A Slippery Slope: The USA after the Presidential elections

Donald Trump Pinatas in einem Geschäft in den USA

Ralf Fücks visited the United States in the week after the elections for talks and events in New York and Washington DC. Reflections and highlights from a nation in shock.

First impressions

We arrive in New York five days after Donald Trump was elected the new US President on the night of November 8. The shock is slowly turning into anger. Protestors and police are face off in front of the Trump Tower on 57th Street. From a few blocks away, you can hear the mostly young protesters chanting: “Not my President!” or “No hate, no fear, immigrants are welcome here”. The latter refers to Trump’s announcement to quickly deport delinquent undocumented immigrants. This would affect two to three million people, fully integrated into the US workforce, many of whom have school-aged children. The atmosphere is heated. Some Trump supporters are having fiery verbal skirmishes with the protesters.

One should be careful not to jump to conclusions about the “true face of America” based on Trump’s victory. He was elected by one fourth of the electorate. Hillary Clinton carried the popular vote by more than two million votes. This outcome is no blank check for an unchecked Trump administration. He will face resistance. A Women’s March on Washington has been announced for January 21st – The day after Inauguration Day. New York mayor Bill de Blasio has publicly stated that his administration will not assist in hounding illegal immigrants or registering Muslims. And old maverick John McCain promised fierce resistance against any attempt to bring back torture methods such as “waterboarding”: “I don’t give a damn what the president of the United States wants to do or anybody else wants to do. We will not waterboard. We will not do it”

What repercussions will these elections have on the USA and the world? The sense that a new era is dawning was palpable. But hardly anyone dared to predict to the extent to which Trump’s crude campaign promises, his dangerous toying with resentment, and his obvious foreign-policy dilettantism will translate into the actual policies of a Trump Presidency. The damage that has already been done is enormous. The campaign has left deep scars, the nation is divided as rarely ever before, US allies are facing uncertainty, the trust in the leading power of the West, already dwindling, has reached new lows. The United States, once the very anchor of liberal modernity, is drifting off into uncertain waters.

A hard rain’s a gonna fall (Bob Dylan)

What does the election mean for the transatlantic relationship? Concern about the relationship with Europe and the new international role of the USA is apparent in many conversations. We keep hearing the sentence: “Now that the election is over, we are living in a new world.” Yet Trump’s victory is not an isolated phenomenon. Liberal democracy is eroding all over the world. The West as a political project is in danger. The transatlantic partnership is more than a military alliance. It can only exist as an alliance of shared values, as Angela Merkel pointed out in her congratulatory address to the newly elected President. She is being quoted a lot these days in the USA. Brookings president Strobe Talbott speaks of the “Merkel Doctrine” as the guiding notion of transatlantic cooperation. It remains to be seen whether democracy and human rights will matter in international politics, or whether we will revert to 19th-century political realism knows only narrow-minded national interests and geopolitical arrangements.

Patti Smith - A Hard Rain's A-Gonna Fall (Bob Dylan Cover) at 2016 Nobel Prize Award Ceremony. - Abdelrahman Khairy

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Three central questions arise regarding the international consequences of the power shift in the USA: 1. Will the United States continue to act as a stabilizing power for vulnerable democracies, such as South Korea and Taiwan, as well as for young democracies in Central and Eastern Europe, such as the Baltic States or Ukraine? 2. Will the US cease to be the champion of an open world economy and defect to the protectionist camp? 3.How will the USA handle the Paris Agreement on climate change, a cornerstone of multilateral, cooperative politics? If we take Trump’s statements at face value, the response to all three questions is negative, with dire consequences for international stability and security.

In our own interest, we should do all we can to keep the transatlantic alliance intact – despite an erratic President in Washington, DC. The security, economic, and cultural connection between Europe and the USA is too significant to write it off. When governmental cooperation is faltering, we need even more collaboration at the regional and municipal levels, in science and culture, with foundations and NGOs. This could be the dawn of an era in which democratic forces in the US need us as much as we need them. As for the German public, we must now counteract the impulse to write off the USA. Trump embodies every single anti-American cliché and reflex in Europe. We must show that there is still another America, one committed to democracy and freedom, the one that has been and is the ‘incubator for ideas about the future”’ of the world.

A turnabout in foreign policy?

