One of the great quirks of geopolitical fate in 2022 was that the Russian invasion of Ukraine solidified the Western alliance that Vladimir Putin hates so much. Who better to tear all that apart than a re-elected Donald Trump?
Mr. Trump makes a lot of claims about his record, including his assertion in his 2024 election-campaign announcement on Tuesday that he – a man who served four years in the White House – went “decades” without a war.
But no one can claim that he was a great builder of alliances. He viewed them as rip-offs, and made friends of the United States feel like they were under assault, rather than on the same team.
The thought of that approach returning to the White House in 2024 should send a chill through the democracies of the world. Few things can be more important to them than building up alliances for a changing world.
Donald Trump doesn’t believe in doing that. In fact, he seems almost pathologically incapable of alliance-building. That makes Mr. Trump the candidate for weakening the West, including its ability to counter threats from Beijing.
There are other reasons to worry about the prospect of Trump 2024, of course, starting with his threat to democratic institutions in the world’s most powerful nation. Countries around the world, including Canada, will fret at the thought of a return of the tumult he brought to relations.
But there is a real danger in a self-centred United States that won’t strengthen alliances to deal with a changing world or challenges from authoritarian powers. He would not have held Western nations together in sanctioning Russia and arming Ukraine.
Mr. Trump does talk a lot about confronting China, but he doesn’t do teamwork.
That is both his politics and his makeup. Anyone who works closely with him eventually submits or is attacked. He let a mob march on the Capitol, calling for the hanging of his vice-president, Mike Pence.
That was his approach in international relations, too. He threatened China with tariffs. But also Europe, Mexico and Canada. He imposed trade penalties on all of them. He didn’t build a common front for dealing with Chinese trade practices. Or Chinese economic coercion.
He didn’t bolster Western solidarity: He wanted Russia allowed back into the G8 group of nations, from which it was expelled for invading Ukraine in 2014 and annexing Crimea.
He played down the value of alliances like the North Atlantic Treaty Organization. Like other U.S. presidents before him, he complained about NATO allies not pulling their weight in military spending, but the way he did it was telling: He complained those allies owed him money, as if he expected to collect cash. He didn’t see shirkers, such as Canada, as shortchanging a common project, because he didn’t believe in common projects.
During Mr. Trump’s tenure, every country scrambled to find ways to deal with him: flattery, delay, distraction, trying to wait out his term and sometimes making a deal. Canada’s Prime Minister, Justin Trudeau, used all of those and eventually accepted mild concessions in renegotiating the North American free-trade agreement.
Mr. Trump took some actions against China, such as imposing steep tariffs on tech products. In fact, President Joe Biden has kept them in place. But Mr. Biden’s administration has also tried to knit together allies on dealing with China.
China’s economy is catching up in size to that of the U.S., and its economic influence with it. But the European Union’s economy is roughly the size of China’s, too. The U.S. will need allies to counter Beijing’s penchant for economic coercion, and other countries, such as Canada, need it more.
There are some signs of a more assertive Western stance. On Wednesday, Britain ordered the reversal of the sale of a microchip plant to a Chinese-owned company. In the past month, Mr. Trudeau’s government ordered Chinese companies to divest holdings in three companies mining lithium, and announced a ban on state-owned foreign investments in critical minerals – and that sudden burst of courage has a lot to do with the fact that it aligns with U.S. policy.
It is not yet a broad, stalwart common front on dealing with Beijing, let alone the world. But it is a sign that democracies are starting to steel themselves to act, ostensibly together. That could have a big impact on how the world evolves over the next generation. But nothing would stop it faster than a second Trump presidency.