US president Donald Trump’s erratic and disruptive foreign policy is putting more pressure on the EU to uphold the international liberal order. Current debates over EU responses to Trump’s mercurial diplomacy tend to focus mainly on trade and security. But something far more crucial to propping up the crumbling liberal order needs consideration – the question of whether European and non-Western democratic powers can work together to defend liberal political values.
They can, but the EU will need fundamentally to change its approach to the liberal order to do it. In counterbalance to Trumpian disruption, the EU may be able to preserve a more or less open economic order through its cooperation in particular with China. It may also strike expedient deals with non-democratic regimes like Russia that preserve some modicum of strategic stability. But advancing specific EU interests in this way won’t help maintain liberal political norms.
What is missing is a systematic EU strategy for working with democratic powers outside the West on the political values that supposedly underpin the liberal international order. The EU needs to work with these powers because, while Trump is in office, the transatlantic relationship can no longer be an engine of global democracy. The EU has some sporadic cooperation with the likes of Australia, Canada and Norway, but needs to cast its net far more widely for pro-democracy partners.
Other democracies like Brazil, India, Indonesia, Japan, South Korea and South Africa all now devote significant resources and diplomatic effort to democracy and human rights support. Yet, the EU has made little effort to fashion cooperation with these “rising democracies” specifically on liberal political values. It is telling that the EU has far more cooperation with autocratic regimes on controlling migration than it does with other democratic powers to advance human rights and democratic reforms. Of course, it’s certainly important not to idealize the rising democracies’ emerging activism in international relations. Building liberal cooperation with them will be challenging. Yet, the EU still underplays the potential for cooperation to boost such efforts, preferring a relatively transactional engagement with other democracies.
The fate of the West and the fate of the liberal order are not the same thing. The common assumption that the EU is uniquely committed to liberal order and that the problem lies with everyone else’s illiberalism is misguided. The current alarm over US policies is tempting EU leaders and ministers into an unhealthy bout of self-congratulation. European debate is too heavily focused on how much the rest of the world is falling short of liberal principles rather than on the new avenues the EU itself needs to explore to uphold the international liberal order.
“The EU Needs to Rethink Its Approach to Liberal Order” – Op-Ed by Richard Youngs – Carnegie Europe.