Australian Outlook

In this section

When the US Shoots Itself in the Foot

13 Jun 2018
By Bruno Hellendorff

The rift between the US and the EU was evident at the G7 Summit this week. A revisionist US poses a conundrum for both the EU and Australia.

When the Trump administration decided to violate the terms of the Iran nuclear deal, leave the Trans-Pacific Partnership, retreat from the Paris Climate accord or tweet-cancel its support for the G7 summit statement, it did not just defend the US national interest. Quite the opposite. It cast serious doubts on the very possibility of sustaining a stable rules-based international order at a time of power transition, new threats and an unprecedented level of interdependence between nations.

Within the EU, rules-based multilateralism has long been part of an ideology of progress stressing the idea that in an ever-more interconnected world, the development of regional and global governance is a necessity. Article 21 of the Lisbon Treaty states that the Union should strive to “promote an international system based on stronger multilateral cooperation and good global governance”.

Meanwhile, as a “middle power”, Australia invests considerable resources in multilateral channels to engage with its region and the world. Australia’s efforts were pivotal in the creation of a “constructive” middle power coalition called “MIKTA” – for Mexico, Indonesia, Korea, Turkey and Australia – where members could increase their influence by dialogue and the promotion of cooperation. But the “middle power” label and associated strategy has never really achieved bipartisan consensus.

Is the US a revisionist power?

It was never the case that “rules are just rules”. Interpretation and enforcement have always been a key domain of disagreements between states, particularly between the strong and the weak. Rules-based multilateralism can mitigate power discrepancies, but it can’t suppress them. The US never felt constrained by the rules it contributed to or by the institutions it sponsored when its national interest so dictated. It is premature to conclude that the US has clearly turned into a revisionist power, particularly given the possibility of dramatic U-turns, such as the Trump Administration hinting at its willingness to eventually join the TPP. What is certain, however, is that multilateralism is more contested than it used to be. It is certainly not the case anymore that everyone agrees on the legitimacy and validity of existing structures and norms.

In his quest of a more transactional order where personally negotiated deals would set the standards of international relations, President Trump has set the tone for a significant shift in the international system.  As uncertainty grows, so does the frustration and need for reassurance on the part of US allies.

If the US is still “the essential status quo power” led by “a revisionist President”, then what does that make China? Official policy guidelines include support for multilateral institutions while President Xi Jinping promotes “a new type of international relations featuring win-win cooperation” under the Belt and Road Initiative. The China-hosted Shanghai Cooperation Organisation’s Summit, ending with an image of unity, offered a notable contrast with the G7. China’s revisionism is different from its American alter ego.

High stakes in Asia

“Trumpism” is a serious challenge for both the EU and Australia.

The challenge to the rules-based international order that Australia and the EU have pledged to uphold did not come from the direction expected. A decade ago, emerging powers were the contingency, while US power was the stabilising force enforcing the “status quo”, no matter how legitimate this power was perceived to be. Now that the US is pursuing an “America First” policy of uncertain contours, its allies are suddenly confronted with a conundrum: it is necessary for them to engage with Asia’s macro-economic and security developments, but their geography and limited resources means they remain marginal actors in the region’s strategic landscape.

At the regional level, Trump’s retreat from the Trans-Pacific Partnership, his insistence on negotiating “fairer” deals and his readiness to negotiate with North Korea’s leader Kim Jong-un demonstrate a more transactional American presence and posture in Asia. President Trump made this explicit when he attended the 2017 APEC Summit: “What we will no longer do,” he said, “is enter into large agreements that tie our hands” and “surrender our sovereignty”. When he pulled out from the G7 statement, Donald Trump demonstrated that deals can be as easily reached as they can be denounced, at least from the US. This makes Asia’s regional security architecture a much more fluid one, where commitments to shared values would be assessed on a case-by-case basis.

Tough times ahead

The EU and Australia have a lot at stake in the political trajectory of their American ally, as they clearly rely on a rules-based international order to defend and promote their interests. Less rules means less predictability, and less checks on power games. Less multilateralism means less leverage vis-à-vis third parties, and less opportunities for joint action on issues of collective interest.

The EU and Australia find themselves on shifting grounds, obliged to defend multilateral agreements against their partner rather than their competitor.

A direct consequence of “Trumpism” may be a re-arrangement of regional and global power geographies where European and Australian interests would have to be constantly renegotiated in conditions of power asymmetry. While the EU’s and Australia’s commitment to a rules-based international order will likely present them with increasing challenges, they probably would be worse off with any alternative course of action.

When America shoots itself in the foot, its allies have to do the multilateral and institutional heavy lifting. With this responsibility comes new vulnerabilities, as neither the EU nor Australia have sufficient resources to uphold the rules-based international order on their own. Bilateral cooperation between Canberra and Brussels will not be enough, but their partnership can be a driving force for new and effective coalitions and configurations, with Japan, India and others.

Bruno Hellendorff is a Joint Research Fellow at the Egmont Institute and the European Policy Centre. His research focuses on the geo-economic and security dimensions of China’s Belt and Road initiative, as well as on defence and security issues in Europe-Asia relations.

This article is based on a presentation at the EU-Australia Leadership Forum Sectoral Policy Workshop on a Rules-Based International Order, which took place in Brussels on 26-7 April. The AIIA is part of the international consortium delivering this project.

This article is published under a Creative Commons Licence and can be republished with attribution.