EU must come to terms with end of Anglo-American hegemony
West no longer so dominant in world affairs
European Council president Donald Tusk’s blunt warning that the EU can be either a pawn or an independent actor in this new world politics is a remarkable shot across the bows of those who say Trump and Brexit are electorally reversible. Photograph: Reuters
For three centuries Anglo-American power has dominated world politics and has recently set much of the West’s global agenda. That period is rapidly drawing to an end with Donald Trump and Brexit.
Transatlantic relations between the United States and the European Union are in crisis over Iran, trade, climate change and the Middle East but Anglo-America no longer upholds the liberal values they were previously based upon. As Donald Tusk told last week’s European summit: “With friends like this, who needs enemies?”
The twin issues of Trump’s policies and Brexit are more symptoms than causes of the deep changes we are living through. Transatlantic relations based on liberal democracy, the rule of law, capitalist globalisation, common security and multilateralism were fundamental shapers of the West as a single standard of civilisation to order world politics in the three generations after the second World War.
That war marked the passing of control from Britain’s empire to US imperial hegemony; but their joint authorship of those values during the Cold War with the Soviet Union survived after it ended and was shared with other European states in the 1990s and 2000s.
The Trump administration makes it clear that a future US-UK trade deal would have to come close to US regulatory priorities on food, manufactured goods and services rather than being linked to the EU’s single market and customs union. That is one good reason why the Irish Border issue has such wide geopolitical resonance for EU negotiators
Tensions over defence spending, economic competition and geopolitical priorities like China, Asia and the Middle East were managed through Nato, the WTO, the UN and other multilateral organisations. There was a mutual understanding that their common interests and values in a changing world outweighed conflicting ones.
Trump and Brexit sharply reverse those co-operative patterns. Both are based on a reassertion of national sovereignty and a desire to seek out bilateral rather than multilateral ways to realise interests. They question the 20th century’s transformation of liberal Anglo-American values from a model that put white Protestant males at the top of its civilisational hierarchy in the 19th century to an inclusive multicultural politics to shape a more democratic world.
Such similarities mask competitive differences. The Trump administration makes it clear that a future US-UK trade deal would have to come close to US regulatory priorities on food, manufactured goods and services rather than being linked to the EU’s single market and customs union. That is one good reason why the Irish Border issue has such wide geopolitical resonance for EU negotiators and why the Anglo-American alternative to the EU is now so absent from Irish political discourse. America First has little room for a non-compliant Britain.
Tusk’s blunt warning that the EU can be either a pawn or an independent actor in this new world politics is a remarkable shot across the bows of those who say Trump and Brexit are electorally reversible.
Rather does he point to a more polarised and fragmented world in which the EU must be more united economically, politically and in security and defence. The multilateral values of liberal transatlanticism would continue to underpin its action. But they would need to come to terms with an emerging world no longer so dominated by the West.
Making that transition is a real challenge. Anglo-America’s disintegration reflects the declining power of both these states and the rising position of other world regions and states, Asia and China most notably.
As geopolitical theorists argue, it is an historic and potentially dangerous transition. US military strength far outweighs that of other world powers. Under Trump US diplomacy is being hollowed out and he relies much more on military leadership and the residual hegemonic power of the dollar and extra-territorial sanctions to get his way on trade, Iran and China. That logic points to war if power fails to deliver results.
The liberal West cleaved to a single and universal account of its values and interests despite its actual diversity and conflicting interests. There were and are several wests, not just the Anglo-American one. Making western values genuinely universal involves recognising this diversity and pluralism within and without. We are moving into a period when more particular and fewer common values will apply. That creates deep collective action problems on climate change, sustainable development goals and world security.
If the EU is to carry weight in this more multi-polar world it certainly needs more unity. But it must also embrace what the international relations scholar Peter Katzenstein calls a “polymorphic globalism” more appropriate for a world in which there are multiple ways to be modern. The West’s all too easily assumed single liberal standard of civilised behaviour gives way to a “loose sense of shared values entailing often contradictory notions of diversity in a common humanity”.