The EU Survived Trump. Now It’s Gotta Survive Biden
Can you believe it: at this time four years ago, in November 2016, the world had sort-of ended according to many doomsayers for the European Union.
A reality TV star and real estate magnate, the unpredictable Donald Trump, had somehow just gotten elected President of the United States of America.
And despite all pretense to the contrary, everybody on the Eurasian side of the Atlantic Ocean knows that not just European peace, security, stability, and prosperity but also the entire world order as we know it depends greatly on the United States of America. More specifically, on Washington, DC, including on who sits in the Oval Office of the White House.
Now that it has become quite certain that Donald Trump has lost the 2020 US presidential election to Democrat Joe Biden, Barack Obama’s Vice President, that what-the-heck-is-going-to-happen-now-and-what-are-we-going-to-do moment for the good people of the EU and their *even better* ruling elites seems like forever ago.
The Trump Presidency did end up having a whole bunch of twists and turns in international politics. Yet, it didn’t bring about any kind of apocalypse, and certainly not one that would have wrecked European security, stability, and prosperity.
(That’s not counting the coronavirus pandemic – even the wildest conspiracy theorists haven’t blamed it on Trump – maybe because many of them happen to be Trump fans; or because it seems to have been the decisive factor for his loss of the US Presidency.)
The reasons the EU and Trans-Atlantic relations as a whole didn’t exactly experience an Armageddon under Trump are manifold:
First, conceited as he might be, Trump hasn’t turned out to be as crazy as many doomsayers feared 4 years back that he would prove to be.
Second, for all the ugly bipartisan bickering, American democracy has proven its resilience and worthiness, with the US Congress categorically stepping in to fill in a whole bunch of foreign policy voids left by Trump’s flaws as chief executive.
Third, so has the American society; while it might seem counter-intuitive at a first glance, it, too, has proven its relative cohesion – despite all the unreasonable “culture wars” that it seems to be embroiled in. Although its deterioration in that regard indeed seems to be increasingly spiraling out of control.
Fourth, the EU itself is also way more durable and sustainable – both in terms of its common institutions and as a collection of member states with shared interests – than its haters love to portray it.
And, fifth, last but not least, there just didn’t happen to be any really major crisis in world politics: Putin didn’t send in the Russian armored divisions to overwhelm Ukraine or to cross through Belarus and then push through the Suwalki Gap and seize the Baltics in a 1940-style operation; Xi didn’t try to capture Taiwan; a reportedly hedonistic Kim Jong-un didn’t deem it wise to try just for the heck of it to nuke Guam, Hawaii, Alaska or those liberal, progressive, partly rainy Nancy Pelosi-loving states further down America’s West Coast; India and Pakistan didn’t nuke each other in a regional MAD scenario; Iran didn’t go all-out nuclear; Erdogan didn’t attempt to resurrect the Ottoman Empire and proclaim himself sultan and caliph, at least not officially; and so on, and so forth…
So in part thanks to the actual resilience and relative integrity, moral and structural, of Western structures (which, unfortunately, is more and more due to inertia from past periods of thriving than to any current substance and willpower), and in part thanks to some geopolitical good luck, the European Union has managed to survive the Trump Presidency. Now it just has to survive the Biden Presidency.
This statement (and this article’s title) is a paraphrase of the name of an old US Facebook group or page called “We Survived Bush, You Will Survive Obama”. Regardless of whatever its message might have been, its name sure stood out as rather cool back when few people could foresee the dangers of the new world of the anti-social media for democracy and social cohesion. Apparently, ever since the late 2000s, with all the political bickering and the advent of the anti-social media, in the West proper it is a matter of actually “surviving” when a political leader you hate gets elected to become the state leader.
But going back to the effects of US Presidents on Trans-Atlanticism, and, by implication, on the European Union: in another recent essay, I just made the case that the Trump Presidency was actually good for the EU, since it presented countless blessings in disguise, and that, of course, quite expectedly, the EU has failed to take advantage of those in order to build itself up.
That failure is true for it as both a collection of member states and with respect to its development of common institutions. Such a failure certainly isn’t a first for the European Union, and likely won’t be the last. It seems indisputable that, for all of its many real great achievements, the EU has actually been an expert at somehow muddling through. Consider Brexit, for instance, a seismic event that the European Union seems to have been muddling through successfully as well.
The EU’s “Muddling Through” Syndrome is worth a whole other essay – but it probably seems to have something to having one “nice” option, having no better other options, lacking the willpower to come up with and execute a pro-active grand-strategy, and somehow navigating through global political cataclysms. The problem with this approach is that a truly overwhelming cataclysm may strike at any point and wreck the nice option. The EU.
