Donald Trump’s election cannot be entirely discounted and would have grave consequences for Europe, writes Sir Michael Leigh.
Sir Michael Leigh is a Senior Fellow at the German Marshall Fund of the United States and a former European Commission director-general.
By now Donald Trump is damaged goods even for the Kremlin, which had been supporting his campaign surreptitiously and undermining Hillary Clinton’s bid for the White House, through open criticism and covert attacks. Forecasters in the US now give Clinton more than an 85% chance of winning.
However, we’ve been here before; many of us went to bed on 23 June expecting a “Remain” victory in the United Kingdom referendum, based on the latest opinion polls, and woke up next morning to find that a disgruntled electorate had thrown into reverse more than forty years of Britain in Europe.
So, there may still be shocks and surprises before election day on 8 November. So it’s worth considering the implications of a Trump presidency for Europe as well as the changes that a President Clinton would bring to transatlantic relations.
This year’s election takes place in exceptional circumstances on both sides of the Atlantic. Europe faces persistent mutually reinforcing disorders, from eurozone instability and faltering growth to migration, the fragmentation of political systems, a retreat from globalisation, and an ill-prepared Brexit.
European leaders openly speculate about the disintegration of the EU. Insurgent parties may draw strong support in next year’s elections in the Netherlands, France, and Germany.
The US faces a number of similar challenges. Economic growth is below 1.5%, many reject globalisation, especially in the rust belt, including swing states like Pennsylvania and Ohio, populists blame immigration for job losses, and insurgent political candidates have put the political establishment on the defensive. American internationalism is wavering for the first time in half a century.
Donald Trump’s election cannot yet be entirely discounted and would have grave consequences for Europe. A President Trump would disrupt transatlantic relations. He distrusts allies, sees them as free-riders and questions the most basic NATO principle that an attack on one is an attack on all.
Trump welcomed the Brexit vote and views the EU as a group of states in decline. He disapproves of trade agreements, feels little sympathy for European democracies and admires strong men around the world, especially President Vladimir Putin. He is against sanctions and would placate Russia where, despite denials, he has numerous business ties. His election would comfort European populists and improve their chances of success.
Some Europeans think that once in office a President Trump, faced with checks and balances, would moderate his stance. But the US President has many prerogatives, above all as Commander in Chief of the Armed Forces, and Trump’s deeply-held views are unlikely to change once he is in office.
Many Europeans would greet Hillary Clinton’s election with relief and expect her America to tilt back towards the old continent after President Obama’s “pivot” to Asia. She would, indeed, be more interested than Obama in Europe. But Clinton was one of the authors of the pivot to Asia, a policy dictated by geopolitics, economics and demography.
Still, Europeans should be ready for marked changes of priority. Clinton cannot ignore the popular mood that boosted the Trump and Sanders candidacies. This and her own concern about health care, gender issues, and income inequality, mean that her domestic agenda will come first.
Like every president, however, she will be forced to take up external challenges but will struggle to re-establish a bipartisan foreign policy. Without this, any new engagement with Europe will be limited.
She will be more effective in reaching out to Congress than Obama. But the Republicans may still control both House and Senate. This would reduce her freedom of manoeuvre over cabinet, supreme court and diplomatic appointments as well as international treaties.
Clinton has promoted the image of herself as more bellicose than President Obama, possibly to counter any suspicion of weakness in the minds of male voters. She did support American military involvement in the former Yugoslavia, Iraq, Afghanistan and Libya even if she is remembered for her advocacy of “smart power” as secretary of state. In reality, President Obama has deployed air power and special forces whenever he felt American interests threatened.
For Europe, the main difference in US external policies under President Clinton could well concern Russia. Clinton has faced an onslaught from Russian media and patronising attitudes from Russian leaders, including President Putin. Cyber-attacks on her campaign have not helped. She will respond resolutely to Russian provocations in the Baltic Sea area, Ukraine, Syria or elsewhere.
Today there is transatlantic and European unity over sanctions on Russia following the annexation of Crimea and Russian intervention in eastern Ukraine; there are calls for tougher measures because of the relentless bombing of Aleppo.
But divergences may grow during her presidency if Europeans soften up on sanctions before Russia has moderated its position over Ukraine and Syria. Clinton favours energy diversification away from Russia and will look askance at new energy pipelines, such as the proposed Nord Stream II, linking Europe and Russia. President Clinton may well struggle to preserve transatlantic unity on Russia.
To be sure, President Clinton will view Europeans as America’s main allies and partners. But this will be tough love, dependent on Europeans fulfilling their commitment to contribute 2% of their GDP to security and defence. She will be happy if they strengthen defence and security cooperation whether through NATO or the EU. But if Europeans fall short on burden sharing, President Clinton could not be relied on to come to their rescue unquestioningly.
On trade, President Clinton’s instincts will be liberal. But she cannot change position again and support the Trans-Pacific Partnership, a trade agreement concluded by the Obama administration with twelve Pacific rim countries, excluding China. If she wants to develop a trade agenda, she might be tempted to revive the proposed Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP) with the EU.
But it faces obstacles from Congress, labour unions, the European Parliament and public opinion on both sides of the Atlantic. The CETA difficulties suggest that henceforth it may be impossible for the EU to approve any international agreement which is submitted to the member states for ratification. President Clinton will have little sympathy for Brexit and is unlikely to give priority to a trade agreement with Britain over engagement with the EU.
Her administration will work closely with European states and institutions on counter-terrorism, cybersecurity, climate change and other 21st century challenges. She will aim to strengthen relations with Latin America, a goal shared with Spain and Portugal, after receiving overwhelming support from Hispanic voters in the election.
Europeans will be far more comfortable with President Clinton than with a President Trump. But they will need to keep her engaged by trying harder to overcome their own disorders and by breathing new life into the European project.