European leaders and policy-makers were confounded, like so many Americans, by Donald Trump’s election as the 45th president of the United States. As so many others, they are now scrambling to make sense of the consequences. So what will it likely mean?
A Trump presidency will lead to profound changes in America’s engagement with the world. At its base, it will represent a transition back from the highly internationalized and engaged America that we have known since the beginning of the 20th century.
This should, in fact, come as no great surprise to Europe. This transition is exactly what America has been speaking of for decades now – the desire to step back from being the world’s policeman. The translation of this sentiment into fact has also been an underlying trend during the Obama administration.
However, it will without question be different than it was under President Barack Obama. It is likely to take a different hue and accelerate at a far quicker pace.
Trump has said bluntly that America’s allies are not pulling their weight and that under his leadership they will have to start doing so if they want American support. That differs little from the position (stated rather more politely) of the last four US defence secretaries – Robert Gates, Leon Panetta, Chuck Hegel and Ashton Carter. But unlike them, Trump expects quick action from allies in response.
So this may not be news. But there is another, more profound consequence that will now underlie this trend, one that is far more damaging. This election has fundamentally and perhaps irreparably damaged America’s soft power. The appeal of American (and Western) democracy has been greatly weakened. The Western ideal no longer holds the same glow.
With Europe distracted by Brexit and its own internal concerns, and the US led by Trump, Western leadership is now absent. The consequences of this will be grave for Europe and the US. The institutions that have provided the basis for the current global architecture will be diminished, and the norms that many have relied upon have been cast in doubt. Others, notably China and Russia, will take advantage of this (as they have already been doing).
It is in this highly uncertain and unstable environment that Trump will insert his foreign policy objectives.
It is worth noting that his foreign policy positions are very unclear. Few candidates for president actually speak honestly and candidly about their foreign (and domestic) policy objectives; they swing to the extremes in the primaries, move more toward the middle during the election itself, and then, upon gaining office, discover that the facts are not what they had thought: Governing is far more difficult, and compromises must be made.
Thus, some of Trump’s more extreme positions, such as pulling out of NATO, can likely be put aside.
There are, however, some positions we can take seriously. TTIP will not progress during his tenure (although a trade agreement with the UK could), and Trump could presage a global move toward greater protectionism, with significant global consequences. US-Russia relations could well undergo the long anticipated ‘reset’, where Trump could well sacrifice things for which he has little interest (Crimea, for example) for the chance to announce he’s ‘made a great deal’. And Obama’s positive environmental agenda will be quickly reversed.
Still, the greatest fears of many around the world are unlikely to become reality. Trump will be constrained by his bureaucracy, by the judiciary, by Congress (there is little consensus today among Republicans, and the current conciliatory tone is unlikely to last) and finally by his cabinet (who will have far more experience governing than he does).
The world today is a more dangerous place. Trump’s enthusiasm for unpredictability will make it worse. But the steps required to mitigate the worst are clear (albeit difficult): Europe will need to step forward, to take more leadership, and to bear more burdens.
This article was originally published by Berlin Policy Journal.
Xenia Wickett, Head, US and the Americas Programme; Dean, The Queen Elizabeth II Academy for Leadership in International Affairs.