No one in Europe truly believed Americans would elect someone who seems so obviously unfit to lead the most powerful nation in the world. And yet, that is precisely what has happened, and now, across the Continent, people are trying to figure out what this will mean. Many fear that Donald J. Trump’s election might mean the end of the West as we know it.
To be fair, from Europe’s perspective, the West was already on shaky ground. Russia is barking at our borders. The war in Syria has unleashed a huge wave of migration that is challenging our identities and fueling a right-wing backlash. Britain has already voted to become the first country to leave the European Union, an institution that seems in danger of unraveling.
But Mr. Trump’s election poses a new systemic and strategic risk. For seven decades, a politically stable United States has been a beacon of democracy and a cornerstone of the liberal world order. When democracy was seriously threatened in Europe, the United States stepped in and stopped the tide of authoritarianism. But now the United States itself has elected a demagogue who seems to have authoritarian tendencies and whose proposals — if he follows through on them — will have huge and disastrous consequences from Lisbon to Kiev.
Chancellor Angela Merkel of Germany knows how grave the situation is. As she congratulated Mr. Trump on his victory on Wednesday, she also lectured him on the elements of liberal democracy that form the basis of the American-European relations. “Germany and America are bound by their values: democracy, freedom, the respect for the law and the dignity of human beings, independent of their origin, skin color, religion, gender, sexual orientation or political position,” Ms. Merkel said. “On the basis of these values I offer the future president of the United States, Donald Trump, close cooperation.”
Ms. Merkel realizes that right-wing populists are on the rise across Europe, threatening the existing liberal order. And at the very moment the West goes through a severe identity crisis, Mr. Trump, an expression of that crisis, has removed the possibility that the United States can act as a democratic example or a possible savior.
One of the policies Mr. Trump has in common with the European far right is a hostility to globalization and international trade. And here the picture for Europe gets even gloomier. If the international trade regime breaks down because of a Trump administration trade war with China, Mexico or Japan, the economic effects will splash across the Atlantic. Europe, barely recovering from the euro crisis, can hardly afford a global economic slowdown brought on by Mr. Trump. European governments have neither the cash nor the trust of their citizens to weather another recession.
Even more frightening to Europe are the strategic implications of a Trump presidency. Mr. Trump is rarely clear about his political beliefs, but it is clear that he has a long-held disdain of NATO. He views the Atlantic alliance as a kind of international racket in which the members have to pay the American mob leader for protection.
Mr. Trump has a point: European nations should be doing more to expand and invest in their militaries. But his critique of NATO misunderstands the role of the United States. The alliance functions because his country, the world’s superpower, leads by consent and example, not by threat.
Moreover, his repeated suggestion that he would not come to the defense of the Baltic States if they have not “been paying their bills” is an open invitation to President Vladimir V. Putin of Russia.
Of course that shouldn’t be a surprise. As Europeans have noted with a sense of dread, Mr. Trump seems perfectly comfortable with Russia’s president. He seems to be bothered neither by Mr. Putin’s authoritarian rule, nor his aggression against the international order, nor his meddling in Western democracies. Many worry that Mr. Trump will be willing to strike a grand bargain with Moscow, dividing the world up into spheres of influence. Needless to say, this would divide the Continent and betray the democratic states in Eastern Europe and endanger their newly found independence. That would be a boon to Mr. Putin, but he’s been on a winning streak for some time now. First, he got what he wanted in June, when Britons voted in a referendum to leave the European Union.
Now that his preferred candidate has won the American presidential election, he most likely has his eye on two women in Europe: He wants to see Marine Le Pen of the far-right National Front party win France’s presidency this spring. Ms. Le Pen shares with Mr. Putin (and Mr. Trump) a hostility to NATO and the European Union. After that, Russia is hoping that Ms. Merkel, his prime opponent in Europe, will be voted out of office in Germany’s elections next fall.
There seemed to be Russian fingerprints all over the American campaign season, mostly in the form of cyberattacks and well-timed leaks. Now European leaders are bracing for more of this to come, on the Continent.
Mr. Putin’s aim is to enhance Russia’s power by undermining and destabilizing Western democracies. He seems to have succeeded in the United States. People in Europe will be watching anxiously to see if the new American president is really Mr. Putin’s useful idiot and if he actually governs along the lines he laid out during the campaign — in other words, if this really will be the end of the West as we know it.
Clemens Wergin is the Washington bureau chief for Die Welt.