Do Not Forget the Republicans
After four years of Donald Trump’s bruising attacks on allies, it is tempting to think that all is right with the transatlantic relationship now that a familiar face in Joe Biden is back in the White House. Although President Biden has pledged to prioritize engagement with allies and the Democratic Party controls both houses of Congress, Europeans write off the Republican Party at their own peril.
More than 74 million Americans voted to re-elect Donald Trump and the Democrats’ hold on Congress is razor thin. Republicans are within striking distance of taking back the House of Representatives and Senate in 2022. A Republican recapturing the White House in 2024 is not beyond imagination.
This is all even though under the leadership of Trump, the Republican Party’s embrace of alternative facts and conspiracy theories led to a violent attack on the seat of U.S. democracy in his final weeks in office, resulting in the death of five people.
These horrible events have allowed the Republican Party to finally enter a phase of reckoning over Trumpism. Some Republicans in Congress are breaking with the former president even as Republican voters remain largely loyal to him. From afar, the party appears divided and broken with an uncertain future, but its resurgence is not out of the question.
In the post-9/11 era, the partisanship of transatlantic debates has undermined the ability of the United States and Europe to forge common strategies to tackle global challenges from terrorism to climate change to the rising authoritarian challenge. By the end of President George W. Bush’s second term, according to Pew Research, approximately 30 percent of Germans said they had a favorable view of the United States. After an eight year reprieve under President Obama, today only about a quarter of Germans say they have a positive view.
To avoid this pendulum swing effect in the future, even as the United States’ European partners focus their engagement over the next four years with newly empowered Democrats, they would be wise to cultivate ties with the country’s only opposition party.
The Republican Party, with all of its flaws and divisions, represents a significant portion of Americans who are skeptical of allies that do not bear their share of the burden as well as of international agreements and organizations that are more about process than delivering results. Republicans have different priorities from their Democratic counterparts, focusing on security threats to the United States, and seeking innovation rather than regulation to combat climate change.
Given the fact that current European priorities largely align with Democratic Party priorities, many U.S. allies are understandably relieved that Joe Biden is now in the White House. Yet he is a transitional figure within his own party and his ability to reshape U.S. priorities for the long term is uncertain. With the full economic and societal effects of the coronavirus pandemic yet to be experienced, the United States is likely to remain divided politically and focused on its own challenges for years to come.
A new transatlantic agenda needs to include issues relevant to Americans on both sides of the political aisle if this transatlantic renaissance is to be more than a passing phase. In the coming years, issues that the Trump administration identified—such as burden sharing, the inefficiencies of international organizations, and the increasing dangers of revisionist actors to democratic societies—all present potential areas for cooperation.
Key to depoliticizing the transatlantic relationship will be reestablishing ties with Republican congressional leaders who prior to Trump’s arrival were staunch supporters of the United States’ alliances. Despite Trump’s rhetoric, polling gives some hope that significant segments of the Republican electorate continue to support alliances. Ensuring that alliances are not just grounded in historical affinities but in tangible benefits for populations on both sides of the Atlantic will be important.
Europeans should also continue to engage Americans outside of Washington and away from the coasts. In the wake of pandemic restrictions on transatlantic travel, people-to-people ties will need to be rebuilt and strengthened. Despite differences about priorities that Trump reveled in, average Americans and Europeans continue to grapple with similar challenges for the working and middle class such as migration, automation, and ageing populations in an increasingly uncertain world. These trends have the potential to pull us in different directions, but they can also serve as the starting point for deeper cooperation.
The United States’ polarization and fragile democracy are often now cited by Europeans as examples to be avoided. Sophisticated European leaders, however, should realize that the recent scenes from the United States are not that far removed from the current environment in many European countries if politicians fail to deal with the challenges of a once in a century pandemic and declining faith in democracy.
As Joe Biden seeks to unite a divided United States, it is important that transatlantic leaders attempt to unite Americans and Europeans of all political stripes around a new transatlantic consensus that reflects the diversity of views inherent in our democracies. A transatlantic alliance grounded only in priorities relevant to half of the U.S. electorate may be tempting in the post-Trump moment but it will not be one that is ultimately sustainable.
This is a translation of an article published by Der Tagesspiegel on February 7, 2021.
The views expressed in GMF publications and commentary are the views of the author alone.