18.06.2020 Author: Salman Rafi Sheikh

Divisions, Not the Pandemic, are Ripping ‘the West’ Apart


The fact that Trump’s call for an in-person G7 meeting in the US in June has been rejected by the member countries of this group has more substance to it than meets the eye, although a major apparent reason for the rejection is the pandemic. If it were just the pandemic, Trump would never have hit back by extending a direct invitation to Russia and even India and South Korea. A direct invitation to Russia was/is meant only to send a message to its European ‘allies’ and Canada, countries that have become extremely weary of their relationship with the Trump administration, and have been taking steps to assert their foreign policy more independently. Their rejection of Trump’s invitation is a potential continuation of the same assertion. On the contrary, Trump’s reaction reveals a deep sense of frustration engulfing the White House over their increasing inability to steer the world single-handedly. Those divisions, not the pandemic, are ripping ‘the West’ apart is also evident from the way Trump had stormed out of the 2018 G7 summit, calling Canada’s leader a ‘weak and dishonest’ person.

Already in March, the G7 ministerial summit ended in almost a squabble over the question of the categorisation of COVID-19, leading the meeting to end in a complete disarray and without a joint statement. Whereas the US wanted to call COVID-19 “Wuhan virus” to specifically target China and thus extend its on-going trade-war to the biological arena, the US’ European and non-European allies still chose to call it COVID-19. European diplomats reportedly said that ‘What the US State Department has suggested is a red line. You cannot agree with this branding of this virus and trying to communicate this’, deliberately projecting China as the sole reason for the spread of the virus. A European consent to call it “Wuhan virus” would have eventually pulled them into the US’ on-going troubled relations with China, a situation that the member countries, particularly those from Europe, have been trying to avoid not only in case of China but Iran as well.

The prevailing troubled relations are, as such, already negatively affecting other areas of US-European ties. Following Germany’s categorical refusal to attend an in-person summit in June, the White House has asked for a substantial reduction of US military personnel stationed in Germany. This also comes against the larger backdrop of US-Germany tussle over the latter’s persistent failure in meeting the threshold of spending 2% of GDP on defence as recommended by the NATO.

According to the new orders, the number of US troop in Germany would be reduced by 9,500 from 34,500 of those that were permanently assigned there. It would also cap at 25,000 the number of American troops in Germany at any one time, downsizing from the current limit of 52,000 troops.

The decision has been taken alongside Trump’s call for inviting Russia to attend the G7 meeting, calling the Russian presence a show of ‘common sense.’

While Trump’s invitation has been criticised by the European countries, even for the US establishment itself, this invitation carries no real substance and is meant to taunt Europe only; for, as far as the Trump administration’s defence strategy goes, Russia remains a ‘malign power’ bent upon undoing the world system controlled by the US.

This move, while apparently reflects US-Germany tensions, carries with it seeds of further distancing between the US and other European and non-European allies. In other words, this move is not only bound to widen the gaps between the US and Germany but the US and other European/NATO allies as well, who are likely to see in these steps a concerted US policy to force them into spending more on their defence and take direct responsibility—a policy direction that would inevitably allow Europe in the long run to regrow its military power and thus turn the world into a truly multipolar system. German Chancellor Angela Merkel was categorical in this regard when she recently said that “Whatever form the G7 meeting takes, a video conference or whatever, I will certainly fight for multilateralism.”

The ‘fight for multilateralism’ is surely rooted in the increasing European assertiveness vis-à-vis its relations with Russia and China. Whereas some European countries and Canada swiftly rejected Trump’s invitation to Russia, the fact remains that Germany is still going ahead with its plans of Nord Stream 2, a project that the US is targeting and has even sanctioned. In fact, Trump has only recently expanded sanctions on this project, signalling the US’ continued obsession with not allowing Russia a major presence in Europe’s energy market. An irony of this new expansion lies in the fact that the new sanctions were proposed only a day after Trump sent Russia an invitation to attend the G7 summit.

While Russia is unlikely to attend the summit under the current circumstances, there is no gainsaying that both Russia and China see in this unravelling of ‘the West’ an opportunity to expand ties with Europe and create new channels of relations that defy the traditional ‘NATO logic’ of necessary hostility.

While Russia is strengthening its presence in Europe through its energy supply lines, China, too, is using the situation created by COVID-19 to strengthen its ties with Europe. In his telephonic conversation with Macron, Xi called for “China-France contributions” to winning the global battle against the COVID-19 pandemic. Xi proposed similar things to Germany in his conversation with Angela in the first week of June.

There is as such little gainsaying that political divisions within ‘the West’ are ripping it apart on an unprecedented scale, allowing Russia and China to directly expand their reach in Europe in ways that would leave minimum room for the US to manoeuvre and pushback.

Salman Rafi Sheikh, research-analyst of International Relations and Pakistan’s foreign and domestic affairs, exclusively for the online magazine “New Eastern Outlook”.

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