Bretton Woods. The Marshall Plan. GATT. NATO. In the late 1940s, the United States forged a military and economic alliance with its European, Canadian and Pacific allies that we call the West, which brought peace and prosperity such as the world had never seen.
For the past seven decades, there has been no major war between great powers. Over those decades, extreme poverty fell from three-quarters of the world’s population to less than a tenth, and global life expectancy increased from 48 years to 70 years.
But Donald Trump doesn’t like the Western alliance − for reasons that we must leave to future historians − and Thursday, he took a big step toward wrecking it by imposing tariffs on steel and aluminum imports.
This particular blow is serious because “it is directed, not just at Canada and Mexico but also at the European Union, so that’s your broad Western alliance,” said Rohinton Medhora, president of the Centre for International Governance Innovation, based in Waterloo. But it is only the latest in a series of blows to that alliance, he adds.
Withdrawing the United States from the Trans-Pacific Partnership trade agreement and U.S.-EU trade talks; withdrawing from the Paris accord on climate change; withdrawing from the treaty to limit Iran’s development of nuclear weapons; moving the American embassy to Jerusalem.
“It’s a train that keeps chugging along, to the detriment of the Western world,” he said.
By imposing punishing tariffs on steel and aluminum against Canada and the European Union, the President is further undermining the one thing that holds the West together: trust in U.S. leadership.
How important was that trust? Consider: The European Union announced Thursday it would file a complaint with the World Trade Organization over the U.S. tariffs. The European Union was forged out of the earlier European Coal and Steel Community and the European Economic Community, which ended a millennium of intra-European war and which was only possible because U.S. military power and American economic aid created the safe space that allowed Europe to heal and then flourish after the Second World War.
The WTO is the successor to the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade which, along with the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund, grew out of the 1944 Bretton Woods agreement in which the United States and Britain convinced the allied countries to lower tariffs and promote global trade, based on the U.S. dollar as the world reserve currency.
In other words, the United States’ allies are using tools that are integral to the U.S.-led Western alliance to fight against American actions aimed at undermining that alliance.
There could be worse to come. The Trump administration is examining whether automobile imports should be added to steel and aluminum as subject to tariffs on the grounds of national security − grounds that Foreign Affairs Minister Chrystia Freeland Thursday described as “absurd.” Such a decision would be even more disruptive.
Marianne Schneider-Petsinger, a geoeconomics fellow at the British think tank Chatham House, believes the dispute over steel and aluminum tariffs leaves the WTO “between a rock and a hard place.”
If the WTO sides with the Americans, she observes, then any country could impose tariffs against anyone on the grounds of national security. If it sides with the Europeans, who are being joined by the Canadians, then Mr. Trump may simply pull the United States out of the WTO. “It’s not a good scenario in either case,” she says.
Earlier this week, U.S. Trade Secretary Wilbur Ross told European officials that the WTO is too slow and rigid. And the administration is undermining the organization by blocking key appointments.
Can the West survive Mr. Trump? In the short term, Mr. Medhora believes it can.
“Two more years of this we can ride out,” he says. Even six more years − to the end of a second Trump administration − may be survivable.
“But if this becomes a pattern in U.S. public policy after him, then the Western alliance as we know it, and the institutions that uphold it, are in way more trouble than we think,” he believes.
We are still waiting to hear from special counsel Robert Mueller whether Russian President Vladimir Putin’s government actively colluded with people in the Trump campaign to make him president.
If he did, he got his money’s worth.