President Donald Trump listens to a question during a meeting with Ecuadorian President Lenin Moreno in the Oval Office of the White House, Wednesday, Feb. 12, 2020, in Washington.

President Donald Trump listens to a question during a meeting with Ecuadorian President Lenin Moreno in the Oval Office of the White House, Wednesday, Feb. 12, 2020, in Washington. AP / Evan Vucci

The Corrosion of World Order in the Age of Donald Trump

Can the world still work together to address today’s most pressing global challenges?

Rising climate and environmental concerns, growing financial and economic coercion, and surging migration are stressing the international system. These global challenges require deeper international cooperation at the very moment when trust in international institutions is eroding and many are skeptical, even hostile, to multilateralism. U.S. President Donald J. Trump’s abdication of global leadership and transactional approach to world politics has exacerbated these trends, further imperiling cooperative efforts. 

These themes emerged from the twelfth regional conference of the Council of Councils (CoC), which the French Institute of International Relations and the Council on Foreign Relations convened in Paris late last year. Forty-one delegates representing twenty-two think tanks in twenty-one countries discussed the weaponization of economic interdependence, the renewed push for European strategic autonomy, and other global governance issues. The pessimistic tenor of those discussions has only been reinforced at more recent international gatherings, including last month’s World Economic Forum and the Observer Research Foundation’s Raisina Dialogue.

Four sobering takeaways emerge from these international conversations:

1. The Global Economic Order is Broken

The world is experiencing unprecedented weaponization of economic interdependence, as countries turn cross-border trade, investment, and technology transfers into instruments of coercive statecraft. While China and others are contributing to the problem, most global observers perceive the United States in particular as abusing its privileged position in the international monetary system to coerce and punish those who stand athwart its perceived national interests. Such economic coercion represents a significant break from long-espoused U.S. principles of global economic integration for mutual benefit. For seven decades, U.S. presidential administrations, with few exceptions, prioritized economic order building, generating shared growth and global economic stability, while furthering comity among nations.

In contrast, the Trump administration increasingly invokes national security as a justification for restricting trade, and its prolific use of quotas, sanctions, tariffs, and the like threatens to destroy the rules-based economic order. These actions could have dire consequences. First, they promise to hinder domestic and globaleconomic growth. Second, they could leave the middle and minor powers whose support has bolstered America’s position in the world worse off. Smaller countries depend on international rules for a level playing field; weakening those rules makes them increasingly vulnerable to economic and political pressure not only from the United States but other great powers. Third, while Trump’s strategy may reap some limited gains, the more the United States abandons rule of law for rule of power in the economic realm—particularly in an increasingly multipolar world—the more it reduces its global influence and incentivizes other countries to resist U.S. stewardship of the global economy. Indeed, cracks in the U.S.-led economic order are already surfacing, although it could take decades (or longer) for an alternative order to become fully operational.

The irony in these developments is that the U.S. weaponization of economic interdependence is failing. The Trump administration has admitted that its steel tariffs have failed to achieve their intended aims; a temporary global workaroundto the dismantling of the WTO Appellate Body has materialized; the United Kingdom has ignored U.S. admonitions against allowing Chinese telecom giant Huawei to peddle 5G technologies in the country; and maximum pressure sanctions have not caused Iran, North Korea, or Venezuela to capitulate to American demands. Trump’s economic gun-to-the-head trade negotiations with Japan, South Korea, and Canada and Mexico, meanwhile, accomplished little more than offsetting the losses that resulted from his abandonment of the Trans-Pacific Partnership. U.S. allies, all the while, have absorbed one collateral blow after another as the president has engaged exaggerated enemies in trade wars.

2. With Friends Like Trump, Who Needs Enemies?

Repeatedly, the Trump administration has adopted policies detrimental to the interests of U.S. allies without heed to their views or sentiments. Representative actions have included U.S. abandonment of the Paris Agreement and JCPOA, the precipitous partial military withdrawal from northeastern Syria, and the legally dubious killing of Iranian General Qassem Soleimani on Iraqi soil. Trump has aimed tariffs and quotas at allies such as Canada, Mexico, Japan, and the European Union, indifferent in each instance to the consequences for longstanding U.S. relationships.

