Alarmed and inspired by America’s choice
LIKE MILLIONS OF others around the world, I had little or no sleep on the night of the US presidential election. It was a global event of momentous significance. As the results came in and the prospect of Donald Trump emerging as the victor gradually increased, it was impossible to escape the conclusion that the world—not just the United States of America— was entering a new era that would challenge many of the certainties that have underpinned the complex global structures, both political and economic, that have endured since World War II.
I wrote recently in Open that ‘the world will be anxiously awaiting the result of an election that looks desperately close when by all conventional measures it should be anything but’ (‘Fall of the Professional Politician’, October 10th, 2016). In terms of the popular vote—which Hillary Clinton narrowly won—it was indeed close, but in America’s unique electoral college system, it was approaching a landslide for Trump. That he had won, and won big, by measures that were far from conventional is beside the point. Win he did, and while some of those who struggle to reconcile themselves to the fact took to the streets of Washington DC and elsewhere, that is a luxury—albeit a rather futile one—that we in the rest of the world were denied.
We had no say. It’s a fair calculation that had the electoral college been made up of representatives of every government outside the US, Trump would have been trounced. Only Vladimir Putin, Syria’s Bashar al-Assad and perhaps one or two others saw their best interests served by a Trump victory. We had no say, but we must deal with the consequences. It is said that when a butterfly flaps its wings in the Amazonian jungle, a subsequent storm ravages half of Europe. So just imagine what happens when a wild elephant stomps its way into the White House.
Those street protests tell us something, however. Or at least Donald Trump’s response to them does. He tweeted—because that’s how he prefers to communicate—that ‘professional protesters, incited by the media, are protesting. Very unfair!’ His critics were quick to point out that on the re-election of President Obama in 2012, the same Donald Trump tweeted, ‘We can’t let this happen. We should march on Washington to stop this travesty. Our nation is totally divided!’
Trump had warned that the 2016 election would be rigged and said he would accept the result only ‘if I win’. The US will soon have a president whose respect for democracy is conditional on it producing the result he wants. This might seem like a problem for the American people alone—after all, they can’t say they weren’t warned and they voted for him anyway—but it is inescapably a cause of great concern for the rest of us too.
Donald Trump demands everything on his own terms. When he doesn’t get what he wants, he lashes out. His behaviour is boorish and at times almost child-like. No set-back is ever his own fault. He will immediately look for somebody else to blame. That is who he is and that is how he has always been. Those who have known him for years say he has a very short attention span, that under pressure he reacts unpredictably and irrationally, and he is vengeful towards those who he believes have stood in his way.
In order to sustain his ego and self-belief, he is a habitual liar. ‘I never said that’ is his stock response to criticism, when the verifiable record proves otherwise. The American fact-checking website Politifact, has been analysing his statements since 2011 when he first considered running for President. Since then they have found that 70 per cent of his claims were lies, or what they called ‘mostly false, false, or pants-on-fire’.
Little wonder then that governments around the world are in a state of shock, having to adjust their expectations in the light of the fact that a man like this is about to take control of the most powerful nation on earth and the world’s largest nuclear stockpile.
Until now we have been used to describing the president of the United States as ‘the leader of the free world’. We can do that no longer. The protestors on the streets of American cities said ‘not our President’. We are entitled to say ‘not our leader’.
Merkel is no soft-hearted liberal. By making her political support conditional on values for which Donald Trump has shown scant regard was an act of courage and conviction
What we cannot do, however, is close our eyes or look the other way and pretend this isn’t happening. Every nation must find its way of adjusting to a new set of global parameters. In the short term, that is no easy matter. If Hillary Clinton had won, civil servants in London, Berlin, Delhi and Beijing would simply wade through the mountain of documents setting out her plans and her vision. Indeed, they had already done so, so pervasive was the collective assumption that Trump was unelectable and Clinton was almost certain to emerge victorious.
Here in Europe, we planned for a Clinton presidency not just because it was the result we wanted, but also the one we anticipated. We now have to adjust our assumptions radically and quickly. But there is no equivalent pile of documents and policy papers to help us do it. Merely an avalanche of tweets and often contradictory statements from the campaign trail.
The optimists say we shouldn’t worry. Trump said what he had to say in order to get elected. Now that he’s won, he’ll be much more moderate and inclusive. There is a joke going around that he says ‘Wall? I never said that. I want to build a Mexican Mall. Ban? No. Bring on the Muslim band.’ Calm down, they say. As one commentator in the London Times put it, ‘The new rule of politics: For every political action there is an equal and opposite over-reaction.’
Britain’s foreign secretary, Boris Johnson, a man who has himself been called out for his inconsistencies and lies, has made his views clear. “I would respectfully say to my beloved European friends and colleagues,” he said, “that it’s time that we snapped out of the general doom and gloom about the result of this election and collective ‘whinge-o-rama’ that seems to be going on in some places.” A few months ago, his view was equally clear but rather different. Donald Trump, he said then, was a man “of stupefying ignorance that makes him frankly unfit to hold office of President of the United States”. Johnson boycotted an emergency meeting of European Union foreign ministers called at short notice last weekend to decide how to respond to Donald Trump’s election. He said the meeting was unnecessary. Already the UK is looking across the Atlantic rather than the English Channel.
The British government’s response to the election result is coloured, inevitably, by Brexit which many have rightly seen as the consequence of a similar grassroots revolt against politics as usual. Indeed on the campaign trail Donald Trump promised his supporters what he called ‘Brexit plus plus plus’. By that we presume he meant—with Trump you can never be precisely sure what means—not just a result that would defy both predictions and polls, but also an American version of the Brexit slogan of ‘Take Back Control’.
