The Canadian novelist Stephen Marche once wrote, “Everyone in Canada with any power has the same job” — that is to watch and react to what happens in the United States. He thought too small. That statement doesn’t hold true just for America’s neighbour. It’s fitting for the whole world.
Anyone with any power is now watching with an immeasurable intensity, for the upcoming US presidential election is more significant than any previous one in living memory. Something precious and long taken for granted hangs in the balance: the so-called liberal international order. If President Donald Trump wins again, it may be the beginning of the end for Western power.
Trump wasn't wrong when he said the United States is carrying all the weight of NATO, the military alliance of mostly Western democracies created in the days of the Soviet Union. Such is the responsibility that comes with power.
Since the end of the Second World War, the United States has underpinned the system that is the basis of international engagement: the international bodies such as the United Nations and this general idea of respecting sovereignty and doing diplomacy by treaties and mutually applicable rules.
That system is far from perfect, and the United States hadn't always played fair or been the good guy. But without Big Brother USA walking the world with its big stick, that impact has never been clearer than in the past four years.
When Trump pulls troops from conflicts in Syria and Afghanistan and from bases in its ally Germany; when Trump withdraws from the Iran nuclear deal and the Trans-Pacific Partnership; when Trump treats with hostility NATO and all the other lettered international organizations; when Trump sang the praises of North Korea’s Kim Jong-un and Russia’s Vladimir Putin, but hung up the phone on Australia’s Malcolm Turnbull; when everything Trump did got leaked to media to the extent that one meeting to tell staffers not to leak was itself leaked; when senior officials constantly leave, and someone nicknamed “Mad Dog” resigns by telling the president “You have the right to have a secretary of defense whose views are better aligned with yours”; when all of that happens in just a short four years, Russia and China see weaknesses ripe to be exploited.
China and Russia were challenging the world order long before Trump, but they have gotten more aggressive during his presidency. China has borne down on dissent in the autonomous Hong Kong, put ethnic minorities in what critics charge are concentration camps and aggressively asserted its claim to the South China Sea. Russian rifles have ridden high into the Middle East and Eastern Europe, while evidence has mounted of its overseas assassinations and interference in elections. Russia also reportedly put bounties on the heads of American troops in Afghanistan.
For many in the West, those incidents can sometimes feel abstract and faraway — but some of them hit painfully close to the heart.
In 2018, Canada arrested China’s Meng Wanzhou, chief financial officer of the telecommunications giant Huawei and daughter of its founder. Canada had been acting on an extradition request by the United States, who sought Meng for fraud charges that she denies. China was furious, and swiftly detained two Canadians, one of whom was a diplomat on leave. Geopolitical analysts saw the detentions as retaliation.
Then this year, amid bilateral rifts, came the very deja vu detention of an Australian journalist in China and what two other reporters from Down Under later described as their narrow escape.
Domestic critics point to a million things they say is wrong with Trump, but to the world at large, among the greatest impacts of his presidency are such detentions. They show a boldness on China’s part that would have been unthinkable in the past. China may not dare to go head-to-head with the United States, but it increasingly sees American allies as open game.
At the heart of all that lies the commander-in-chief’s personal weakness.
Trump once changed his mind on North Korea after a 10-minute conversation with China’s Xi Jinping, a scene literally from television — in Season 8 of Homeland that aired this year, while on a phone call, the fictional American president took the advice of a foreign leader over that of his own advisers.
In John Bolton's The Room Where It Happened, the former national security adviser describes how Trump met Xi for dinner unprepared, whereas the latter came with index cards on what to say. Xi flattered the American president heavily, and Trump later gave concessions in trade talks.
The Washington Post reported in 2017 that, in a meeting with Russia’s foreign minister, Trump “boasted”: “I get great intel. I have people brief me on great intel every day,” while revealing classified information so important that the CIA had to pull a spy from the field.
Those are just the incidents the public knows about. Trump had already met privately with Russia’s Putin five times, having conversations about which even his own staff do not know. What we do know is what Trump didn’t say. In an interview with Axios toward the end of July, Trump admitted he still hadn’t mentioned to Putin the reported Russian bounty on American soldiers.
It will take a long time to undo all that damage. It's questionable if the Democrat candidate Joe Biden can do it. But what is certain is that four more years of Trump means more weakening of the chief counterweight for global stability, perhaps to a point that it can no longer be fixed.
Ethan Lou is a freelance Canadian journalist and the author of Field Notes from a Pandemic