The Trump administration’s preference for unilateral action and bilateral diplomacy clashes in particular with the European Union’s collective approach to shared challenges. This disconnect is undermining the transatlantic partnership and collaborative policies that EU member states support, in spheres ranging from nuclear proliferation to climate change. The Trump administration’s unpredictable, chaotic, and often incoherent foreign policy, its attitude that might makes right, and its penchant for breaking international norms alienates allies and emboldens adversaries like Russia and Iran.

Related: Trump Broke It. Now He Owns It.

Through these actions, international observers believe, the U.S. president has reduced America’s soft power, even as his exercise of hard power and weaponization of economic interdependence continue to fall flat. On too many occasions, Trump has become a punchline on the global stage, further undermining the nation’s credibility. As Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif joked at the Raisina Dialogue, “who would want to negotiate with Trump when his deals sometimes do not even last the length of a flight from Quebec to Canada?” While such mocking might be expected from a U.S. adversary, it is all too common in the corridors of allied capitals.

3. The Future of EU Regulatory Power Looks Bright, but It Lacks a Common Vision

While the United States remains unmatched in its military capabilities, its retreat from global economic leadership has created a vacuum, and opportunities, for others to fill. With a larger economy than the United States, the European Union has the potential to transform global markets, as long as it continues to implement and enforce its trade and regulatory authority. As Alan Beattie of the Financial Times writes, many multinational companies have an incentive to adopt EU rules and impose those rules firm-wide to minimize the cost of running separate compliance regimes. This Brussels Effect, coined by Anu Bradford of Columbia Law School, could allow the European Union to set governance standards for the rest of the world, as other governments forgo the hassle of creating their own systems.

Beyond the economic and regulatory realm, though, the European Union faces a daunting challenge in formulating a common vision of its global role. As Daniel Gros, head of the Center for European Policy Studies, wrote in his CoC conference paper [PDF], the supranational entity is not capable of acting as a powerful, independent voice in global political affairs, and it is unlikely to gain that capability any time soon. Part of the problem is the heterogeneous worldviews of the twenty-seven EU member states. Josep Borrell, EU high representative for foreign affairs and security policy, alluded to these divergences in his address to the Raisina Dialogue in January. While many Spaniards like himself continued to blame the United States and the Vatican for General Franco’s long military dictatorship, he observed, Poles credited the United States and the Vatican for their national freedom. Reconciling these different histories and world views seems a prerequisite to establishing a more strategically autonomous and global Europe. At present, Borrell admits, such a reconciliation “is almost impossible.” The European Union may be able to speak with one voice and carry a big stick in trade negotiations, but it strikes a discordant tone and leaves its stick at home in other areas of world politics.

4. The Corrosion of Trust Will Hamper International Cooperation

Finally, participants in these gatherings agreed that confidence in experts, political leaders, and international institutions continues to erode across large swaths of the world. This is a disastrous development in our increasingly interconnected world, given the imperative of forging international agreement on the precise nature of contemporary global threats and the best international strategies to address and defeat them. Mistrust within and among countries promises to reinforce cycles of unilateralism and animosity, while hampering collective action on critical global challenges like nuclear proliferation, pandemic disease, and climate change. As governments become preoccupied with short-run distributional issues and less willing to make concessions, multilateral diplomacy becomes paralyzed. Countries become less likely to work together, deal with their disagreements amicably, and refrain from coercive means of statecraft.

Given these inauspicious trends, can the world still work together to address today’s most pressing global challenges? Participants at the CoC conference struggled to be optimistic, given the collective efforts needed to meet the Paris Agreement goals, prevent economic fragmentation, and achieve so much else. Many hoped that even as Trump retreated from the world, nations in Western Europe and Asia might fill the breach, assuming a greater share of global leadership. Time, of course, will determine whether these are realistic aspirations, or vain hopes. In the interim, we should brace ourselves for the turbulence that comes along with sowing global mistrust and a broken economic order.

Read the full CoC conference report here.

This piece, first published by the Council on Foreign Relations, is used with permission.