But the Trump Presidency survive it did. Now it’s really gotta survive the Biden Presidency. Or a Harris Presidency – whatever ends up being the longer-term case over there.
Because the fact of the matter is that many from the ruling elites of the European Union, especially in Western Europe, and the pro-establishment mainstream media are overexcited by Trump’s loss and Biden’s victory, regardless of how close both of these have been.
Many are predicting the same amount of bliss for Europe and Trans-Atlantic relations from a Biden Presidency as the same amount of horror and doom they used to predict from a Trump Presidency four years ago.
Unfortunately, or not, however, for a whole range of reasons, it is inconceivable that a Biden Presidency would somehow bring the two sides of the Atlantic back to their Golden Age from, say, the height of the Cold War, or the blissful 1990s presided over by Bill Clinton and underscored by the US-led West’s international interventionism and “new liberal imperialism” (in Robert Cooper’s words – whatever the heck that was supposed to be).
The new US President-elect Joe Biden certainly deserves the benefit of the doubt even if he sometimes confuses “Margaret Thatcher” and “Angela Merkel”; even if any good student of recent world history cannot help but be reminded of Soviet gerontocrat Leonid Brezhnev who, as countless Russian jokes go, had to be resuscitated every morning to keep fulfilling his stately duties.
But even if Joe Biden, who will be the President of an America more disunited than ever, manages to rise to the occasion in domestic politics as well as foreign policy, the message for the European Union is the same old, same old, painfully old message:
Learn to stand on your own feet, learn to cope without the Americans, oh, and without the British as well, learn to truly stand up to Messrs Putin, Xi, Erdogan, and the rest of their kind, you name it.
Sadly, however, the European Union from the moment of Biden’s not so overwhelming win over Trump doesn’t seem to contain much leadership promise.
German Chancellor Merkel, with her somewhat bizarre leadership style, and who has been very beloved by many Germans for some reason, is now on her way out, having just marked 15 years in power. French President Emmanuel Macron keeps having some grand ambitions but those keep getting hampered by both question marks surround his personal political style, and by some of France’s structural deficiencies. The heads of the EU institutions still preside over relatively toothless bodies – and there is no way of knowing for sure whether that’s a bad thing or a good thing. Southern Europe is mired in economic inefficiency and Mediterranean political siestas. And the former communist EU states from Eastern Europe whose greatest asset is the first-hand awareness of the gravest threats coming from some of the EU’s immediate neighbors are compromised by their leaders’ seeming involvement in high-level corruption. And, of course, everybody is being battered by the coronavirus, with the effect of the COVID-19 pandemic overwhelmingly amplified by the anti-social media.
For all opportunities presented by actually being forced to fend for itself during the Trump Presidency, the EU couldn’t pull itself together and take advantage. Despite all the swell talk of an imminent Trans-Atlantic renaissance under Biden, the EU will likely be forced to fend for itself even more during the Biden Administration. Will it learn from failing to take advantage before?
That is very doubtful considering the EU has repeatedly failed to do so since the last Golden Age days of Trans-Atlanticism under Bill Clinton.
The EU couldn’t pull itself together in the 2000s when George W. Bush and the neocons were destroying the world by shooting darts on a Greater Middle East map to try to pick which country to invade next. Did we forget about that time? (Of course, it’s not like the leading EU politicians at the time were angels of righteousness – some seem to have had troubling ties with Saddam Hussein which compromised their stance against the 2003 Iraq Invasion. Not to mention that, after retiring, the then German Chancellor Gerhard Schroedder decided it would make for a fabulous historical political legacy to go to Russia and become, in the words of recently poisoned Russian opposition politician Alexei Navalny, “Putin’s errand boy”.)
Then there were the Obama years when for all the seemingly good intentions of the then President of the United States of America, international politics somehow only got messier with America’s involvement, and not without or in spite of it.
That went from Obama’s widely advertised but largely imaginary “pivot to Asia” which was supposed to see the United States prevent China from bullying its neighbors in the Indo-Pacific, to the failure to win and get out of George W. Bush’s wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, all the way to the Arab Spring, which, for all its lofty ideals, seems to have left the Middle East a relatively worse place than it had already been.
Obama in particular epitomized what is likely to be an ever more tangible trend in US foreign policy of increasingly ignoring Europe, and focusing more on other parts of the world.
