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How the West can weather the loss of U.S. leadership

Roland Paris is University Research Chair in International Security and Governance at the University of Ottawa and previously served as Prime Minister Justin Trudeau's senior adviser on global affairs and defence.

Many of America's closest allies and partners are still reeling from Donald Trump's diplomatic debacle in Europe and his decision to withdraw the United States from the Paris climate agreement. Their challenge will be to minimize the damage that a rogue U.S. president can inflict in the coming months and years.

In Brussels, Mr. Trump harangued other members of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, many of which sacrificed their own citizens' lives fighting alongside the U.S. in Afghanistan and elsewhere. He refused to reaffirm the United States' commitment to defend NATO countries from external attack – the mutual security guarantee at the heart of the alliance. In Italy, he repudiated positions that G7 nations have long championed, from an open global trading system to action against climate change. Days later, he announced that the United States would abandon the Paris climate accord.

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The Paris agreement is not dead, NATO will survive Mr. Trump and transatlantic bonds are resilient, but the damage that the President can do – and is doing – may be considerable and lasting.

The immediate casualty has been trust in the United States. If the U.S. cannot be relied on to carry out its commitments, countries will look elsewhere to assure their interests and to sustain international co-operation on important issues. China may be the biggest beneficiary; it is moving quickly to capitalize on Mr. Trump's retreat from both the Paris accord and the Trans-Pacific Partnership.

Russia is another winner. Vladimir Putin has long sought to weaken the ties between the United States and Europe because they stand in the way of Moscow expanding its influence on the continent, including over parts of Eastern Europe that Russia has dominated in the past. When Mr. Trump treats America's European friends as adversaries, he is effectively doing Mr. Putin's work for him.

So what is to be done? The last two weeks dispelled any residual hope of Mr. Trump evolving into a reliable partner. He knows little about history, the value of enduring international friendships or the importance of institutionalized co-operation in an unstable world. While the United States' allies should continue pursuing opportunities to co-operate with the U.S., they will also need to limit the harm that he can wreak.

Attacking Mr. Trump directly is unlikely to accomplish this goal. Yes, each country needs to defend itself from his assaults – Canada, for instance, should be ready for bare-knuckled bargaining over the future of the North American free-trade agreement; and mobilizing allies throughout the U.S. and co-ordinating with Mexico will be important. There is little to be gained, however, by gratuitously criticizing this notoriously thin-skinned President. The same applies to international action aimed at minimizing the damaging effects of Mr. Trump's foreign policies: Canada and other like-minded countries should define a positive agenda and pursue it together.

These countries should recommit themselves to implementing the Paris accord and welcome offers of co-operation from U.S. states, cities and businesses that have strong climate-change policies. Asia-Pacific nations, including Canada, should redouble their efforts to negotiate a regional trading arrangement – with strong labour, environmental and market-access guarantees – to replace the Trans-Pacific Partnership, and they should issue a standing invitation for the U.S. to join. NATO allies should also reinvest in their military capacities, not to please the Trump administration, but as an insurance policy in an increasingly uncertain world, and as a deterrent against others who might threaten them, including Russia.

In the face of rising intolerance and challenges to democratic values, all liberal societies will need to champion human rights and inclusive democracy, including elections that are free of foreign interference. They should also increase their support for important United Nations functions – from women's reproductive rights to peace operations – that appear to be on Mr. Trump's chopping block. Responding to the anxieties of citizens who feel left behind by globalization – not by fanning fears or building walls, but by sharing the benefits of liberalized trade more equitably within our societies – will also be critical to maintain domestic support for open international trade.

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These recommendations speak to more than a defensive agenda; together they represent an affirmation of the type of world that we wish to live in. One day, a different U.S. president may embrace this vision; after all, it reflects long-standing American ideals and aspirations. For as long as Mr. Trump remains in office, however, America's traditional partners will need to work together to protect themselves and their shared values.

Video: Trump's speech on U.S. withdrawal from Paris climate accord in 90 seconds
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