The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion American protectionism could imperil a golden era of Western unity

French President Emmanuel Macron, left, and President Biden wave during a ceremony at the White House on Dec. 1. (Alex Brandon/AP)

The United States and Europe find themselves in a closer alliance than at any point in many decades. France has long been the European nation most reluctant to play junior partner in an American-led enterprise. In his first years in office, President Emmanuel Macron did his best to display his Gaullist credentials, describing NATO as “brain dead” and declaring his greatest priority to be developing Europe’s “strategic autonomy,” which he defined, in part, as separate from the United States.

Contrast that with Macron’s remarks in November, when he talked about NATO as a cornerstone of French and European security. While in Washington last week, he described the new goal for the continent as “strategic intimacy” with Washington and spoke of the need for even deeper cooperation. When the French president starts sounding like the British prime minister, it is worth paying attention.

And it’s not just Macron. Germany’s Olaf Scholz has sounded a clarion call for Western unity in the pages of Foreign Affairs. For those wondering whether Germany’s declared shift in foreign policy earlier this year was a momentary reaction to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, Scholz makes clear that he believes we are at the “end of an era” of peace. He underlined the massive turnaround in German foreign policy — chiefly the creation of a roughly $100 billion fund to upgrade the German armed forces, which he called “the starkest change in German security policy since ... 1955.” The break with precedent was so dramatic that Germany had to amend its constitution to make it possible.

The “epochal tectonic shift,” as Scholz describes it, has been triggered by the Russian invasion. But it is also a response to the dawning of a new age of great power competition — a recognition that the rules-based international order built by the United States and Europe is in danger of crumbling, as countries such as Russia and China (and others) break those rules, push for their own unilateral advantage, and precipitate a return to a world where might makes right.

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The Russian invasion explains much of this, but the Biden administration deserves much credit for how it has handled that challenge. Until now, Washington has managed to rally large parts of the world to oppose Russian President Vladimir Putin’s aggression. The United States has persuaded most of its allies to act forcefully to punish Russia, and many others to at least aid Ukraine. All this has helped to create a moment of unusual Western unity that could help restore and rebuild a rules-based international system.

But these successes can still be squandered by America’s own unilateralism and pursuit of narrow self-interest. European leaders have been dismayed by how protectionist the Biden administration has turned out to be in its economic policy, putting “Buy Americanprovisions in many of its spending bills and showering subsidies on green technology produced in the United States. All of these measures are violations of the rules governing open markets and free trade that are at the heart of the international system that Washington has sponsored since the late 1940s. France’s finance minister complained that Washington is copying China’s government-led industrial policy. A senior European Union official pulled out of a U.S.-E.U. summit on the issue because he felt that the agenda showed that Washington did not care about the E.U.’s concerns.

The tensions are going to grow because Europe’s pain is only going to get worse. Facing natural gas prices that are seven times higher and electricity prices 10 times higher than in the previous two decades, many European firms are finding that they simply cannot compete. The Financial Times reports that there is a genuine risk of the deindustrialization of Germany if major industries, including chemicals and auto manufacturing, move more factories overseas to the United States or China. Europeans are enraged by what they see as rank American hypocrisy. As one statesman said to me, “We are constantly being lectured by Americans that we must all uphold the rules-based international system — only to then see Washington announce measures that are in total violation of the core principles of that order.”

As the pain for ordinary Europeans grows, and as their companies move production to America, the friction will make it harder to get sustained cooperation from Europe on Russia. Europe will also be less likely to take a tough and united stand on China, a market that will become increasingly vital to the continent’s economic future. And, as European nations and others start retaliating against American protectionism with their own provisions, the open international system will start shutting down.

When people like me raise objections to protectionism and economic nationalism, we are often dismissed as being naive about the domestic politics of this issue. Democrats are doing this, so the argument goes, to help American workers and thus stem the tide of right-wing populism. The trouble with the argument is that the working class has abandoned the Democratic Party, largely on cultural issues.

It is true elsewhere as well. Look at France, where workers are coddled, or Sweden, with its generous welfare and training programs: Both have growing right-wing populist parties, largely fueled by issues such as immigration, race and education. Assuming that people can be swayed from their fervently held beliefs because of a few government subsidies might be the more naive view.