An unsettling question: How closely will the next US administration side with European nationalist forces? Are we looking at a new anti-liberal alliance between Washington, Moscow, Orban, Le Pen and so many others? This would certainly help precipitate the demise of European Union and the transatlantic alliance. Most experts still assume that right-wing populists in Trump’s entourage, especially hardliner and newly appointed Chief White House Strategist Bannon, will not be the masterminds of US foreign policy. Pundits expect the new administration to follow interests rather than ideology, and hope that professional competency will prevail in government agencies and offices. But no one knows for sure to what extent conventional rules still apply. It is unclear whether the Republican majority in Congress will play a moderating role, what influence the allies still hold, and how resistant American democracy will be towards authoritarian tendencies.

An urgent piece of advice from American friends to the federal government of Germany and the EU: Do not wait for the new administration to define is policies. Take action now, take the initiative, make propositions for future cooperation and make your expectations known in Washington.

One key issue is the new administration’s future policies towards Russia. Many speak of a “reset II” – Trump making a new attempt at a détente and at steering the relationship towards cooperation. No one could be opposed to that – as long as a rapprochement between Washington and Moscow does not end up being a new Yalta, a divvying up of hegemonic zones of influence between two superpowers. Trump does not believe in multilateral arrangements, neither in the area of trade nor in foreign policy. He wants to return to a policy of bilateral deals. The obvious concern here is that he might be willing to sacrifice Ukraine on the altar of balancing interests with Putin. His aspirations for a new partnership could be soon thwarted if the Kremlin succumbs to the temptation to make Trump look like a foreign-policy dilettante and to reap unilateral gains from the momentary confusion in Washington.

This uncertainty as to whether the USA will meet its obligations to stand with European and Asian allies creates a dangerous vacuum. It is an invitation to Russia and China to test US resolve, whether it be in Eastern Europe or the South China Sea. It is currently impossible to tell whether Congress would try to correct such policies. Significant forces within both major parties are in favor of US disengagement. If they have their way, the US will retreat from the world stage and focus more on itself. The one thing we know for certain is that politicians across party lines are calling for Europe to finally assume more responsibility for its own security. The USA is no longer willing to bear the lion’s share of the cost for international  security architecture. This is also true with regard to the world economy: The fact that the USA paid the price for an open-market policy with the loss of millions of US manufacturing jobs was a major factor that rallied white workers behind Trump.

Diplomatic prognoses

Here are some assessments made in diplomatic circles in Washington regarding the new administration’s policies: 1) NATO: most observers are confident that the talking-down of America’s commitment to its alliances on the campaign trail will not be a major factor in the new administration’s actual policies. 2) EU: in contrast to Obama, Trump approved of the Brexit vote. For now, we must expect not to find much empathy for EU concerns. The Trump administration is expected to put bilateral relations with European states above the EU. 3) Regarding climate policy, there is little hope that Trump will abide by the Paris Agreement. 4) As for trade policy, we must assume that Trump’s first order of business will be to renegotiate NAFTA. In contrast to TPP, TTIP did have significant support in Congress. It is doubtful, however, whether a new multilateral trade agreement will happen during Trump’s presidency. We need a “plan B”. 5) The Iran Deal is on shaky ground.

First Brexit, now Trump: Germany will have to take on greater responsibility for the cohesion of Europe. This is also true for the United Nations. At the UN headquarters, we are perceived as a nation of moderation and centrism. Should the USA no longer fill this role, Germany will, whether we like it or not, find itself in the role of defender of international law and our multilateral order. There is an enormous gap between the world’s expectations of the Federal Republic of Germany (during the most recent budget debates in German parliament, Angela Merkel called them “grotesquely exaggerated”) and our ability to actually assume the role of an international leader.

Uncertainty at the State Department

Our conversations at the State Department were very frank. A certain dose of black humor popped up in certain situations. There is a great deal of uncertainty regarding the future course of the country. So far, the Trump team has not proposed any serious foreign policy agenda. Staffing decisions regarding the future leadership of the office are anyone’s guess. The dilettantism of the transition team is an indicator that Trump and his closest circles did not expect a victory and are entering the transition phase utterly unprepared. European allies should use any opportunity they can to prevent a worst-case scenario in Washington – which means, not to wait and see, but proactively approach the new administration as soon as we know who will be in charge. This is also true for contacts at the highest level.

