Eliot Cohen: Trump fails his rendezvous in France
The Republican front-runner, Donald Trump, expressed strongly pro-Brexit views. Many in Britain counted on Trump, should he win, to fast-track a U.S.-U.K. free-trade agreement that would more than compensate for any economic shocks of EU exit. Some are still counting on it, long after they should have known better. Instead, Trump hit Britain, as well as other trade partners, with steel and aluminum tariffs in the summer of 2018—and then threatened a follow-on strike against autos, an important British export to the U.S.
Now the British are well and truly stuck. Under present EU rules, they cannot simply give up Brexit after having formally initiated the departure process. They would now legally have to apply for readmission to the European Union—and as a newly admitted state, they would theoretically be obliged to submit to the Euro currency and to the Schengen rules on free movement of labor. The pre-Brexit U.K. had been exempt from those rules.
But it’s not just Britain that is the loser. Brexit, along with Trump’s trade war, is jolting the world economy, frightening financial markets, and edging us all closer to the next global recession. Trump’s big deficit-financed tax cuts have pushed the U.S. into deficits as deep as those incurred to fight the Iraq War. The most powerful anti-recession stimulus available is freer trade.
A responsible American president would pull America’s friends back from this brink. For all the anguish, Brexit has not happened yet. Britain has filed formal notice of its intention to leap off the precipice, but its feet as yet still touch the ground. The EU authorities have accepted the notice, but paperwork does sometimes get postponed, revised, lost, or forgotten. By now, the U.K. and EU alike would likely welcome a face-saving compromise—one that spares the U.K. the humiliation of asking to be released from the exit process it triggered, and that protects the EU from the disruption of losing its most economically dynamic and militarily capable member state. The EU’s own rules offer no obvious off-ramp from the looming crunch—but American help and American pressure might possibly construct such an off-ramp just in time.
Maybe the solution is postponement followed by a second British referendum on the choice between the new renegotiated deal and the pre-2016 EU status quo.
To date, though, America has played no role, raised no voice. Trump has repeatedly welcomed Brexit. His national-security adviser has long advocated it. The rest of the administration is too paralyzed and dysfunctional to remonstrate against the president’s malign indifference, much less reverse it.
Why is America AWOL when Britain and Europe need America more than they have perhaps at any time since 1989? Who abdicated American leadership in a way that damages every U.S. strategic and economic interest, while also staining America’s long-standing image as a faithful and helpful ally? How did “America First” become code for “U.S. Friends Abandoned; U.S. Interests Betrayed”?
You know the answer—and it’s an answer that underscores that as lazy, inept, and frivolous as this administration appears from day to day, from year to year it is inflicting deeply serious harm that may never be healed.