When was the last time a British prime minister cancelled a White House summit with a US president? Possibly never. Yet that’s what Boris Johnson did after a livid, cursing Donald Trump slammed the phone down on him in a row over the Chinese firm, Huawei.
Now a planned tête-à-tête in Washington next month, already twice delayed, is off. Not postponed. Not rescheduled. Off. So much for “Britain Trump”, the servile moniker the president pinned on Johnson last year. So much for the “special relationship”. Perhaps it was always doomed to end in tears.
Imperious, bullying American behaviour, political arm-twisting and shameless economic blackmail over a post-Brexit trade deal pose big problems for Britain in a time of deep uncertainty. But other US partners are in the same boat.
If a reminder were needed, it came in the form of Mike Pompeo, US secretary of state and Trump’s most influential adviser, who pompously lectured fractious European leaders at last weekend’s Munich security conference.
Pompeo reassured mutinous allies that, despite unilateralist, isolationist appearances, America remained committed to global leadership. “The death of the transatlantic alliance is grossly over-exaggerated. The west is winning. We are collectively winning. We’re doing it together,” he declared.
This is utter hogwash. And almost everyone outside a dishonest, self-deceiving circle of Republican stooges and Trump toadies knows it. Together? In many respects, the US and Europe are further apart than at any time since 1941.
Pompeo’s speech revealed a cold war mindset that crudely divides the world into friends and foes, separated by walls, missiles, sanctions, insults, and mutually assured dysfunction. For Pompeo, who referenced his formative experience as a soldier patrolling “freedom’s frontier” in West Berlin in the 1980s, there is no middle way. It’s a black-and-white world ruled by fear and force. It’s pure regression.
Pompeo laid into China over military expansionism, debt diplomacy and cyber threats. Fair enough. But if he wants things to change, he needs to talk calmly. The coronavirus epidemic, like Huawei’s controversial G5 networks and Beijing’s HS2 bid, shows how inescapably interdependent China and western countries already are. When Jaguar Land Rover runs short of parts, Apple iPhones grow scarce and Lake District B&Bs bemoan missing tourists, all because Hubei is stricken by a virus, it’s plain the global die is cast. Whether for security, trade, political, or public health reasons, it’s too late to isolate China.
Whether for security, trade, political, or public health reasons, it’s too late to isolate China
Pompeo had it in for Russia and Iran, too – another evil empire, in his telling, that wages “campaigns of terror in the Middle East and right here in Europe”. Strange, then, that Europeans mostly believe Trump’s Iran vendetta to be dangerous and foolish. Stranger still how Trump sucks up to Vladimir Putin.
Pompeo’s broader theme – that the west, representing freedom and democracy, is winning – is no less daft. Only people with their heads stuck in the self-congratulatory, delusional cloud that frequently envelops Washington could seriously make such a ridiculous claim about the world in 2020.
What kind of foggy thinking or wilful blindness allows a senior politician to indulge such complacency when, as he speaks, not so far away, hundreds of thousands of refugees are being mercilessly bombed on Idlib’s freezing hillsides?
Almost 10 years ago, Syrians rose up in search of the freedom and democracy Pompeo lauds. But they got precious little help from the west. The story of the war, in part, is the story of how the west lost Syria, lost other Arab spring countries – and lost credibility everywhere.
Or let’s look at nuclear disarmament as the 1970 non-proliferation treaty’s (NPT) review conference approaches in April. While the climate emergency dominates the news, nuclear weapons remain the fast-track route to Armageddon. Is non-proliferation a battle the west is winning? Hardly. Trump tore up a key medium-range missile agreement with Russia last year. Now experts fear the 2010 New Start strategic weapons treaty is headed the same way.
Contrary to the spirit of the NPT, both the US and Russia are deploying new weapons, including low-yield, tactical warheads that increase the risk of nuclear warfare. Meanwhile, Trump’s blundering, hypocritical efforts to force North Korea and Iran to forsake nukes altogether are a bust.
Putin’s Russia seizes territory in Ukraine, subverts other people’s elections, and assassinates opponents in foreign cities without effective western punishment. The more China’s brutal repression of its Muslim minority is documented, the more European governments look away. About this, at least, Pompeo is right.
But he is dead wrong about Palestine and the Israeli land-grab recently endorsed by Trump. Such blatant theft overturns decades of binding UN resolutions. It makes a mockery of the “international rules-based order” – and any semblance of justice. Might these and many other unaddressed crises, including Yemen, Kashmir and Myanmar’s ethnically cleansed Rohingyas, reasonably be called “wins” for western values? Of course not.
And away from conflict zones, new technologies, far from bolstering free societies, deliver ever more pervasive, pernicious means of monitoring, controlling and censoring citizens.
Across the globe, the battlements of open governance are under attack while its defenders are betrayed from within. Authoritarian regimes are on the up. Intolerant rightwing populists and ultra-nationalist mini-Trumps are on the march.
No, Mr Pompeo. “America First” may work for some in your country. But “the west”, meaning a multinational, democratic alliance that champions shared principles, aims and laws, is not winning. If this were a movie, it would be called How The West Was Lost – with Trump as outlaw-in-chief.