What the U.S. Election Means for Europe



Ishaan Tharoor | The Washington Post

Europeans do not approve of President Trump — by huge margins in recent surveys. So dim is the view of the U.S. leader that many survey respondents place less hope in him doing the “right thing regarding global affairs” than Chinese President Xi Jinping, according to the Pew Research Center. In a recent YouGov poll, substantial majorities across the continent said they favored a Joe Biden victory over a Trump win in November.

On one level, this reflects a genuine yearning for a Biden presidency after four years of Trumpian volatility. A liberal White House in 2021 would be expected to revitalize the transatlantic alliance, return the United States to the Paris climate accord, scrap most of the tariffs Trump slapped on U.S. allies and, at the very least, avoid coddling factions and forces that seek to undermine European unity. For officials in Brussels, it would mark something of a restoration.

But on a deeper level, Europe’s view of America is also changing. “European attitudes to Americans are shifting from envy to compassion,” wrote Simon Kuper of the Financial Times. He added that “there’s more chance of becoming a billionaire, if that’s your thing, in Scandinavia than in the U.S.,” pointing to widening inequity in the United States and the withering of romantic notions of the “American Dream.”

Trump and Europe

The current occupant of the White House entered office stoking grievance against both of the continent’s defining institutions, the European Union and the North Atlantic Treaty Organization. Trump believes the former was organized as a bloc to “take advantage” of the United States and even invoked a number of European countries as national security threats to justify protectionist tariffs on E.U. goods. It’s a disposition that runs counter to the many years successive Democratic and Republican administrations spent encouraging deeper European integration.

Trump sees NATO almost as a kind of protection racket for Europe, which shelters under the U.S. security umbrella on the American dime. He hectored European countries to spend more on defense and questioned the usefulness of belonging to the military alliance at all. (Never mind that many European governments had already begun raising their military spending during the Obama administration.) Trump’s curious personal relationship with Russian President Vladimir Putin as well as his embrace of far-right, illiberal nationalist and Euroskeptic figures on the margins of Europe’s politics only added to the impression of a U.S. leader hostile to the liberal European project.

Trump has been at odds with close European allies in international forums like the Group of Seven industrialized nations and the United Nations, wrecking key agreements including the Iran nuclear deal. Although he shied away from endorsing any particular U.S. candidate when asked about the November election, French President Emmanuel Macron made clear he hoped for a future where the United States changed course.

“What is very important in the international context is that the U.S. can play their role as a permanent member of the United Nations Security Council, of a fully engaged member in multilateral issues,” Macron told reporters in August. “We need the United Nations’ engagement in resolving conflicts and to have a U.S. that is a partner of collective security of a sovereign Europe.”

If Trump gets reelected, “he will feel totally unleashed and he will have no limitation,” Gérard Araud, who until last year was France’s ambassador in Washington, told Today’s WorldView. That may have significant consequences for Europe, including, Araud suggested, the possibility of the United States withdrawing from NATO altogether.

Europe’s concerns are hardly uniform, though, and Araud and other experts acknowledge that the Trump era has only further exposed the continent’s own divisions. Some countries in the east have warmed to Trump’s approach, while France and Germany remain at odds on the role of Europe on the world stage and whether the E.U. can or should emerge as a third pole of global politics alongside the United States and China.

“In my conversations with French diplomats, they often portray Trump as the final nail in the coffin of the transatlantic alliance — given that he has questioned American security guarantees for Europe and supposedly driven NATO to ‘brain death,’ ” wrote Jana Puglierin of the European Council on Foreign Relations. “Security experts from Poland or the Baltic states, however, emphasise how much more secure they feel since his election, and how credibly the Americans reassure their allies and partners on NATO’s eastern flank. … Germans, for their part, see the threat that Trump presents to the alliance, but have been trying to manage it.”

Biden and Europe

In Biden, many Europeans see the return of a more traditional internationalist who appreciates the E.U.’s historic relationship with the United States and its liberal values. Closer and friendlier cooperation will come naturally on a host of fronts, including trade and action on climate change.

“The E.U. is the largest market in the world. We need to improve our economic relations,” said senior Biden adviser Tony Blinken, in recent remarks to the U.S. Chamber of Commerce. “And we need to bring to an end an artificial trade war that the Trump administration has started … that has been poisoning economic relations, costing jobs, increasing costs for consumers.”

“If Biden is elected,” said Araud, he would sound “the sentimental platitudes toward Europeans that Europeans love. He will pat their shoulders. It will be orgasmic in Brussels.”

But, the former French ambassador warned, “it won’t be business as usual.” That’s in part because the security guarantees of the 20th century Pax Americana no longer hold, and the Obama administration, where Biden served, perhaps showed as much ambivalence about projecting U.S. power abroad as Trump has subsequently.

As crises flare on the E.U.’s borders and the United States largely looks away, policymakers in Paris, Berlin and Brussels increasingly are coming to terms with having to confront them on their own. “We are living in a world of carnivores and the Europeans are the last herbivores,” said Araud. “The Europeans have to change their diet and that for them is very difficult to face.”

“All Western democracies have been watching very closely what happens inside this one,” said Cathryn Cluver Ashbrook, executive director of the Project on Europe and the Transatlantic Relationship at the Harvard Kennedy School, in a recent webinar on the impact of the U.S. election across the Atlantic. She said that Europeans are “wary” of the deeper trends fueling U.S. politics and what that may mean for their own societies.

“Who is the passing phenomenon here?” said Ashbrook. “Is it Joe Biden or Trump?”

Ishaan Tharoor is a columnist on the foreign desk of The Washington Post, where he authors the Today’s WorldView newsletter and column. He previously was a senior editor and correspondent at Time magazine, based first in Hong Kong and later in New York.

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