Events & News


The Trump Empire Strikes Back – And how should the EU respond?


by Dr Yeo Lay Hwee (Director, EU Centre in Singapore)

The views expressed in this commentary are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of the European Union or the EU Centre in Singapore.

A printable version of the commentary is available HERE.

For some time now, the commentaries, op-eds and analyses in the liberal press have suggested a US retrenchment and withdrawal from the “liberal world order” under the Trump administration. Indeed, what the US has been doing under Trump is neither liberal nor orderly, but it is also not a retrenchment from the world. What Trump is really trying to do is to reassert US primacy in the world through brute force – through verbal insults, through its financial and market power, and if necessary military might. Trump is giving substance to its America First policy not by making the US more competitive and unbeatable but by browbeating others into retreat. The US is not in retreat. Instead Trump is trying to make “Pax Americana” in his own image. Realising that America is not exactly in the sweetest spot, and that others are fast catching up or even ahead, the only way Trump feels America could win is that others lose. So, he is on a war of attrition wearing down others with his constant tweets and threats, and using divisive tactics to undermine multilateral institutions and coalitions that stand in his way.

So what should the rest of us do to counter such a disruptive or disorientating strategy by Trump? If I may use a popular catch phrase – it is to “Keep Calm and Carry On!” It is particularly important at this juncture when we are faced with Trump’s twitter-storm and rain of insults that we armed ourselves with a strong umbrella and watch our steps. Ignore the sound and fury but watch for the lightning strike and don’t sleepwalk into a drain.

European countries who are traditional allies of the US are particularly rattled by Trump for his disregard for friends and allies, and his takedown of the European Union (EU). How should the EU in particular respond to Trump and what should the EU carry on with? Two phrases and one word in the 2016 EU Global Strategy stand out to me as the best defence the EU has against Trump’s bullying – Principled Pragmatism, Strategic Autonomy and Unity.

Principled Pragmatism
The EU must hold fast to those principles that has helped Europe achieve peace and reconciliation but be pragmatic and flexible enough to change tacks and strategy when confronted with an increasingly complex and contested world. Bruno Macaes, former Europe Minister for Portugal, wrote in Politico (13/6/2018) that Europe needs “fresh thinking and a less moralistic approach” and most importantly less posturing and more action.

With an eye on its own core interests, the EU needs to work doubly hard to strengthen old alliances, create new partnerships, and empowered functional networks across the world. Principled pragmatism will also mean that despite the EU’s dislike for Trump, the EU would still have to work with the US on many common challenges and especially when their interests converge. It is therefore important to focus on Trump’s policies and actions and not his personality and tweets.

The EU has to be confident of its own strength, resources and resourcefulness to confront a changing world. As the old order crumbles, it should be in the forefront to help fashion a new, more inclusive and pluralistic order with partners across the globe. Collaboration and compromise are the touchstones of principled pragmatism, and the EU should be investing in relevant networks and partnership to build a new principled framework for global engagement.

Strategic Autonomy
While the EU cannot walk away entirely from the transatlantic alliance, it is clear that the EU can no longer depend on the US for its security. In fact there are even speculations that after pulling the US out of the Trans Pacific Partnership (TPP), Paris Climate Agreement, United Nations Education, Science and Cultural Organisation (UNESCO), and most recently the UN Human Rights Council, Trump may also withdraw from NATO.

The EU therefore needs to formulate its own security and defence strategy and endow sufficient resources for the EU to have the capacity to act on its own when necessary. In short, the EU needs to develop a strategic narrative – its own view of the world, and then translate it into an operational strategy or plan of action.

Small steps have been taken in this direction. Beginning with the implementation of Permanent Structured Cooperation (PESCO), a treaty-based framework and process to deepen defence cooperation among EU member states, it is an important step to enable Europeans to act jointly and more autonomously in defence of their own security interests.

The road to strategic autonomy for the EU is long and winding, but there is no turning back as the EU needs to get more serious about its own security, and it is also something that its citizens demand.

Whether it is principled pragmatism or strategic autonomy, ultimately, the first and foremost asset and real strength of the EU is its Unity. Without Unity – a unity of purpose and action – the EU will always operate below its potential and punch below its weight. The EU Global Strategy said it loud and clear : “Forging unity as Europeans – across institutions, states and peoples – has never been so vital nor so urgent. Never has our unity been so challenged. Together we will be able to achieve more than Member States acting alone or in an uncoordinated manner.”

Yes, this is also an area that the EU has much to work on. Many issues continue to divide the member states, from how to deal with Russia, to Eurozone reforms and most insidious of all at this juncture, the issue over the management of the influx of refugees and asylum seekers, made worse by the populists and those riding on Trump’s demagoguery.

The optimists in the EU believed that Brexit and America First means Europe United. Let’s hope they are right, and that the EU will be able to forge a certain level of unity to remain globally engaged.