tl;dr: After the US presidential election, Europe has to step up its role in the world in defending the liberal and open society against its authoritarian enemies.
In the early hours of Wednesday, 9 November 2016 we will finally know how this slow motion car crash of an election in the USA has ended. However, regardless of its outcome it has some clear implications – for Europe and for Germany. Lets start with the worst scenario, with Donald J. Trump being president-elect and about to be inaugurated on 20 January 2017. His foreign policy agenda is pretty straightforward: neglect all international treaties the US has signed and ignore the international institutions the US has built in order to ‘make America great again’. True, this is not going to be easy for a President Trump but in foreign affairs he at least will not have to deal with Congress or the Supreme Court a lot. He can pressure NATO members to spend more on defense and give the central pillar of that treaty, Article 5, a kick in the proverbial jimmies thus signaling to Vladimir Putin that America does not care so much about what is happening in Eastern Europe. At the same time, Trump will tough up the talk with China, threatening to engage in a trade war with them although this is outside WTO rules (for which he couldn’t care less given his economic isolationist stance) thus endangering the ever more fragile process of economic globalization. And he surely will not give a damn about the Paris Agreement on Climate Change, regardless of what has been negotiated in front of the United Nations. Although there is the slight chance that his administration will try to cushion the effects of his 3am tweets and his gut inspired decision-making, the President of the United States will give very clear signals towards others: he just don’t care what you think and how you feel. The US-led system of global institutions – with their idea of the rule of law and mutual consent, along with the liberal order of the global economy – will start to crumble faster than Trump might be able to grab someone by his or, most likely, her genitals. This will re-introduce anarchy in the international system, a wonderful concept of international political thought stating that there is no one above the nation state when it comes to sovereignty (and thus no restraint on using force in foreign policy), something that the global institutional framework of the UN, NATO, the IMF, the WTO and many more was trying to contain over the last 70 odd years. But if we know one thing for certain, than that both nature and politics abhor a vacuum. Someone will step in and fill it. The players on the sideline, already eager to increase their influence, are China and Russia and other authoritarian countries. The smell of the 1930s is in the air and an authoritarian internationale might well replace the liberal Western ideals of open societies and open borders.
That’s unless Europe steps in. After over 400 years of global dominance, 30 years of bloody wars in the first half of the 20th century, and after 60 years of building a European Union of peace and prosperity, the birthplace of the West today does not look like it could step in, much less that it is willing to step in. The still lingering Eurozone crisis, the refugee crisis, Brexit, the rise of xenophobist governments in Poland and Hungary, as well as the surge of populist movements on the political left and right does give us great doubts about Europe filling the hole the US under Trump will be punching into the global order. However, there is some hope. In the light of Brexit, the EU and European governments are talking about closer military cooperation leading to a European Army. Also, a common energy policy, a European approach to the refugee crisis and maybe even to the Eurozone crisis are also in the air. The central player here will be Germany and Chancellor Merkel. It will be up to the German government and its officials in Brussels to help organize political efforts for crucial integration steps between EU institutions and member state governments. In European political think tanks this is already described as ‘leading from the center’, a non-hegemonic network approach to building multiple alliances to further European integration and strengthening the EU as a whole. With President Trump across the Atlantic and Transatlanticism in shatters, Europe has no choice but to get its act together – and get it together rather quickly.
Of course the more likely scenario on 9 November is waking up to the election of the first female US president, Hillary Clinton. It is probably hard to overestimate how loud the collective sighs of relief will be here in Europe. With President Clinton, Europe would have a reliable ally and a continuation of US foreign policy. However, from her inauguration day, Clinton will be under heavy flak by a wounded Republican party that is already toughening the rhetoric (if that is at all possible) when it comes to blocking every potential policy proposal coming out of a Clinton administration. We should make no mistakes: Hillary Clinton will be a domestically weak president, at least until the midterm elections in 2018, with serious reverberations on her foreign policy standing. She will need allies and she will seek allies – and demand more action and burden sharing, especially from Europe. And as the US approach to Europe was always focused on ‘lead nations’ and not on EU institutions, this means more burdens and more responsibility for Germany again. The US already seeks out Germany when it comes to European politics, to dealing with Russia and the rest of the European neighborhood, the Iran Nuclear Deal (something a President Trump will try to renegotiate or abandon completely) being a case in point for Euro-American good cop/bad cop diplomacy in international politics. It is true that there would not be the same amount of pressure and urgency on Europe to step up in comparison to a Trump presidency, but the need to step up will still be there under Clinton, just softer and with more time to achieve it.
Regardless who will become the 45th US president, Europe and its political institutions, the EU and its member states will have to get their collective heads around of becoming a much more active player on the center stage of global politics. Europe’s soft cultural and economic power needs to be matched with military muscles of its own, with a louder and more forceful voice for the open society and against its authoritarian enemies, both within its boundaries as well as beyond. It also needs to build strong alliances outside of Europe and with non-Western countries, especially with democracies around the globe: the G20 members of Mexico, Brazil and Argentina in Latin America, India and Japan in Asia, South Africa on the African continent. With the world seemingly adrift, Europe has to become a beacon of steadfast liberty and a standard bearer of the open society in order to provide hope against this dawning age of unreason – and to keep the dream alive that ‘all people become brothers where your gentle wing abides.’