The EU-Japan Relationship Holds the Keys to Saving the Liberal International Order

With the United States effectively taking a backseat in the international rules based system, Andy Laub argues that only the EU and Japan are particularly poised to fill the vacuum left behind by the U.S.


With the United States in retreat from the world stage under President Donald Trump’s “America First” foreign policy, burden sharing among other powers has already begun to take hold in order to save the rules-based international order. Many international relations scholars and observers agree that the U.S-China relationship is the most important bilateral relationship in the world for setting the global agenda. Given the superpower and global economic status of both countries, however, there is good reason to be skeptical of both countries’ democratic commitments under Presidents Trump and Xi.

It’s no secret that President Donald Trump is hostile to the post-Cold War global order. The postwar international order, the president of the United States declared, is “not working at all.” He has criticized its pillars in the United States’ allies in Europe such as Germany and institutions like NATO, while praising strongmen like Russian President Vladimir Putin, an openly disruptive figure in the international order with Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, annexation of Crimea and undermining of Democratic elections in the United States and Europe. Similarly, President Trump seems to have struck up a personal relationship with Chinese President Xi Jinping, inviting him to his Mara Lago Florida Resort early on in his Presidency. Trump has been aiming to particularly gain President Xi’s assistance in handling the pressing North Korean nuclear issue. While the United Nations Security Council has passed two rounds of harsher sanctions with the support of Russia and China, North Korea’s nuclear program only seems to have advanced and China has continued its trading with its rogue ally, which accounts for 90% of North Korea’s trade. Many believe China is the major power likely to fill the vacuum left by the United States’ abdication of global leadership but is it the leader of the liberal international order? No.

While China has made vast progress at economic integration, politically it has made few improvements as President Xi still works hard to preserve the Communist party’s Maoist philosophy continuing to engage in a massive anti-corruption purge to consolidate his power. Similarly with its engagement with international organizations such as Interpol, since assuming the Presidency China has mainly issued red notices to go after China’s enemies abroad. China is also a signatory to the United Nations Laws of the Seas UNCLOS, where an international tribunal in 2016 ruled that China was in violation of international laws with its claims in the South China Sea. UNCLOS ultimately ruled in favor of the Philippines, which Beijing has simply ignored. Thus, China is part of a multilateral rules based system only when it serves its national interests.

According to Human Rights Watch China continues to execute the most people a year. In July of 2016, it rounded up and detained sixteen human rights lawyers showcasing their hostility for civil society. China has backed brutal regimes in Sudan, Syria and North Korea in favor of its national interest and has opposed the Responsibility to Protect doctrine in the name of sovereignty. The doctrine states the international community must protect civilians if their regime fails to do so. China has also been hostile to the LGBT community, voting against a UN resolution that would extend greater protections for sexual orientation and gender identity. China is anything but a free speech country, barring social media such as Twitter and Facebook , not to mention the horrific events of Tiananmen Square in 1989 that resulted in the massacre of thousands of young people demanding their rights. The massacres occurred under President Deng Xiaoping who was considered a great economic reformer for opening China’s economy but as shown fell extremely short when it came to political freedoms.

The key word in the liberal international order is “liberal” meaning an order that is based on democracy and the rule of law. With the United States abdicating its role as world leader and China’s illiberal political tendencies, relationships like the European Union and Japan are committed to the liberal world order will fill the vacuum left behind by the United States withdrawal from the world. Especially with the Trans-Pacific Partnership and the stalling of its counterpart in Europe-the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP) both powers have already taken steps to circumvent it. That is why both sides in the summer of 2017 held the EU-Japan summit, which ended in both sides agreeing to a new free trade agreement that accounts for 40% of all GDP and 30% of all global trade. The agreement lowered barriers and advanced the shipments of food from Europe to Japan in exchange for the Japanese auto industry doing more business in Europe (famously dubbed the “cars for cheese” agreement). As European Commissioner Jean-Claude Juncker said “There is no protection in protectionism,” and Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe concurred that the agreement will “serve as a model for the economic order of the 21st century on the basis of free and fair rules.” While the foundation of the summit for the future of the EU-Japan relationship was economic, it, of course, has geopolitical connotations with both sides agreeing to a strategic partnership with a common security and defense policy missions (CDSP) framework still in the works. Given the nature of globalization, problems transcend borders; with the threat of a rising China and a nuclear North Korea that poses a security threat to the entire world, it takes a united democratic front from those who are now taking over the driver’s seat of the liberal world order to confront such threats together.

Similarly, Japan has also worked closely with the North Atlantic Treaty Alliance (NATO) recently on combatting piracy off the Somali coast; both sides have also stepped up cooperation in-terms of intelligence sharing to combat cybercrime. Japan has contributed in many ways to NATO’s operations in Afghanistan with $20 million dollars for literacy programs and medical supplies as well as $1.3 billion dollars through United Nations’ Law and Order Trust Fund for Afghanistan since 2007 to train Afghani police. The two new faces of the liberal international order will become German Chancellor Angela Merkel and Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe. Both are committed to democracy and the rule of law, having recently won re-elections in 2017; both are important regional leaders, with Germany being the engine of Europe and Japan the largest economy in the region outside of China, committed to free trade and economic order as TPP negotiations continue without the United States. As Princeton University Professor and leading liberal international relations scholar John Ikenberry points out: “If the liberal international order is to survive, leaders and constituencies around the world that still support it will need to step up. Much will rest on the shoulders of Prime Minister Shinzo Abe of Japan and Chancellor Angela Merkel of Germany, the only two leaders of consequence left standing who support it…. Abe should keep promoting liberal trade agreements, modeled on the TPP, and Merkel, as the leader of the country that perhaps most embodies the virtues and accomplishments of the postwar liberal order, is uniquely positioned to speak as the moral voice of the liberal democratic world.” (Ikenberry)

Germany and Japan, both of which once almost brought the world to its knees some 70 years ago in World War II, are now poised to lead the liberal order through the Trump Era. But it also a testament to the capabilities of liberal internationalism in constructing a rules based order, which when done correctly has helped two powers transform from fascism and imperialism, reduced to rubble after the war into vibrant democracies capable of global leadership. In the absence of American leadership, the European Union and Japan will seize the liberal order because democracy, the rule of law and open economies to harmonize with globalization are too important for the rest of the world to abandon now.

Andy Laub is the Director for Partnerships and North Korea Analyst at Political Insights. He also serves as the Membership Director for Young Professionals in Foreign Policy. Andy received his Master of Science in Global Affairs from New York University.

Please note that opinions expressed in this article are solely those of our contributors, not of Political Insights, which takes no institutional positions.

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