Is Trump a bigger danger to the US or Europe?

By Joschka Fischer | (Project Syndicate) | – –

BERLIN – Little more than a month after US President Donald Trump’s inauguration, it has become clear that nothing good will come of his presidency. Unfortunately, the pessimists turned out to be realists: things really are as bad as they said they would be. Worst-case scenarios are now baseline scenarios. Any hope that the demands of office, or political and economic realities, would persuade Trump to adhere to domestic and foreign-policy norms must now be cast aside as wishful thinking.

Realism demands acceptance of a sobering truth. When the 45th president of the United States must choose between upholding the US Constitution – which limits his authority through the separation of powers – or subverting it, he will likely choose the latter. The Trump administration intends to carry out nothing less than regime change in Washington, DC.
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Sooner or later, friction between the president and the constitutional system will create a severe crisis that will rock the US to its core, and possibly leave it politically unrecognizable. Trump’s continued attacks on the judiciary and the press – indispensable institutions for ensuring executive accountability – leave no room for a different interpretation.

Even if America’s constitutional system prevails, the chaos that will ensue during Trump’s presidency could cause permanent damage. Consider what might happen were a severe terrorist attack to occur in the US during this time of turmoil. Would the US experience a slide into authoritarianism, similar to what we have been witnessing in Turkey? One certainly hopes not, but it is a real possibility.

In terms of international relations, we have so far been spared an abrupt rupture of existing alliances and related commitments. But, as long as Trump pursues his “America first” strategy of isolationism and protectionism, those alliances and commitments will remain at risk.

A constitutional crisis in the US, a paradigm shift from globalization toward protectionism, and new isolationist security policies imply significant disruption of the international order, with no alternative order in view. If things go well, persistent instability will prevail; if not, confrontation and even military conflict could become the norm.

Trump’s relationship with Russia and its president, Vladimir Putin, remains unclear – if not downright mysterious. This ongoing uncertainty is particularly vexing for Eastern Europe, which cannot discount the possibility that Trump and Putin will reconcile their interests and stage Yalta 2.0, dividing Europe into separate spheres of influence.

The uncertainty with respect to Russia has been compounded by curious – and persistent – background noises in the Trump administration. Vice President Mike Pence, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, and Secretary of Defense James Mattis have all offered assurances to NATO and Eastern Europe; and Trump’s Russia-friendly National Security Adviser, Michael Flynn, has resigned. And yet when this much smoke surrounds an issue, it’s highly likely that something is burning.

In any case, as Trump shakes up the existing world order, Europe will bear the brunt of the shocks. After World War II, Western Europe was able to thrive because of two big American promises: military protection against the Soviet Union and free trade. The US also played a vital symbolic role as a “beacon of liberty.” But now, with all of Europe increasingly threatened by Russian revanchism, that role may already be a thing of the past.

Meanwhile, the European Union’s severe, self-inflicted wounds have evidently left it too weak to develop an alternative to its crumbling status quo. If Europe’s post-war security and economic arrangements falter or break down, as now seems likely, the foundation on which a free Europe has rested will become unsound.

In that case, the proximate cause will most likely be the second round of the French presidential election, on May 7. A victory for the far-right National Front’s Marine Le Pen would cause the eurozone and the EU to disintegrate. France and other EU member states will suffer grave economic damage, and a global crisis will likely ensue. If she loses, the current nationalist wave would be broken, at least temporarily, giving Europe a second chance.

That chance, if it comes, must not be wasted. The EU urgently needs to develop the means to defend itself from both internal and external threats, stabilize the eurozone, and ensure calmness and rationality in the coming Brexit negotiations with the United Kingdom. Whatever else changes, the UK’s geopolitical and security interests will stay the same. Brexit will not alter the fact that cooperation is necessary for mutual defense, the fight against terrorism, and border protection.

To be sure, the EU must not accept anything that would endanger the remaining union of 27 member states. But negotiators on both sides must also take care to avoid any outcome that could poison UK-EU relations indefinitely. As experience teaches us, life goes on, even after a divorce. Our common interests will remain, and now they include managing the risks posed by America’s truculent new president.

Joschka Fischer was German Foreign Minister and Vice Chancellor from 1998-2005, a term marked by Germany’s strong support for NATO’s intervention in Kosovo in 1999, followed by its opposition to the war in Iraq. Fischer entered electoral politics after participating in the anti-establishment protests of the 1960s and 1970s, and played a key role in founding Germany’s Green Party, which he led for almost two decades.


