Leader: Trump and the liberal order

Though foreign leaders may hope for the best from Donald Trump, they must prepare for the worst.

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In the postwar era, liberal democracies have never before faced an opponent as disruptive as Donald Trump. The United States, the most powerful nation on Earth, will soon be led by an unashamed racist, misogynist and authoritarian. Mr Trump admires the Russian president, Vladimir Putin, whose rule is the greatest threat to Europe’s security, and denies the reality of anthropogenic climate change, the greatest threat to our planet’s future. The belligerence of the president-elect’s “America First” rhetoric should not be mistaken for incoherence. Mr Trump will disregard human rights at home and abroad in pursuit of whatever he thinks is the best option, at any given time.

Although he lost the popular vote to Hillary Clinton, Mr Trump won in a free election. The realities of democracy demand that all accept the outcome. The world should not confuse acceptance of his victory with appeasement, however. A model response to the US presidential election result was provided by Chancellor Angela Merkel, who is now emerging as the leader of the liberal West. Barack Obama praised her this week as his “closest ally over these eight years”.

“Germany and America are connected by values of democracy, freedom and respect for the law and the dignity of man, independent of origin, skin colour, religion, gender, sexual orientation or political views,” Mrs Merkel said. “I offer the next president of the United States close co-operation on the basis of these values.”

But other politicians, beguiled by Mr Trump’s triumph, have treated his victory as a golden opportunity. In Britain, the Foreign Secretary, Boris Johnson, a master of whimsical banality who had previously denounced the Republican as “unfit” to rule, called on his European counterparts to end their “collective whinge-o-rama”. Others in Theresa May’s cabinet are urging the Prime Minister to embrace Nigel Farage, Ukip’s acting leader, as a de facto ambassador to the US. The Prime Minister rightly rebuffed this demand.

Increasingly, many Brexiteers view the UK’s relationship with the United States solely through the prism of trade. Their desperation to make a success of Brexit is understandable. But Britain’s liberal and ethical principles must not be subordinated to mere mercantilist self-interest.

The days since Mr Trump’s election have shown him to be every bit as ignorant and reckless as his campaign rhetoric suggested. He appointed the former Breitbart News chairmanStephen Bannon, whom even some Republicans describe as a white nationalist and anti-Semite, to be his chief strategist. He confirmed that he had no intention of supporting Syrian democrats against the murderous regime of Bashar al-Assad. He declared that he hoped to overturn Roe v Wade, the ruling that legalised abortion, by appointing “pro-life” Supreme Court judges. He refused to allow journalists on his plane and used his own Twitter account to traduce the New York Times. He denounced US citizens for demonstrating against him. And asked whether he regretted any part of his campaign, a festival of racism and misogyny, he replied: “No, I won.”

So it is naive of foreign leaders to assume that they can tame the president-elect. Though they may hope for the best, they must prepare for the worst. Should Mr Trump abrogate the principle of collective defence through Nato, Mr Putin would become emboldened in eastern Europe, as he is already in Syria. More than at any other time since the Cold War, nations will need to devote resources to defence and security. The UK, one of Europe’s two military superpowers, will have a critical role to play.

Mr Trump is far from the only threat to the fragmenting international liberal order. In Austria on 4 Dec­ember, Norbert Hofer will seek to become Europe’s first ­far-right head of state since 1945. In the Netherlands, Geert Wilders’s Partij voor de Vrijheid is moving inexorably closer to power. And in France, the leader of the Front National, Marine Le Pen, aspires to emulate Mr Trump’s triumph. Should she succeed, the EU itself would disintegrate. “Their world is collapsing. Ours is being built,” Ms Le Pen’s chief strategist, Florian Philippot, has said.

In the face of these forces, Europe’s leaders must side ­unambiguously with liberal values of freedom and tolerance. But they should also reflect on why the liberal order is being rejected by so many. The president-elect will pocket any concessions and demand more. He will exploit any sign of hesitancy or weakness. Europe must not give him the chance. 

This article first appeared in the 17 November 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Trump world