By ROBERT STEENLAND
US president Donald Trump’s Christmas surprise caught its allies off-guard when he decided to pull out of Syria and withdraw half of his troops from Afghanistan. It also prompted his defence secretary to resign.
He also caused global market tremors by suggesting he would like to fire the Federal Reserve’s president amidst a government shutdown.
As Carl Bildt, the former foreign minister of Sweden, tweeted on 25 December: ”The US president is now in open conflict with the US Congress, the US Federal Reserve, the US secretary of defence, China, the EU, the World Trade Organisation (WTO), and a couple of others. Otherwise it’s OK.”
These events and earlier actions by Trump suggest a gloomy outlook for 2019, in which more political and economic trouble can be expected.
Comrades no longer
“An ally should be dependable”, French president Emmanuel Macron has said.
However, Trump’s actions again show the US under his leadership is increasingly unreliable: he had not consulted European allies, nor the Syrian Kurds, who are key to fighting the Islamist militant group Isis.
It all follows a pattern of deteriorating transatlantic ties.
Trump has repeatedly picked fights with other Western leaders, questioned Nato’s existence, and even called Brexit a great development.
Earlier rash decisions to quit the Paris climate agreement and Iran nuclear deal, not to mention his political brawling during the last G7 summit with Western friends, also left European allies perplexed.
Instead, Trump choose to please authoritarian leaders such Turkey’s Recep Tayyip Erdogan, who now has a free rein in attacking the Syrian Kurds, with a recent military build-up at its borders showing 2019 could bring more regional instability.
With his ‘America First’ doctrine, Trump openly defies the multilateral world order the US built after WW2. His trade wars threat to pull out from the WTO underline this.
The mercantilist behaviour shows he perceives global trade as a zero-sum game, in which one either benefits or loses.
His recent political hooliganism on the Federal Reserve chief harmed the value of US companies.
So much for the credit he has claimed for having boosted US commerce!
Trouble for Europe
Sadly, Europe will face the consequences of this behaviour.
More military conflict due to the power vacuum left in the Middle-East could bring higher migration flows.
His defence chief, James Mattis’ resignation is also worrying.
Mattis did it because his views did not align with Trump on respecting allies and upholding and partnerships.
With most moderates in Trump’s administration having been kicked out or resigned, 2019 could be an even more turbulent year for transatlantic ties and global stability.
This all the more so, given that his room to manoeuvre in domestic policy will be constrained after the opposition Democrats took over of the House.
The Kremlin could be encouraged to make a new military adventure in Ukraine and to increase election meddling abroad, with 2019’s European Parliament elections a likely target.
Free trade also remains at risk, with European Commission president Jean-Claude Juncker’s ”ceasefire” with Trump likely to falter.
As the eurozone lacks the infrastructure to withstand economic shocks, it remains vulnerable to a potential economic downturn.
The need for pragmatic big compromises
The changing international environment implies the need for the EU to step up its responsibility.
The problems in its neighbourhood, amidst a rising China, an aggressive Russia and a retreating, isolationist US require focusing outwards.
However, to show strength externally, the EU must overcome divisions internally over migration and eurozone reform, which have polarised the bloc and impaired its ability to take effective decisions.
Ambitious compromises from national leaders are needed, who must avoid thinking in Trump’s zero-sum terms.
This requires fixing the eurozone’s unfinished architecture, which divided north and south, and finding a permanent solution for the migration issue, which split west and east.
Need for unity
Member states should stick together in a world where the EU has been left to fend for itself.
To maintain influence, more effective decision-making capabilities are needed – with less room for national vetoes – in defence and foreign policy.
Next year’s EU parliament elections could prove crucial here, given the downfall of mainstream parties and rising nationalism and populism.
This requires a broad coalition of pro-EU parties from the left to the right who support a strong and united EU.
It is not so much about ideology here, but about survival and being prepared for a less stable world.
Working together is needed for the sake of pragmatism or even realpolitik.
In addition, the EU should continue bringing together like-minded countries and stand firm on principles of free trade, an open society, and multilateralism.
If populists and nationalists really care about national sovereignty, they ought to realise they can only maintain and leverage real sovereignty in a strong EU that cooperates closely with its allies.
The alternative of an ever more divisive (and lonely) EU in a multipolar world could imply we will end up being rule-takers, rather than rule-setters.
Robert Steenland is an associate at the Warsaw-based Centre for International Relations