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7 Responses

  1. “Trump’s relationship with Russia and its president, Vladimir Putin. remains unclear – if not downright mysterious…”

    Ronald Reagan described the Soviet Union as the “Evil Empire” and excoriated the Kremlin regarding Afghanistan and Poland during the 1980s.

    It has been against traditional conservative Republican principles to curry favor with Russia and the speculation is that Trump’s odd conduct toward Moscow results from some kind of financial dealings or perhaps some form of blackmail – although nothing solid as far as evidenced has surfaced to substantiate any nefarious motivations to his seemingly Russophile attitude.

    The late U.S. foreign policy expert H. Rowan Gaither – as detailed in the book “Shadows of Power” – once promoted within the Council on Foreign Relations the idea that the Soviet Union and America should be “comfortably merged” into one entity – although the public should not be aware of this strategy as a foreign policy objective.

    Trump’s conduct – especially his attitude toward the Syrian Civil War and the pro-Russian Baathists in Damascus – is consistent with Gaither’s philosophy and should be closely scrutinized. Some U.S. foreign policy gurus have opined that totalitarian regimes such as Assad’s and Red China are preferable to fight international terrorism.

    International terrorism is being exploited as the justification for the erosion of individual liberties in democratic countries.

  2. Dear Joschka,

    I fear that you are entirely correct about the importance of a Le Pen defeat or victory in France’s second round election, for the short-term prospects of the European Union.

    In the longer term, the prospects for the survival and prosperity of the European Union or something like it, in the context of a sustainable civilization, depend on the trillions of decisions made by tens and hundreds of millions of citizens of the European nations. I flatter myself to think that my “learning aid,” my intellectual proposal for helping individuals understand how their everyday decisions effect grand historical outcomes, which has within the last year enjoyed hundreds of thousands of “hits” from French and Ukrainian citizens, and tens of thousands from German, British and Turkish citizens, in addition to a diverse global audience, may someday help contribute to a more positive outcome for this world-civilizational-level problem.

  3. …the possibility that Trump and Putin will reconcile their interests and stage Yalta 2.0, dividing Europe into separate spheres of influence may well be vexing for East Europeans but it is a great deal more so to European Federalists like Herr Fischer. What would contentment be without a little vexation? The absorption not only of Europe but of the world into separate spheres of influence is a process underway already, one which the US is employing considerable resources resist but which is nevertheless causing ‘significant disruption to the international order’. However, it is precisely that international order that is undergoing the change, and ‘disruption’ is simply a somewhat negative way of viewing it. There is also a fairly obvious alternative non-unipolar order au tableau, the principle pillars of which may be identified in unipolar terminology as the US, China, and Russia. In non-unipolar terms, however, it is not a question of those particular nations ‘dominating’ others or even necessarily lending their names to the resulting spheres of influence but of something closer to the Federalism to which Herr Fischer aspires, embodying, however, deeper, broader cultural and religious freedoms than are tolerated in the EU today, or in much of the rest of the world for that matter. ‘Realism demands acceptance of sobering truth. True, and one such truth is that the present ‘international order’ is not providing security of any kind for billions, and regretting it’s disruption is like regretting the opening of a chrysalis, the breaking of a boy’s voice, or countless other formative processes. If Trump desists from destructive unipolar ambitions and plays Luther to US Exceptionalism. then more good than harm could yet come of him.

  4. Come on. How can “all of Europe” possibly be threatened by the Russians when Russia’s economy is staggering around like a drunk at Mardi Gras and the old Soviet empire is dead as a doornail? Europe and the US need to get beyond the eternal boogeyman that is Russia and create a truly unified Europe that doesn’t leave the Russians out in the cold and beleaguered by an increasingly bellicose NATO.

    • A counterargument could well be made that the current Russian state is far more expansionist and aggressive (especially at using unorthodox methods) than either the old Soviet Union (after the 1950’s) or your supposedly “increasingly bellicose NATO” (where I can’t identify many civilian populations that want any kind of war). To wit, the takeover of “Moldova” starting decades ago with partisans and puppets, the readiness they had to take over their “disputed territories” in Georgia as soon as Georgia gave them an excuse, and their threats to the Baltics and Fnland, and their meddling in the Ukraine even before the recent “independent uprising” they organized and the Crimean annexation. Plus they seem to be light-years ahead of their Western counterparts in using all facets of modern media to cause confusion among their opponents.

    • Generally the only thing that will unite democracies and dictatorships in anything meaningful is a common threat from a scarier dictatorship. And even that doesn’t last long. Since Russia is clearly not a democracy, who is the scarier dictatorship that is supposed to unite Russia with Europe’s democracies in a common endeavor? The Islamic boogeyman? China, which is actually the sanest actor of the dictatorships? It makes no sense.

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