As Donald Trump nears his choice for secretary of state, one of the first orders of business for the successful candidate will be grappling with instability from the populist revolution emerging across the Atlantic, upheaval similar to that which propelled Trump to power — a sudden and powerful lurch toward the right. This restlessness presents both potential opportunities and peril for the next president of the United States — and those who would carry out his vision.
On Sunday, French Republicans overwhelmingly threw their support behind François Fillon as their party’s candidate for next year’s presidential election. Fillon easily beat conservative rival and Bordeaux Mayor Alain Juppé for the right to face the Socialist Party and far-right National Front party leader Marine Le Pen in the first round of the presidential contest in April. But whether or not it is, as seems likely, the center-right or the far-right that claims the French presidency, the leaders of Russia and the United States will likely have an enthusiastic ally in their corner.
Fillon has, as Le Monde noted, played billiards with the Russian autocrat at his summer retreat in Sochi when the two were prime ministers of their respective nations. Putin, meanwhile, has used the kind of language to describe Fillon that many thought reserved for the US President-elect.
In the case of Le Pen, Russia’s state-controlled RT quoted the French presidential hopeful as suggesting that an alliance between her country, Russia and the United States “would be good for world peace.”
Perhaps. Either way, the stakes for all three nations are enormous, including for the Trump administration. After all, Donald Trump and the new European right-wing apparently share a skepticism of a solid NATO alliance, a united European Union and the regime of sanctions that have hamstrung Russia.
The danger of course, is that with the United States and France both leaning toward cutting Russia some slack and lifting some of the more debilitating embargoes, this might encourage an emboldened Putin to seize any opportunity to achieve his seeming goal of reassembling the Soviet empire, whose demise he has long mourned.
But the victory of Fillon suggests an even broader problem the Trump administration must confront — that Europe itself is fragmenting. Marine Le Pen has indicated that one of the core planks of her campaign is to join Britain in an outright withdrawal from the European Union, which would threaten the euro as a continent-wide single currency. And above all, of course, she has pledged to shut France’s frontiers to Middle East immigrants.
On the surface, this should sound quite congenial to Trump. But careful. Every nation that joins Britain in withdrawing from a united Europe means one more set of tariffs that needs to be negotiated with the United States. Should a French withdrawal embolden similar movements from Denmark to the Netherlands to Austria, even Italy, the entire European system could crumble and with it would arrive a host of new tariff barriers.
But such practical considerations may not deter French voters, many of whom have, like much of Europe and a substantial chunk of the American electorate, pretty much had it with the left. The popularity of incumbent French President François Hollande has fallen to a record low of 4%, leaving many of his fellow Socialist party members to hope desperately he won’t throw his hat in the ring for a second term.
Against this tumultuous backdrop, Fillon wants to seize this opportunity for France to assume its place as a world leader (or, at least, as leader of the European continent). But Fillon is not the only one whose fate will be decided at the polls in the coming months. Indeed, early next month, Italy’s charismatic, center-left Prime Minister Matteo Renzi has placed his political future on the line for a constitutional reform referendum that many see as likely to be defeated in the face of determined opposition. That opposition has come from two Trump-like figures: brash comedian Beppe Grillo and anti-migrant extremist Matteo Salvini, photographed recently in a rolled-up shirt, smiling and boogying with Marine Le Pen in Milan. A “no” vote could mean an abrupt end to Renzi’s government.
But an even more imminent challenge to the European project could be the victory of the far-right in Austria’s presidential election later this week. There, right-wing candidate Norbert Hofer has taken an anti-immigrant page from the Trump campaign’s playbook, chastising his leading opponent for criticizing the American leader: “It is not clever to describe a president as a rabble rouser.”
All this suggests that the incoming Trump administration could quickly be confronted with potentially the greatest social, political and economic transformation in generations as European politics realign. It would mark a seismic shift in the world order, one that America needs to handle adroitly.
How should the incoming Trump administration respond to all this? Well, choosing a secretary of state that has the full and clear trust and backing of the President, and signaling a commitment at the highest levels of the administration to holding together a fragmenting NATO alliance and European continent, would be a welcome start.
Such moves would go a long way to assuring America’s place in the world going forward, and would encourage a stable and prosperous transition to a new world that is dominated by a re-energized political right.
The stakes could not be higher, and President-elect Trump cannot act too soon.
David A. Andelman is editor emeritus of World Policy Journal and a member of the board of contributors of USA Today. The opinions in this article belong to the author.