Japan Trilateral Forum Day 1:
European Disunion, Trump’s World, and Globalization in Reverse?
BRUSSELS — One of the best things about being an alumnus of the GMF Young Strategists Forum is having the opportunity to participate in some of GMF other fantastic events. This week, December 5–6, for example, I have the good fortune to be a fly on the wall at the third Japan Trilateral Forum in Brussels — a forum designed to encourage the development of Japan-Europe-U.S. relations by bringing together policymakers, intellectuals, journalists, and business leaders to discuss some of the most pressing issues in global politics.
The panels today addressed key challenges facing the liberal order as we know it — focusing especially on the consequences of Brexit for European unity and what the election of Trump in the United States means for U.S. foreign policy over the next four years.
Here are a few key snippets from today’s lively discussions.
Brexit and European Disunity
Of all the political shocks of 2016, Brexit was perhaps the most existential. The U.K.’s vote to leave the EU challenged key principles of European integration and shook the foundations of a central pillar of the liberal order. It is clear that uncertainty is still running high regarding the full implications of the outcome given the many details still to be negotiated. Yet, throughout the discussion, there was general agreement that the referendum result will be a force for greater elite conservatism within Europe. Leaders will likely be more defensive and less willing to engage in the kind of institutional reform needed to bolster the union — a reaction probably reinforced by yesterday’s referendum results in Italy. Lack of reform, however, will not appease Euro-sceptics; therefore, serious questions remain about the long-term resilience and credibility of European institutions.
Participants expressed more concern about the intentions of China and Russia, who can both gain economically and politically from continued European disunity.
One of the key strengths of this conference is its multi-region composition, and the view of Brexit from outside of Europe is mixed. Key allies, like Japan, continue to view the U.K. and EU member states as sharing a strong commitment to the liberal order, irrespective of the referendum results, and Brexit may even have been a positive force in pushing forward the EU-Japan free-trade agreement. India also seems similarly un-phased. Participants expressed more concern about the intentions of China and Russia, who can both gain economically and politically from continued European disunity. To guard against this outcome, European leaders will need to think strategically to counter domestic, internal threats, as well as external challenges to the unity of the Western alliance.
Trump’s Foreign Policy
The mixed discussion on the Trump Administration and what policymakers should expect from its foreign policy revealed the difficulty in predicting the President-elect’s future agenda. Nevertheless, Trump’s commitment to economic and military strength versus diplomacy and soft power has been a consistent theme throughout his campaign. The real question is how these themes will play out in practice.
Despite an overall uncertain outlook, panelists tried to note some positives: Trump’s cabinet appointments come from the establishment despite his promise to “drain the swamp,” and he has reached out to allies in Asia early, including South Korea and Japan. Moreover, the seeming lack of preparedness prior to assuming office creates scope for domestic and international actors to influence Trump’s priorities in the foreign policy space.
Participants agreed Trump’s election also marks the death of the Trans-Pacific Trade Partnership (TPP), which will likely be replaced with a series of bilateral trade deals, if anything at all given his protectionist platform.
These few positives, however, were outweighed by some serious negatives. Trump’s unpredictability as a leader was highlighted as a key impediment to stable international relations. The recent call with Taiwan’s President Tsai Ing-wen is just one example of his erratic behavior, and heralds a key shift in U.S. policy — whether intentional or not. Participants agreed Trump’s election also marks the death of the Trans-Pacific Trade Partnership (TPP), which will likely be replaced with a series of bilateral trade deals, if anything at all given his protectionist platform. Finally, Trump’s rhetoric throughout the campaign — especially his anti-diversity platform — signals a shift away from a values-based leadership that the U.S. has long championed and comes at a time when European leaders are facing similar currents in their own electorates.
Looking to the immediate future, there seemed to be general agreement among participants that much would be gained from Trump publicly reassuring allies, especially in Asia, of Washington’s continued commitment to providing extended deterrence. This would not only ease allies’ insecurity, but would also send a strong signal to Russia and China who may consider testing U.S. resolve.
Interestingly, President-elect Trump’s position towards Asia was less of a concern to some participants than his relationship with Europe. His connections to the European far-right and poor relations with Chancellor Merkel may mark the beginnings of a turbulent period for the United States and continental Europe.