Rejecting the future

The United States relinquishes its leading international role by abandoning its commitment to the Paris climate agreement

The United States and Britian have turned inward and away from their places in the international order. Germany and France are preparing to take their place, Geoff Kitney writes.

Two great voices of the post-war era of advocacy of Western leadership in promoting peace, democracy, liberal values and economic development have fallen silent.

It is almost shocking that in a matter of less than 12 months, the United States and Britain have walked away from their roles in what has been the most productive period ever of human development through collective action by leading nations.

Both have turned inward and away from their places in the international order. Both have allowed small-thinking isolationists to take control of their destinies and, as a result, weakened them and the great progressive project whose success owed much to their leadership.

An image from last week’s G7 summit in Sicily of US President Donald Trump and British Prime Minister Theresa May sitting side-by-side, each looking sullen and lost in their own thoughts, captured the essence of this jolting change.

German Chancellor Angela Merkel captured what she believed it meant in her post-G7 observations to a German audience. “The times when we could fully count on others are over to a certain extent,” she said. “I have experienced this in the last few days.”

Then she went on to describe what she believes this means.

“We Europeans must really take our destiny into our own hands, of course in friendship with the United States, in friendship with Great Britain, with our neighbours wherever possible, also with Russia.

“But we must know that we need to fight for our future ourselves – as Europeans, for our destiny.”

She might also have added: “The world is now looking to us”.

The early signs are that in the key European capitals, there is recognition that European leadership is now important beyond European borders.

With President Trump’s announcement that the US is pulling out of the Paris climate change agreement, and with the strong joint statement by Merkel, France’s president Emmanuel Macron and Italian Prime Minister Paolo Gentiloni immediately rejecting Trump’s call for the agreement to be renegotiated, we may already be seeing the first signs of a new western leadership order.

For those who believe that the world is best served by continuing on the path of liberal, democratic progress – and there is every reason to believe that this is still a clear majority in the democratic world and much of the developing world – Merkel’s voice has suddenly become a clarion call.

It will be strengthened by the recent rejection by European voters – in Holland and France – of the European versions of divergent politics represented by Brexit and Trump.

What is interesting about this is that this choice is being made by countries that have fresh memories of the consequences of what happens when populism and nationalism take the all too easy step to brutish extremism.

The US has never known it. Britain felt its hot breath, but was spared by the collective efforts of the Western allies that fought to not only save Britain but to make possible the international order that has proven to be so beneficial to the world.

This is what I don’t understand about Brexit.

How could the British have been conned by the idea that it would serve Britain and its important role in the world by turning in on itself, away from the nations with which it has worked since it joined the European Economic Community to create the stability, security and prosperity which have been the great conditions of Western democratic societies since the middle of the 20th century?

How was it possible for Remainers not to be able to convince a majority of voters that this project was worth continuing to be part of – and that the ills that leaving were supposed to cure would be most likely cured by staying in the EU?

Two central motivating arguments for the leave vote – that it would “cure” Britain of the curse of multiculturalism because it would end mass immigration and allow Britain to lead the world in trade – have already been proven to be based on distortions and exaggerations.

Whether Leave voters cared about Britain’s voice in the world is unclear, but one thing is for sure – with its deep pre-occupation with the actual, complicated mechanics of separating from the EU, Britain’s leaders are not going to have much time to think about anything else for at least the next two years.

And given that British English is the only language that Donald Trump is likely to be willing to listen to, this is a very serious loss for the world as it faces the consequences of a Trump-driven American retreat.

In these circumstances, it is easy to see why those who understand the importance of defending and promoting the international values for which the Trans-Atlantic Alliance has been the foundation are now looking to Europe.

French President Emmanuel Macron tonight invited the world to work with France to protect the planet

In particular, they are looking at the newest partnership of world affairs – that between Angela Merkel and Emmanuel Macron, the recently elected centrist French president.

In the gloom of the past 12 months, the emergence of Macron and the encouragement he has given to Merkel to step up to the task of being a leader for all of Europe, are the positive developments that were needed to counter increasing despair.

With Trump demented and Britain distracted, wise and strong European leadership was never more necessary.

The big challenges that Trump is shirking and Britain is too pre-occupied to give much thought to – economic leadership, standing against increasingly extreme nationalism and authoritarianism, refugees and migration, co-operative global action on climate change and relieving global poverty and inequity – are all causes to which a Merkel-Macron partnership can provide desperately needed leadership.

But their challenge is to look beyond Europe, even though much of the early energy of their partnership will be directed at reform of the European Union.

People outside Europe have as much hope invested in their European leadership as those inside it.

The early signs are that in the key European capitals, there is recognition that European leadership is now important beyond European borders.

The world will be watching and hoping Europe is up to this challenge.