You can get a good idea of how Donald Trump has changed the world from the list of leaders who want him to win re-election, including Russia’s Vladimir Putin, China’s Xi Jinping and North Korea’s Kim Jong-un.
That’s a who’s who of national leaders who want to see the United States' traditional alliances, and the world order that the U.S. fostered in the latter half of the 20th century, disintegrate.
In countries the U.S. used to count as allies, the list of Trump supporters is pretty small. You could name NATO member Turkey, perhaps, though strongman President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has made the country less of a U.S. ally than a personal ally of Mr. Trump. Maybe you could add British Prime Minister Boris Johnson, who wants assurance of a post-Brexit trade deal with the U.S., and is apparently foolish enough to count on Mr. Trump for it.
But nearly all of what used to be the “like-minded” friends of the United States, in Europe, Japan, South Korea, or Prime Minister Justin Trudeau here in Canada, are more or less holding their breath hoping challenger Joe Biden defeats Mr. Trump.
This President, after all, damaged the very idea of alliances with the U.S. He played capricious games with trade deals, threatened to pull the rug out of security alliances, and mucked up the gears of institutions such as the World Trade Organization – he weakened the things American allies had counted on.
It’s no wonder allies such as Canada live in hope that Mr. Trump will turn out to be a one-term anomaly, and that things will go back to the way they were.
But that’s not plausible, even if Mr. Trump loses. There’s no going back to the pre-Trump world.
Canadian policy watchers have a tendency to focus on what it means for bilateral relations: Which president would be better for us? A couple of answers have been proffered: Mr. Biden would put the U.S. back into international efforts to combat climate change, more in line with Mr. Trudeau’s policy, but his economic-recovery plans are full of Buy American policies that suggest barriers for Canadian trade.
But the big thing is that Mr. Trump essentially declared the end of U.S. global leadership. Once, there was an idea that the world should (and would) move toward rules-based trade and economic exchanges, with a dominant U.S. power extending an umbrella of safety to its allies. But free trading is no longer an ideal, U.S.-built global institutions such as the WTO are dysfunctional, and the U.S. is less willing to be a security guarantor for the planet.
Mr. Biden may symbolize a return to normalcy, but he can’t return to that past. There’s no mood for free trading in the U.S., or an expansion of trade agreements. He might want to reform the WTO, but he probably won’t fight with Congress about it.
The idea that the U.S. might lead a revival of a global order clashes with the fact that there is now a rivalry with rising China. The desire to keep the U.S. out of foreign entanglements comes from the American public, not the politicians.
And Mr. Trump, in four years, injected insecurity into the very idea of making alliances with the U.S. Even Canadians were subject to a threat that their economy would be wrecked if they didn’t sign a new trade deal – and Mr. Trump never entirely dropped the idea he could do it again.
For countries like Russia and China, that kind of behaviour was good, on balance. It weakened the bonds between the allies that had lined up against them. When it was directed at them, they found Mr. Trump willing to make ad hoc deals. For Beijing, a deal-making adversarial Trump administration is better than a consistently adversarial Biden administration.
Yet, in some ways, Mr. Trump only accelerated confrontations that we can now see were coming, anyway. He wasn’t wrong that China was becoming increasingly threatening, just in using a bilateral trade war to confront it. The U.S. public was withdrawing from areas of global leadership even under former president Barack Obama.
Mr. Biden, if he becomes president, won’t make U.S. power a global umbrella again, not in the same way. He’s not going to rebuild global trade rules, or the WTO, in four years. There will be an increasing U.S. rivalry with China – and other countries, like Canada, will have to find their place in that dynamic.
The United States of the pre-Trump world won’t be coming back.
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