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The upending of American politics and the chance for Europe

Vassilis Ntousas
Head of European Operations, Alliance for Securing Democracy, German Marshall Fund of the United States

After a bruising 18-month election cycle, the election of Donald Trump as the President of the USA sent shockwaves across the world. Trump sensed that for the first time in living memory there was greater fear of the American institutional establishment within the country’s borders than outside, and he exploited that fear.

This led to a result that can arguably be called the loudest rejection of the establishment in modern US history. For the next four years, the same office occupied by Franklin Roosevelt and Abraham Lincoln will now be held by a man who resorted to bigotry, demagoguery, arrogance, and disdain for democratic norms in order to get elected.

It will take some time before the contours of what this means for America and the world become clear, but the consequences of the dystopia that will likely arise will be both dire and plenty.

If past is prologue, the historical zigzagging of progress will resume in the US. With the Republicans now holding all branches of power and in a position to solidify a conservative majority on the Supreme Court for the next generation(s), the economic achievements of President Obama are expected to be curtailed. Many of the past decades’ emblematic social advances such as the Roe v. Wade ruling risk being overturned. Equally dangerous is the gradual normalisation of Mr Trump’s bigotry and his vindictiveness towards critics, now to be amplified by the office he will hold and the power that comes with it.

The standing of the US beyond its borders will surely suffer from Mr Trump’s sheer unpredictability and unapologetic aversion to nuance. The attractiveness of the President-elect’s virulently nationalist elegy for America’s lost greatness might have won him the election. But the country’s foreign policy could now potentially become a source of volatility rather than stability, reversing the decades-long tradition of internationalism, and swapping the primacy of Realpolitik with that of Innenpolitik.

Especially for Europe, whose inter- national engagement has for a long time passed through a transatlantic lens. Trump’s revisionism could signify the relegation of the transatlantic relationship from being organic to purely transactional. If implemented, proposals such as abandoning commitments to NATO could upend the rules- based liberal international order upon which the US international modus operandi has been built since World War II. This could lead to the erosion of the ability of both Europe and the US to act in a concerted manner, from counter-terrorism coordination to trade cooperation, from Russia to the Middle East.

Nonetheless, the uncertainty on how reliably the continent can now depend on the US to guarantee its security could also create an opening for the EU to finally set its own house in order. While this will be difficult, the recent decision by all 28 Member States to move towards greater defence cooperation suggests that this might be the opportunity for the Union to assume its collective global responsibility.

Finding intelligent and intelligible answers as to how this can be done will be key for the EU to navigate through the uncharted waters of a more turbulent world during a Donald J. Trump presidency. As Federica Mogherini, the Union’s High Representative for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy, subtly but aptly stated in reaction to the results: “[the transatlantic] ties are deeper than any change in politics. We’ll continue to work together, rediscovering the strength of Europe”.

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