Through the looking glass (aka the Atlantic Ocean)

In Lewis Carroll’s sequel to Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland (1865), the day-dreamer Alice wonders what it is like to live on the other side of a mirror’s reflection. The novel, Through the Looking-Glass, and What Alice Found There (1871) recounts the protagonist’s surreal adventures, which follows a pattern parallel to that of the story’s prequel: the first book has the deck of cards as a theme, and uses changes of size as a plot device; while the second one is based on the rules of a game of chess and uses distortions in time and spatial directions as plot devices. This article is about a different type of Wonderland though: Trump’s United States, and its new foreign policy…

If you are into far-fetched parallels, then it might seem that in 2017, that looking-glass is the Atlantic Ocean, which appears to be separating two increasingly different yet parallel words: the European Union (EU) and the United States (US). Ever since Donald Trump became the 45th president of the United States, the world expected a shift in international diplomacy, especially based on what he advocated for during his presidential campaign. He promised to lead the country “like a business”, which also applies to how he would manage US foreign policy. His “America first” rhetoric offers an interesting mix between political realism and economic bargaining.

“It’s better to be feared than loved”?

In international relations, political realism considers that the ultimate goal of any political action is (or should be) power; as opposed to political idealism, which assumes that this goal should be to improve the overall welfare of the world and to, ideally, “make the world a better place”.

According to Mr. Trump, foreign relations should be transactional. The main motivation behind how the US should deal with other countries is the gains that the US can aspire to get, whether in terms of increasing material wealth or soft-power. If forging alliances with autocratic leaders (like certain Putins and Sisis) serves the interests of the US, so be it. If allowing some Muslims and Mexicans into the US will compromise the country’s national security, then imposing a ban or building a wall is the answer. The end justifies the means.

Meanwhile, on the other side of the Atlantic, Europeans leaders are slowly adopting an idealist foreign policy. Ever since the shock of Brexit and, especially more recently with the election of Emanuel Macron as the new President of France, Europeans feel more and more in charge of managing the world’s general welfare: their leaders want to promote tolerance, unity, and the protection of the environment. Two key incidents can prove this: on one hand, when Trump announced that the US is going to pull out of the Paris climate agreement, European leaders held their grounds. They united around the same cause: opposing Trump on the controversial issue that is climate change. Macron even announced that he wants to “make the planet great again”, an initiative to recruit scientists to join the battle against climate change. Along with the defying hand shake between the two leaders, the youngest French President was openly challenging, and even slightly trolling Trump. On the other hand, after Trump’s first NATO and G7 meetings, Germany’s chancellor Angela Merkel declared that “the EU can no longer count on the US or the United Kingdom (UK)” to take matters into its own hands, suggesting that the post-war western alliance is falling apart. Europe can only count on itself to live by its own ideals.

Historically, the “West” has never been as openly divided as it is in 2017, especially on international matters that affect the whole planet. On one side, Trump wants the US to focus more on its internal problems and “making America great again”, which explains his transactional approach to foreign relations, and what might be seen as pre-world-war protectionism. On the other side, the EU is determined more than ever to remain
united as one block in order to fight the rise of extremism on both ends of the political spectrum. Both sides of the Atlantic Ocean are determined to stand by their principles, which makes this division more visible.

‘Which way I ought to go from here?’ ‘That depends a good deal on where you want to get to’

In 2016, democracy faced unexpected shocks in the EU and the US. When the majority of British citizens decided to vote against remaining in the EU, and when Trump won the electoral college, political analysts started linking these turnouts to the effects of post-truth politics and the rejection of “the establishment” in the two countries. A political trend was apparently starting from the Anglo-Saxon world. However, only a few months after these results, the old and new continents seem to be going towards different directions: the apparent unity in Europe seems to be mirrored with division in the US.

In Europe, it seems that having a common problem is uniting European citizens and leaders alike. European leaders are taking advantage of the general opposition to Trump’s policies to both unite their citizens around common causes, and also gain a few votes along the way. They are using Trump as an embodiment of everything they stand against, which is proving to resonate really well among European voters. Just like the Communist threat forced Europe to unite during the Cold War, the new American Administration allowed Europeans to reflect on their own positions regarding hot issues such as climate change, refugees, and the fight against terrorism. At the moment, it appears that the more a European politician is openly opposed to Trump, the more popular they become, especially among the younger generations. The popularity of Emanuel Macron and London’s mayor Sadiq Khan, or the unpopularity of Theresa May—who is perceived as more reluctant to publicly distance herself from Trump—seem to prove it. As for the shock of the Brexit vote, the EU looks determined to use it as an example to show how useful the Union is, and why there is a need for strengthening it even further.

On the other side of the Ocean, division and uncertainty reign. Trump’s first months in office are destabilizing what was thought to be long standing traditions in American poli-
tics. Putting aside Trump’s political scandals and media feuds, the American political scene is still transitioning from one administration to the succeeding one. The Republican party is trying to unite behind Trump, but is failing to keep Trump’s promise of repealing and replacing Obamacare and to even justify some of the President’s behaviours. Another internal division separates the States from the Federal Administration: After announcing the US’s retreat from the Paris Climate agreement, a coalition of 17 states, led by Trump’s own New York state, filed a legal challenge against his executive order, advocating that the new administration has a legal duty to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. Moreover, several states, also including New York, are challenging Trump’s travel ban, claiming that it is discriminatory and would be harmful to the states. Trump’s disapproval rates are nearing 60%. While these rates are not the worst a US president has ever seen, his popularity is falling faster than that of any of his predecessors. On the international front, the United States’ popularity and confidence in its president have collapsed nearly everywhere, according to the newest Pew Poll. Finally, the new administration is yet to set a clear policy on key international issues such as Syria’s civil war, North Korea’s threats and terrorism.

“Curiouser and curiouser!”

This article draws parallels between the US, Europe, and Lewis Carroll’s Alice in Wonderland. This is curious on its own, but it may say something about today’s world. Will these changes on the international political scene mark the official decline of the US as the world’s leading power? Will the EU emerge as a stronger international actor? How will Russia fit into this new world order? These are all new questions waiting for a relative stabilization of the international scene in order to have answers.

Foreign policy is the most perfect example of a public good: everyone benefits from a “good” policy, and no single individual can affect it on their own. Paradoxically, foreign policy is also considered as the least democratic branch of policies, since the executive power of a government can have the final decision on the most crucial topics without consulting the representatives of the citizens. With the election of a group of diverse new world leaders, such as Trump, Macron, and May, and the well-known resilience of established leaders such as Merkel and Putin, we will most likely see a shift in foreign policy as we know it. We may want to start following the Queen of Hearts’ advice and start “[believing] as many as six impossible things before breakfast”, if we want to be able to predict what might happen next.

by Mahi ElAttar


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