It’s Europe’s turn to reject TrumpIf Europe and America can agree, they can set the global standard more or less by default.
Despite all his whining and wailing, Donald Trump’s presidency will end on January 20, 2021. He will be history; but, sadly, his political legacy will endure. With almost 75 million Americans voting for him (and 82 million for Joe Biden), Trump mobilised an extraordinary and unexpected level of support among a base that will continue to steer the Republican Party toward his brand of nationalist isolationism.
Like a revenant, Trumpism will haunt US politics for a long time to come, and some version of it will be on the ballot again in 2024—that much is already clear. To vanquish Trumpism, Democrats needed to muster a ‘blue wave’ of electoral victories all the way down the ballot. They didn’t.
The idea that Trump himself will run again is unlikely, given his age. But younger populist heirs are already jostling to claim the mantle. From both a European and transatlantic perspective—each of which has an existential interest in America remaining committed to multilateral cooperation—Biden’s election represents victory in a decisive battle, but not in the war.
We here in Europe must not forget that, after four years of Trump’s incompetence and mendacity—with more than 300,000 Americans dead from Covid-19—almost half of US voters decided they wanted four more years of the man. That disturbing fact has far-reaching implications for the future of European policymaking.
Europeans could make no greater mistake than to lean back comfortably and cede responsibility for the transatlantic relationship to the Biden administration. Biden and his advisers may be infinitely more competent than Trump, but the future of transatlanticism will depend in no small measure on what Europe—and particularly Germany—does in the coming years.
While the Trump years forced European leaders into a defensive crouch, Biden’s election requires the opposite: a proactive push for transatlantic renewal. Restoring the relationship requires that Europe act like an ‘adult’ and co-equal vis-à-vis the United States, moving beyond the Cold War-era subservience that still endures 30 years later.
For example, European countries’ disproportionally small share of the burden of military spending within NATO is simply inexplicable to most Americans (and not just Trump supporters). This point of contention should be resolved as quickly as possible, not least because it would be in Europe’s own interest to bolster its defence.
But Europeans must make clear to the Biden administration from the start what Europe can and cannot do. America is a global power with global interests and unrivalled military capabilities. Europe, by contrast, consists of many small- and medium-size countries, each of which has only limited ability to project power and influence (perhaps with the exception of the two nuclear powers, France and the United Kingdom, and the UK will first need to find its feet outside the European Union).
Past experience with military missions outside of Europe has shown that the perspective of a global power differs fundamentally from that of a small- or medium-sized power. European voters recognise this, and it will have a strong bearing on whether they accept such missions in the future.
In the context of the transatlantic relationship, Europe’s role is to defend NATO territory and its precarious periphery. In Eastern Europe, this concerns primarily the Baltic states (all NATO members), the war in eastern Ukraine, and other ‘frozen conflicts’ in Europe’s neighbourhood. Resolving these—or at least achieving some sort of stabilisation—will require a much more forceful European diplomatic response than we have seen so far.
Moreover, mass migrations and the fight against terrorism will force Europe to deepen its engagement on the southern shore of the Mediterranean, in the Middle East, and in West Africa. The eastern Mediterranean is increasingly becoming a new hotspot, owing to tensions between EU and NATO members (Cyprus, Greece, and Turkey) and the unresolved conflicts in the Western Balkans. Europeans should focus primarily on these challenges, and on developing capabilities needed to manage them; that in itself would strengthen European security, and thus Europe’s contribution to NATO.
As for world politics, Europe must leave this domain to the global superpowers—a title it cannot claim for itself. This is particularly true when it comes to China. The EU needs to establish a close mutual understanding with the US on this issue, particularly where common values are concerned. The US and the EU should pursue policy coordination as equals; but, again, there will need to be clarity about what European voters will accept—and thus what European governments can do. For example, NATO should not be made into a security organisation for East Asia, as that would simply overstretch it.
In the area of trade policy, a new set of shared strategic interests will emerge, both vis-à-vis China and in the transatlantic region. The reduction or even elimination of trade imbalances will remain a high priority.
Meanwhile, storm clouds are gathering on the digital-policy front. Europe, an important market for US tech giants, is insisting on its digital sovereignty and introducing comprehensive regulations to protect European data and privacy, and to rein in the power of the biggest digital platforms. Here, differing interests within the transatlantic sphere are threatening to collide. If Europe and America can agree on common rules, they can set the global standard more or less by default. But with China making its own bid for leadership over digital governance standards, time is running out.
Even with Biden in the White House, there will be no going back to the comfortable old dependencies that long defined the transatlantic relationship. After four years of Trump, Europeans know what is at stake. Likewise, continuing to harbour any illusions about China would be both naive and dangerous. There is no better alternative to a renewed transatlanticism. By spurning Trump and electing Biden, America has delivered. As Americans say, the ball is now in Europe’s court.