The transition phase will be a time of high risk. This is already apparent in Russia’s escalation of bombings in Syria. Initial signals from Moscow hint at a positive reaction to Trump’s election. Yet skepticism reigns beneath the surface. Most experts assume that a “warming” between Washington and Moscow will not last. The professional staff at the State Department will do anything in their power to maintain close cooperation with European allies on critical issues. This also applies to continuing sanctions against Russia. Moscow’s growing influence on public opinion in the West is being observed with concern (financing, media). It is to be expected that the Kremlin will also try to systematically influence the electoral campaign in Germany (Russia Today and other media, social networks, Trojans, hacker attacks – which are all already in full swing). A veteran diplomat made an interesting comment: Liberal powers must figure out how to make room for a progressive, democratic patriotism - it is a mistake to leave patriotism to antiliberal forces and right-wing populists, and allow them to charge it with nationalist ideas.

What does election research have to say?

American society is deeply divided. When we asked Caroll Doherty, director of policy research at the Pew Research Center, about the decisive factors that led to Trump’s victory, he shared two major findings: (a) real or feared social demise as well as (b) “race” and defending the dominance of white America. The parties are also divided internally: the Republicans between Trump supporters and traditional conservatives, the Democrats between Clinton and Sanders supporters. Voters deemed that Hillary Clinton was clearly more competent on the issues, yet many ended up voting for Trump, even though they did not consider him a suitable candidate in terms of competence or character. A large part of the electorate wanted change at any cost. Clinton embodied the very establishment that angered them.

Trump’s success was influenced largely by his promise to change course in trade policy. Clinton had nothing to counter that. Obama had promised to improve the US’ economic situation, and in fact, the American economy grew at much stronger rates than the European economy. Yet, the general public did not feel the economic boom. Obama’s successful economic record failed to impress those who felt increasingly at risk of social demise.

Clinton also lost the election because she – in contrast to Obama – failed to sufficiently mobilize ethnic minorities. Trump received about 30% of Latino votes. The longer immigrants have lived in the US, the more conservative their voting patterns become. While Hillary won the popular vote (according to current figures, by more than 2.2 million votes), she did not manage to mobilize the youth. She largely ignored topics that energize young voters: climate change, immigration and equality. The email scandal, reignited by the director of the CIA two weeks prior to the election, dealt her the final blow among many undecided voters.

The Waterloo of left-wing politics of identity

In Europe as well as in the USA, political battle lines are shifting from the old left-right-dichotomy towards a conflict between liberal democracy and authoritarian, nationalist, and xenophobic counter-movements. Growing parts of the population see globalization as a threat; they reject open society with its ethnic and cultural pluralism as well as gender and sexual equality. In this election, post-modern, left-wing identity politics, with its fixation on “race, sex and gender” experienced its Waterloo. The victor is identarian right-wing policy. The Trump campaign mobilized white, heterosexual, male America, which feels threatened in its cultural dominance. Clinton’s hope for a strategic majority of liberal elites and ethnic-cultural minorities backfired because she lost sight of white middle-class America.

The defenders of open society will only prevail in this cultural battle if they show more empathy for social anxieties and inequality. If you give the impression that the issue of gender-neutral bathrooms is at the very top of your progressive policy agenda, you mustn’t be surprised if the working class thinks you’re crazy. If you support globalization, you must make sure not to throw entire regions under the bus. If you champion freedom and equality, you must also address the need for a sense of social stability. And if you sing the praises of diversity, you must also know what social glue will hold this increasingly heterogeneous society together.

Trump and climate

The election of Donald Trump is a harsh setback for the Paris climate agreement. The new President does not even have to formally rescind it, he can simply not abide by it. His EPA transition team leader is a stalwart opponent of any climate-change policies. Trump has said he intends to reopen the floodgates for oil and gas production in the USA. For sheer procedural reasons, however, it won’t be easy to simply take back the environmental regulations passed under Obama.

If the USA abandons the path of CO2-reduction, the goal of limiting global warming to under 2 degrees centigrade (compared to the preindustrial age) will most likely be unachievable. Even though China has far surpassed the USA, the latter still causes about 16% of global CO2 emissions. Realistically, though, the 2-degree goal could not be achieved with the NDCs that the community of states has committed to so far, anyway. Pace and scope of ecological innovation must be accelerated. We will see to what extent private technology investment in the green revolution and ambitious climate policies by many US cities and federal states will do to counteract the new administration. We are not done yet.