Big Ego’s in International Politics: Do We Need More or Less International Law? | Event: Trump’s World – The Trump Administration and International Law

By Rosalie Dieleman, Research Associate PILPG-NL

“We live in a time of big ego’s in international politics”, said Jaap de Hoop Scheffer, former NATO Secretary-General, referring to Donald Trump, Vladimir Putin and Recep Tayyip Erdogan. De Hoop Scheffer warned that excessive pride and egotism brings along the risk that, “in times of crises, ratio can fall victim to egotism”. In the context of international politics, these egos can therefore have very serious consequences. How to deal with this? Should and can we still put our trust in international agreements and international rule-based institutions, or does this era call for a different approach?

Exactly one week after the inauguration of the 45th president of the United States, the Asser Institute and the John Adams institute co-organized an event to reflect on and discuss the possible implications of Trump’s presidency on topics of international law, including ”war and peace”, ”the Paris Agreement”, and ”American trade policy”.* The event was moderated by Tracy Metz, the director of The John Adams Institute, and the keynote speakers were Henne Schuwer, Ambassador of the Netherlands to the United States, and Jaap de Hoop Scheffer, former NATO Secretary General. With speakers and panelists that all have a background in international law and diplomacy, it should come as no surprise that the answers presented to the questions posed in the introductory paragraph all pled for engagement and strengthening of international institutions. Below I will discuss some of the policy recommendations given by De Hoop Scheffer and Schuwer, as well as question their suitability in times of big egos.

Both speakers stressed the importance of engaging with the Trump administration. De Hoop Scheffer noted that it was important to “stop lamenting and moaning” over the Trump presidency, accept and respect that he is the democratically elected president, and that we therefore need to engage with him. In addition, he argued that we should take the men and women who carry out Trump’s politics seriously, as diplomacy is a very important tool, especially in times of crises. And although Schuwer was clear in stating that we should “rethink” our ties with the United States, he also stressed the importance of approaching the US with an “outstretched hand”. The argument that it is important to keep all communication channels open is convincing, especially when Trump’s policy is as unpredictable and fast-changing as it has been in the first weeks of his presidency. The old adagio ‘keep your friends close and your enemies even closer’ might apply here, as history shows that isolation or cutting off diplomatic ties seldom leads to good outcomes.

To engage and keep diplomatic ties strong, however, does not mean that the Netherlands or the EU should dance to Trump’s tune, as was opined in both addresses. Schuwer, as ambassador of the Netherlands, stressed the importance of the Netherlands to make clear that it is a country of certain values. As honorable as it sounds to argue that the Netherlands should underline its values towards the US, it is necessary to reflect on the ability of the Netherlands, as a relatively small country, to credibly uphold its values. Especially when taking into account, as panelist Liesbeth Lijnzaad pointed out, the worrying statements Trump has already made concerning torture. De Hoop Scheffer argued the same for the EU, calling on the EU to make clear that it is a community of values, and more specifically, that none of its member states will tolerate rendition or secret detention facilities. I agree with De Hoop Scheffer that the Netherlands needs a united EU in order to be able to uphold its values in times of big egos in international politics.

Lastly, and in line with the previous argument, both Schuwer and De Hoop Scheffer called for strengthening our international institutions, especially with regards to the EU and NATO. Both of them agreed with Trump’s statements that Europe has neglected its financial responsibilities with regards to NATO, and that this is a serious issue that should be addressed. With regards to the EU, De Hoop Scheffer argued that the Trump presidency should be the rallying cry for the member states to take the EU seriously, with regards to economic, political and military issues. More in general, De Hoop Scheffer argued that we should not do away with our rules-based multilateral institutions, despite their malfunctions, there is no other possibility we can take on global issues such as terrorism, pandemics, cybercrime, and mass-migration without these institutions. While the arguments of the speakers might very well be true, it is also important to note that the future of the EU very much depends on the public sentiment in its member states, taking into account the general elections coming up in the Netherlands, France and Germany. With the possibility of the anti-EU sentiment gaining the overhand during these elections, it might be very difficult to attain more unity within the EU. De Hoop Scheffer’s touched upon this issue with his plea for the EU not to leave its fate to the “fringes” of politics, thereby referring to politicians such as Le Pen and Wilders. This call might be answered by the EU summit in Malta, where the heads of state of EU member states agreed to draft and sign a new declaration concerning the future of the EU in March 2017, in Rome.

The desired response to big egos and the uncertainty and unpredictability of international politics that comes along with them, thus seems to be to put more trust in international law, rather than less. I agree with these speakers that European states need to cooperate in international institutions including the EU, yet these institutions need to be revised in order to be equipped to face the needs of our current time. For instance, by a more equitable distribution of costs to finance organizations like NATO, increasing cooperation with regards to foreign policy and security in the EU, and put in place faster decision-making procedures in these areas. As the judge who declared Trump’s travel ban illegal demonstrated: even the powers of the president of the United States are limited by checks and balances. We need such checks and counterweights in international law and politics as well. It seems that,

despite their malfunctions and limitations, international cooperation through institutions like the EU is the closest thing European states have to offer in this regard.

* The livestream of the event is available on the website of the Asser Institute