For over 70 years, the United States has upheld an international order that has not seen a single major power war, brought wealth and prosperity to dozens of nations which adopted open and free markets, and has advanced issues such as democracy, human rights, women’s rights, and other progressive issues through the international institutions the US helped to create at the end of World War II. Yes, it is easy to point out when the US’s foreign policy has aligned with countries that did not uphold similar values, or that the US has violated international law through its military undertakings, or assisted in overthrowing foreign governments – even established democracies. But even when acting against its own founding values, the American president has always at least rhetorically upheld the values of a liberal world order, albeit it sometimes hypocritical. But it seems that era has come to a screaming halt.
Many see the election of the American president as an opportunity to change the status quo and to embark on a new set of policies. Take for example the election of Barack Obama who ran on a progressive platform and repeatedly vowed to drastically change the foreign and domestic policies of past administrations. To be fair, Obama has accomplished several of his stated goals and changed American policies in a wide range of areas both domestically and abroad. However, the US has a larger portion of its population incarcerated than any other country; its governing apparatus more resembles an oligarchy than a democracy; its security state has only grown further at the expense of Americans’ civil liberties; and the undeclared wars in the broader Middle East have continued and expanded with no end in sight. Although Obama vowed to change America, the similarities are more striking than the differences.
But Obama is not an exception. It has been nearly the same for every modern American president. The change and reform they promise during the campaign quickly collides with the reality of the presidency. Career bureaucrats and civil servants that constitute the majority of the federal government do not change together with the president and his staff – even if the presidency is won by the different party. This leads to a continuation of policies across party lines. However, the recent change of presidents is different in more than one way.
Donald Trump’s surprise electoral college victory may not constitute a dramatic change in the country’s foreign or domestic policies. But his victory did not happen in a vacuum. It was coupled with an emboldened and in many ways radicalized Republican Party and a highly volatile international order, which relies heavily on American leadership. The combination of these factors will most likely disengage the US from the international community, including Europe and the European Union.
It is first worth examining the governing philosophy of the Republican Party, which won the presidency, Congress, and appointed a judge to the Supreme Court to ostensibly tip the court in the party’s favor. After the fall of the Soviet Union in 1991, Republicans – under the banner of conservatism, neoconservatism and most recently the ultra-conservative Tea Party – began shifting their bellicosity from foreign powers to domestic foes, such as American liberals and progressives. From their unprecedented partisan 1998 impeachment of Bill Clinton to their obstructionism towards Obama, the party has repeatedly obstructed democratic processes for electoral gains.
Over the course of the last eight years, the Republican Party has engaged in political tactics and rhetorics more common in authoritarian regimes than a developed democracy. As an opposition party they praised foreign leaders over their own president, they attempted to delegitimize the Obama presidency through the birther movement (with the movement’s leader eventually becoming the new president) and even denied millions of elderly Americans healthcare by not expanding Medicare at the state level, which would have been completely subsidized through federal legislation commonly referred to as Obamacare.
On the international stage, a resurgent Russia is using hybrid warfare to influence other country’s domestic politics and elections – its greatest succes being the recent US presidential election. Through propaganda, disinformation, and financing of nationalistic parties, Russia aims to install more pro-Russian governments or, at the very least, undermine Western democracies. Due to the civil war in Syria, Europe has experienced the largest migration of refugees since World War II. The influx of refugees coincided with a rise of lone-wolf and small-cell terrorist plots inspired by ISIS. The destablization of the international order has been exploited by nationalistic politicians around the world with racist and xenophobic rhetoric, all to gain power and all to the expense of the values of liberal democracies.
The Trump administration has so far expressed the desire to pursue more realpolitik on the international stage, although detailed positions are unknown or do simply not yet exist. The ‘America First’ slogan translates into a parochially defined set of national interests, most likely limited to the economy and military. Trump’s comments on NATO being obsolete actually fit into this parochial nationalist rhetoric. Moreover, Trump has shown an inclination to align with authoritarian leaders around the world rather than traditional American allies. He has also displayed a strong tendency to be more bellicose and provocative confronting friends and foe alike, most shockingly evident in the conversations with the Australian and Mexican heads of state. This will most likely worsen if the domestic situation in the US further destablizes.
It is also evident that Trump will not so much turn a blind eye towards Europe as he will take positions that are explicitly contrary to the EU’s interests. For example, Trump has shown to be rather indifferent about a united Europe and even openly admired nationalistic European politicians. This will force the EU into an uncomfortable situation. Will it stand up against Russian meddling and American rhetoric and pursue a robust and united EU, or will it allow the nationalists to win-out? Any attempt by the EU to stay united and robust can easily backfire due to the growing nationalist sentiments accross the continent. However, the situation has proven to be a Catch 22. If the EU does not stand up against the threats posed by the disruptions in the international order, the existence of the EU could be in grave danger. This would pose an existantial threat to free trade and the peaceful relations on the continent.
As 2016 proved, nothing can be taken for granted anymore. The chaotic and unpredictable behavior of Donald Trump will most likely become the norm and not the outlier in the coming years. This will not bode well in an already volatile international order. The special relationship between the US and the EU (and its individual nations) may be in for some hardship – especially if Trump follows through with his proposed Russian alignment. But if one thing is certain, expect uncertainty.
Tyler is a local news reporter for the Alpena News in Michigan. When escaping from his unhealthy obsession with international politics, you can find him traveling and exploring the great outdoors.
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