Serious questions about America’s role in the world will not go away just because Donald Trump was defeated.
Hope. That is, at least, the dominant feeling in many global capitals as they adjust to the reality that Joe Biden
will soon be president of the United States and, more to the point, that Donald Trump
will not be: At least for now, NATO is safe; the transatlantic alliance is safe; global free trade is safe-the world as we knew it is safe.
The grown-ups are moving back in. Life can be breathed back into the Paris climate accord, the Iran nuclear agreement, and even the deflated idea of multilateralism itself. For those who believe in such things, the removal of the most powerful figure in recent history who does not is a manifestly important moment.
The closeness of the race, though, leaves a nagging fear that the world has not seen the last of Trump. Like an allegorical monster, he remains wounded but out there, lurking, ready to wreak his revenge.
Even if he does not reemerge from the bushes himself to claim victory in the courts or, indeed, to try again in 2024, his dogma remains. That Trump got as close as he did in the midst of a pandemic and a global recession means that Trumpism remains defiantly alive. For the world, this is of fundamental importance: Protection is required.
Another conclusion for world leaders is that whatever happens to Trump and Trumpism over the next few weeks and years, the causes of their rise, and the issues they have identified, have certainly not gone away. Yes, these leaders believe, Trump was, and perhaps will be again, a fundamentally malign, ignorant, and dangerous president, but he was not the cause of the structural problem at the heart of the U.S.’s relationship with the world.
I spoke with dozens of diplomats, officials, and aides in the U.S. and Europe in the run-up to the election, most of whom expected a Biden victory, and many of whom spoke on condition of anonymity to discuss sensitive diplomatic issues. Almost all accepted that serious questions about America’s role in the world would not go away just because Trump was dethroned. The fact that the election was closer than they had expected only confirms this conclusion.
“The old politics is over,” one senior aide to a European leader told me before the election. It was a message that was repeated back to me again and again, particularly by those more skeptical of the transformative powers of a Biden presidency. Over the past four years, a muscle memory has developed in Berlin, Paris, Brussels, and London of how to work not just with American power, but against it, on issues such as climate change and trade.
Less antagonistically, but just as important, I was told that America’s allies had also learned how to work in the space left open by Washington’s indifference, whether dealing with the crisis in Belarus, facing up to Turkish maneuverings in the Mediterranean, or managing the devastation in Lebanon. Where once the U.S. might have played mediator or imperial savior, today it is often absent, disruptive, or simply unclear in its goals and commitment.
A new president may soon reside in the White House, but confidence that any American decision is secure is all but nonexistent. What can Biden achieve with an angry, prowling Trump menacing his every move for the next four years?
Most of those I spoke with across Europe already took for granted that the U.S. retrenchment actually began under Barack Obama, even if it intensified under Trump. So even if Biden, Obama’s vice president, were able to bring together enough of the American system behind his leadership, such an analysis—fair or not—risks turning into something much more acutely problematic, metamorphosing into a shared idea that it is not Trump who cannot be relied on, but the U.S. itself.
“If you open that Pandora’s box,” Britain’s great postwar foreign secretary Ernest Bevin once quipped, “you never know what Trojan horses will jump out.” In Europe, at least, we already know that one idea has jumped out: independence from America.
In Common Sense, the revolutionary pamphlet in support of American independence, Thomas Paine argued that there was “something very absurd, in supposing a continent to be perpetually governed by an island.” At the time, of course, he was referring to England’s rule over America. Paine likely could never have imagined that America might one day be the geopolitical island governing the European Continent—its leaders forced to petition the great U.S. sovereign for protection. This reality is what European political elites, particularly those in the Continent’s three biggest countries, are rebelling against.
In an interview with The Economist last year, French President Emmanuel Macron argued that Europe needed to understand that the world had changed. “To have an American ally turning its back on us so quickly on strategic issues; nobody would have believed this possible,” he said. The rot began under Obama, whose failure to intervene in response to the use of chemical weapons in Syria, Macron said, was “the first stage in the collapse of the Western bloc.”
As a result, Europe’s defense, security, and economic sovereignty needed to be rethought. For the French, who have long sought to reestablish their lost global influence through the European Union, American withdrawal is not a threat, but an opportunity that cannot be passed over just because a nice American has taken over. (Obama, for his part, had his own concerns with Europe.
In his interview with The Atlantic in his final year in office, he hit a number of Trumpian notes, attacking European “free riders,” warning Britain that it could no longer claim a “special relationship” if it did not commit to spending more on defense, and demanding that Europe step up to share more of the burden of global leadership. “We don’t have to always be the ones who are up front,” he told Jeffrey Goldberg, and talked dismissively about European and Arab states “holding our coats while we did all the fighting.”)
To a cynical British ear, Macron has not rethought anything, but simply restated the Gaullist dogma that France must be seen to strain on the leash of American power without ever actually leaving the kennel. Britain, however, has its own set of potential issues with a Biden administration.
Particular disquiet permeated Downing Street during the Obama administration over the perceived lack of recompense for Britain’s loyalty: As one figure close to Boris Johnson
told me, speaking on condition of anonymity, Britain had fought and bled alongside the U.S. for almost two decades in Afghanistan and Iraq, and had consistently invested more in defense than any other NATO member.
What did it get in return? Despite his apparent anger at European allies, Obama was happy to cozy up to Germany’s Angela Merkel
, although she embodied the very lack of leadership he appeared to resent, never getting near the 2 percent defense-spending target agreed to by all NATO members.
France and Britain also have particular political worries over a Democrat in the White House, both having courted the Trump administration, or sought some measure of independence from American foreign policy. A former French diplomat told me of Macron’s concern about his unpopularity with Biden’s team, given the French leader’s support for European strategic autonomy from the U.S. and fierce criticism of Obama.
