despite his “America first” sloganeering, President Trump will ultimately recognise the advantages of a solid transatlantic alliance. Along with American generals and diplomats, his European allies will seek to show him that America’s greatness, which is so close to his heart, is also reflected in the number of friends the country has. He will need to acknowledge that alliances create influence. The states of the EU have an important task before them, both in order to persuade President Trump of the value of their alliance – and if they fail to convince him, for the sake of the Union itself: They need to strengthen their own security capabilities, define their own strategic interests and agree shared foreign policy priorities. This applies not only with respect to the United States, but at least to the same degree towards their own citizens. Only if it is clear to Europeans that Europe is there for them, that it creates added value in such central issues as external and internal security, will it be possible to prevent similar election outcomes in the EU. Like it or not, Germany will have to play a much larger role internationally than it has to date. This was already the case after the Brexit vote, and is even more so following the US presidential election.