Virtually every U.S. presidential election is said to be ‘historic,’ ‘unprecedented,’ or ‘momentous.’ Such adjectives accurately describe the 2016 race, however.
It was historic because, for the first time in the 240-year history of the United States, a major party nominated a woman for the country’s highest office. It was unprecedented because the election pitted two candidates – one under federal investigation (but ultimately cleared of any criminal wrongdoing) for her use of a private e-mail server during her tenure as Secretary of State, the other a former reality television personality who had never held public office – with historically low favorability ratings among U.S. voters. It was momentous because Donald J. Trump – a man that even many prominent Republicans have said ‘would be the most reckless president in American history’ – was elected and will become President of the United States in January 2017.
European leaders and publics today are no doubt struggling to comprehend the implications of Trump’s victory for Europe and for world politics more broadly. Trump’s public comments suggest that he would break sharply from the post-World War II foreign policy consensus shared by 12 U.S. presidents, six Republican and six Democratic. He has called the NATO alliance ‘obsolete,’ praised Russian President Vladimir Putin, and said the British vote in June 2016 to exit the European Union was ‘a great thing.’
Trump’s victory also puts into question America’s role in the world. Trump campaigned on a platform of ‘America First’ that garnered broad popular appeal. For the past seven decades, U.S. presidents have broadly pursued a foreign policy that promoted free trade, a network of global alliances backed up by security guarantees, and a set of international institutions such as the United Nations, International Monetary Fund, and World Bank. A Trump presidency could entail a powerful and damaging break from this consensus.
Europe faces a range of challenges that threaten to undo more than six decades of economic and political integration across the Continent. The past decade has shown how quickly things can fall apart, and how rapidly public moods can shift – from the eurozone calamity and refugee crisis, to the British vote to exit the EU and the rise of far-right populist parties that rail against some of the most powerful and tangible symbols of European unity, such as the single currency and open internal borders. Despite these troubles, there was still the transatlantic relationship – a potent symbol and provider of European security and stability for over six decades. But now even that is in peril.
European leaders have no choice now but to think about how they can work with a President Trump for the next four years. For some, it will require moving beyond their open antipathy toward his policies and personal character, and their avowed preference for his defeated rival. French President François Hollande said, for example, that Trump’s ‘excesses’ make people ‘want to retch.’ Italian Prime Minister Matteo Renzi criticized what he called Trump’s ‘policy of fear’ and openly supported Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton. German Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeir called Trump ‘a hate preacher.’
Across Europe, perceptions of U.S. credibility, its capacity to be a reliable partner on European and global issues, and even whether Europe wants to maintain any kind of partnership with the United States while Trump is President are now in question. Trump’s victory is a tragedy for transatlantic relations, and – because of his contempt for liberal democracy and constitutional governance – for the very idea of a ‘West’ that is open, tolerant, and hopeful.