Similarly, Britain’s efforts to push for a trade deal with the U.S., and its apparent willingness, as its critics charge, to jeopardize the Good Friday Agreement by seeking out a Brexit agreement with the EU, have officials in London worried that they are too closely tied to Trump.
The closeness of the race creates another problem for Biden in this regard. For the past four years, many European states have sought to wait out Trump, keeping various international treaties alive in the hope that a future Democratic president would breathe new life into them. Given the Democrats’ narrow victory, will other states behave similarly with Biden, awaiting the Republicans’ return in other contexts?
If Britain and France pose novel problems for Biden, however, Germany is altogether more difficult, even though Merkel’s strained relations with Trump suggest that Berlin will be the capital to most vociferously welcome Biden’s election victory. One major European state’s ambassador to the EU told me that the momentum toward more European autonomy from the U.S. was being driven by Germany, largely because of the deep shift in public attitudes there, as well as its growing dependence on access to the Chinese market.
Two senior European officials I spoke with said the lesson that Germany had taken from the past 12 years was clear: America was drifting away from Europe, no matter who was in the White House. The first official said that although Trump had not managed much of a retrenchment, his message had been clear: We’re out of here. The second European official went further, saying that Germany and the EU agreed with both Obama and Trump that Europe needed to do more for its own defense. “At the end of the day, it’s something we Europeans have to take care of,” this official said.
The corollary of paying more, however, was deciding more, this official noted. No taxation without representation.
In February 1942, around 80,000 British-empire troops surrendered Singapore to the Japanese in what then–Prime Minister Winston Churchill described as the worst disaster in British military history. Bogged down in Europe and North Africa, Britain proved unable to protect the strategically pivotal naval base.
For Britain, the defeat was a humiliation, but for Australia, it was worse-it was an existential threat. Suddenly, the key to its entire security strategy had been handed to the enemy. When Singapore was finally retaken at the end of World War II, Australia could not forget the lesson it had learned. By 1951, Washington had formally taken over support for Australia’s defense, the beginning of a pattern that would be replicated across the world.
By that point, Britain had already announced that it could no longer afford to defend Greece, and so, faced with the prospect of the Mediterranean country falling into Moscow’s sphere of influence, Harry Truman intervened, declaring that from then on, the United States’ policy would be “to support free peoples who are resisting attempted subjugation by armed minorities or outside pressures.” The Truman Doctrine was born, cementing the era of the American empire.
Today, whatever Trump’s faults, there has been no Singaporean cataclysm for any of the countries that rely on the U.S. security guarantee: Russia has not territorially tested America’s commitment to NATO, nor has China tried its protection of Taiwan. But speak with European diplomats, officials, and foreign-policy analysts, and they share at least a perception that American commitment is fraying at the edges.
Despite the differences between 1947 Britain and today’s United States (the latter is simply far stronger), America faces the same strategic question: Can it continue to sustain its position of security guarantor for Europe and Asia, given its division at home and relative economic decline? This question for many countries today, as it was for Australia and Greece in the 1940s, is existential, one that extends beyond whether the current U.S. president can be relied on for protection, but asks whether, long term, any president can. And, perhaps more to the point, will American voters continue to accept the attendant financial burden?
More than 70 years after the Truman Doctrine was introduced, tensions are once again bubbling in Greece, but this time there is little indication that Washington is paying attention. The story has been similar throughout the Trump presidency. During Britain’s battles with Brussels over Brexit, it was noted with some bitterness in London that the Americans had disappeared, whereas in years past they may well have tried to insert themselves as mediators.
Even if they had this time, in the view of those in Paris, Berlin, and Brussels with whom I spoke, the EU would not have welcomed such an intervention in its internal affairs. Europe was quietly expanding, just as America was retreating.
The question for European powers today, therefore, is not whether Biden recommits to the transatlantic relationship, but whether the American public shares that commitment. Before the election, I spoke with a former member of the Trump White House who recalled the president’s frustration at European inflexibility over contributions to NATO. He had blown up after seeing the relatively low amounts being spent by each member country on NATO’s day-to-day running costs, and had become fixated on getting Berlin to pay more.
While Trump’s hang-up over Germany and its contributions was seen as eccentric by his advisers, they nevertheless believed that he was right, that the German contribution to NATO’s collective defense was unacceptably low, given its wealth, size, and dependence on the security body.
However, when faced with U.S. pressure to increase their contributions, German officials recoiled and, in the telling of the U.S. official I spoke with, said they would not be able to defend such a move to their taxpayers at home. At this point, the Americans erupted, questioning how Washington could defend the current situation to its taxpayers.
In the end, Germany did agree to boost its contributions, staving off a potentially dangerous situation, but the incident was a reminder that the U.S., despite its immense wealth, is not immune from the political and financial burden of running a security empire. As the former British ambassador to the U.S. Kim Darroch told me, Americans voted for Trump because “mainstream politicians and parties were not delivering what they thought government should be delivering.” It is a lesson that European leaders claim they understand.
Lawrence Freedman, an emeritus international-relations professor at King’s College London, told me that the difference between the Australian and Greek crises of the 1940s and that of America’s allies today is that American supremacy after the Second World War established a ready-made alternative to British security. Today, American allies have no such alternative.
China has “spectacularly failed” to use the unpopularity of the Trump presidency to step into the void and make friends, Freedman said, while the EU has struggled to agree on sanctions over a crackdown in Belarus, let alone summon the will, institutional instruments, and defensive capability to develop a functioning foreign policy of its own.
In the run-up to the election, Biden described his hope to be a “transitional” president for Americans at home. Yet, for many American allies, there is little indication of what he wants to transition to for the world at large.