Brexit was, above all, an assertion of national self-determination and a rejection of the kind of collaborative, supra-national alliance represented by the European Union. The belief that your country has been weakened, not strengthened, by its involvement in international coalition building and that by going it alone you can restore not just national pride but national prosperity is pure Trumpism.
The British Prime Minister, Theresa May, didn’t support Brexit but she now has to make it work and it isn’t going to be as easy as the slogan-makers would have us believe. Forging new bilateral rather than multi-lateral alliances and deals is a mammoth task. May discovered just how difficult during her challenging visit to India recently. Her message that Britain wanted open trade in goods and services but closed borders when it came to migration was no more convincing in India than it had been previously in the capitals of Europe.
The next big test will come in France where the possibility of the extreme nationalist Marine Le Pen getting into the final round of the presidential election and even winning it can no longer be ruled out
NO WONDER THEN that May was swift to welcome the election of the new president. She had refrained from the Trump-bashing that so many other European politicians, including her predecessor David Cameron, had indulged in. Her view of Trump the man remained and still remains private. But her view of Trump the president is less hard to discern. Here, at last, is a world leader who talks the language of trade deals and of the need to clamp down on immigration. On the face of it, British self-interest and American self-interest coincide. But do they really? Emphatically not.
‘Little England’ nationalists have long dreamed to escaping the entanglements of our European neighbours and forging an Anglo-American transatlantic alliance. It is partly a belief in a ‘Better Yesterday’ that never existed in which Britain and American stood alone against the rest of the world. And part a faith in the so-called ‘special relationship’ that has always in truth been far more special to Britain than it has to the US.
We are about to be reminded of the geopolitical reality that the United Kingdom is a small nation with few natural resources that seeks to punch above its weight because of its historical strength rather than its current standing or future potential. It will not be an easy adjustment either politically or economically.
Britain relies on free trade. Trump says he wants to tear up trade agreements that have already been signed and those that are in the pipeline. The former British Finance Minister Lord Jim O’Neill, who incidentally is credited with coining the term ‘BRICS’ for the emerging economies of the future, pointed out that free trade is ‘as close to a free lunch as it gets’ with rising prosperity for all concerned. The US might just be able to prosper in a more protectionist world, although O’Neill is doubtful, with a lower dollar and cheaper labour costs, but Britain could not.
Britain relies, too, on collective security. Despite the fig-leaf of our ruinously expensive so-called independent nuclear deterrent, the UK’s armed forces are a pale shadow of their former glory. Trump approves of the fact that we have a higher defence budget than our European neighbours, but when he calls into question the value of the NATO alliance he calls into question our national security. Once again, America might be able to go it alone but Britain could not.
Parties across the political spectrum here accept the science of climate change and know that its consequences do not respect national boundaries. Donald Trump calls climate change a Chinese conspiracy to weaken America and threatens to pull out of the hard-won Paris Agreement.
So whatever he might say, and whatever Theresa May and Boris Johnson might hope, President Trump is not a friend of the UK. In this, at least, we can expect him to be true to his word. It will be ‘America First’. And while all political leaders, including Narendra Modi, use the rhetoric of putting the national interest above all else, wise political leaders recognise that the world is inter-linked and the national interest depends on international cooperation whether on climate change, collective security, fighting terrorism or tackling tax evasion.
Donald Trump may be right that other countries which benefit from NATO’s protective umbrella should contribute more to its cost. But when he intimates that the US would not necessarily come to the aid of NATO members like Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania—small nations situated precariously on Russia’s borders—he emboldens Vladimir Putin and weakens the West.
If the President of the United States of America is no longer a champion of democracy or the guardian of collective security, then he can no longer claim the mantle of leader of the free world.
One European head of government’s response to the election result did show genuine political and moral leadership and that is Germany’s Angela Merkel. Her words deserve quoting in full:
“Germany and America are connected by common values: democracy, freedom, respect for the laws and for human dignity irrespective of origin, skin colour, religion, gender, sexual orientation or political conviction. On the basis of these values, I offer the future president of America, Donald Trump, a close working relationship.”
Merkel is no soft-hearted liberal. She is the right wing leader of a frequently socially conservative country. By making her political support conditional on values for which Donald Trump has shown scant regard was an act of courage and conviction.
Donald Trump is a bully. He sees conciliation as a sign of weakness. Which is why it is important for the rest of the world to remember that appeasing a bully just makes him more of a bully. And why, like Angela Merkel, it is right to challenge Trump and not to flatter him.
Unless those who reject not just his bigotry and racism, but also his narrow perverted nationalism stand firm, the poison he has injected into the bloodstream of American politics will spread. His election was genuinely welcomed not just by Vladimir Putin but by far-right leaders across Europe and elsewhere. The first and only British politician he has met since his election was Nigel Farage of the UK Independence Party, well to the right of the governing Conservatives. The next big test will come in France where the possibility of the extreme nationalist Marine Le Pen getting into the final round of next year’s presidential election and even winning it can no longer be ruled out.
“Their world is collapsing,” said Le Pen last week, “Ours is being built.” The election of Donald Trump calls into question not just the kind of America that will emerge in the years to come, but the kind of world we will all be living in. To conclude that Trump is America’s problem—or salvation, depending on your point of view—and nothing for the rest of us to worry too much about would be to fall into an elephant trap. Challenging his world view will not be easy, but challenge it we must.