Despite the shifting heritage makeup of the American society, such an approach to the world regions is probably not very justifiable at least from a great power and strategic perspective: the tenets put forth by George Kennan’s “Long Telegram” from Moscow in 1946 about the five areas of the world which matter the most in geopolitical, geoeconomic, and hence geostrategic terms still apply, and will apply for the foreseeable future.
It was understandable that as America’s first black President, Barack Obama – whose heritage included roots in both Kenya and Ireland – would like to put a greater foreign policy emphasis on the Non-West than on the West, or least do that to a greater degree than his predecessors. (I for one certainly could understand and appreciate his motivation, having translated his book “Audacity of Hope” into Bulgarian back in 2008, and now having consulted the Bulgarian edition of his new book “Promised Land”.)
In any case, whether its justified from America’s great power perspective or not, be it for economic or ideological reasons, the Europeans should have nonetheless taken note of the relative shifting of the American geopolitical priorities, and should have acted to develop the EU accordingly. We haven’t seen much of that.
With the notable presence of future Vice President Kamala Harris in the future Biden Administration, who may or may not have to take the rein depending on Biden’s health, and with Biden himself a key member of the former Obama Administration, the relatively reduced American focus on Europe is likely to be continued. Washington is going to be more and more interested in other parts of the world – again, even though that goes counter to Kennan’s long-standing still worthy Early Cold-War Era geopolitical imperatives.
On top of that, Biden’s vice-presidential record with respect to Europe and especially the flash points in Eastern and Southeast Europe – namely, the West’s frontier with Russia and the fragmented Balkans – isn’t exactly very encouraging. The Obama – Biden Administration did watch over much of the present-day resurgence and adventurism displayed by both Russia and Turkey. Whether it’s been due to “Trump or Twitter” or not, but the most talked-of result from Biden’s involvement with Eastern Europe so far seems to have been his son’s lavishly paid job on the board of Ukrainian energy company Burisma.
Toss in the not so inconceivable prospect that an elderly President Biden might end up presiding over some imperial overstretch years for the United States (the Roman Empire also didn’t seem poised for collapse or very steep decline ca. 350-360 AD – so who knows?), and the European Union should rush to secure its own capabilities, abilities, and standing.
All sorts of current events –
From the 2011 NATO air strikes in Libya where the French and the (now Brexited) Brits couldn’t quite get the job done so the Americans under Obama had to step in all the way – to the recent diplomatic flare-ups between France and Turkey, not to mention the intra-NATO conflict between Greece and Turkey coming close to an all-out war – to the 2020 Armenia – Azerbaijan War in which Azerbaijan prevailed using swarms of cheap Turkish and Israeli drones against Armenia’s conventional Soviet and Russian-made weaponry – to the countless unknowns of the frozen or not-so-frozen conflicts of the former Soviet space from the Baltic to the Black Sea – the boiling mess all over the wider Middle East – to jihadist terrorism in the streets of major European cities
– demonstrate that the European Union is increasingly in hot water, riddled with all sorts of security challenges, and still remains woefully ill-equipped to tackle them.
Against that backdrop, a Biden Presidency won’t be one from the Cold War history textbooks with America constantly to the rescue, and the EU member states are themselves seemingly lacking the will to garner more power, even if it is for the sake of defending themselves and those who seek to subscribe to their supposed ideals.
The EU has even been shy to roll out some sort of an even remotely common identity, or a vision, not to mention some kind of a *positive* European “nationalism” – in an age where American nationalism is actually still running very strong, and Chinese nationalism, Russian nationalism, Turkish nationalism, Indian nationalism, Iranian nationalism, Egyptian nationalism, Israeli nationalism, even Brazilian nationalism, and other kinds of nationalisms all around the globe are skyrocketing.
Europe has had its fair share of aggressive nationalisms – in fact, it sort-of invented it – so it’s not to say there shouldn’t be this one part of the world to shy away from chauvinistic frenzy. But that is to say that a common EU identity or identity vision or something to that end is badly needed to serve as a unifying force and underlie the capabilities to defend your values from numerous overly eager aggressors.
As Biden and Harris are about to take the helm in Washington, DC, it’s worth reminding that without robust Trans-Atlanticism, the world have been ruled either by Hitlerist Nazism or by Stalinist Communism – pick your favorite.
Yet, as America’s commitment to European security is now understandably waning or at least changing, the EU must pull itself together to stand up for its own ideals. Otherwise, there is going to greater and greater succumbing to evil autocrats and even a possible all-out collapse.
The EU has managed to muddle through and survive Trump. Now it’s got to muddle through and survive Biden.
It’s dreadful to think, though, that some time, maybe even this time, the simple muddling through and surviving just won’t suffice.
(Banner image: European Parliament)