Donald Trump Is Not the Parenthesis that Many European Capitals See
Donald Trump is not the parenthesis that many European capitals see. He rather embodies structural changes within American democracy and the questions the country is facing regarding its place in the world. The parallel occurrence of the war in Ukraine and the effects of the Covid-19 crisis has revealed to the United States and its European allies the cost of their strategic dependencies on China and Russia.
The United States has entered an era of strategic decoupling (that is, of reduction of its dependencies) and, therefore, is investing massively in its industries and technologies to remain competitive. A new Republican majority in the House of Representatives would reinforce these measures. This would not be without consequences for Europe, which itself is facing the collateral damages of US protectionism.
In many ways, Trump’s “America first” has rubbed off on the “America is back” of President Joe Biden, who expects European allies to align with his priorities and does not hesitate to confront them with a fait accompli when it comes to preserving US interests. Pursuing its trajectory of energy decoupling from Russia, Europe is at the same time increasing its economic dependence on China and reluctant to align itself with the US stance on the country. Regarding Ukraine, the debate on sharing the military and financial burden is once again taking center stage in transatlantic discussions, and Europe will have to provide concrete responses.
Geopolitics is increasingly present in the daily life of Americans, which explains, for example, why the debates on the sustainability of US aid to Ukraine and European support that is deemed insufficient have marked the midterms’ campaign. The concerns of Americans (inflation at 8.5 percent, soaring energy and food prices) are indeed linked and amplified by the war in Ukraine. While the US public continues to support aid to the country, it also wants Europe to do more. Aid to Ukraine approved by Congress, which is estimated at $60 billion, will be impossible to maintain at this level over time.
The US Wait-and-see Attitude
War fatigue is noticeable within the US political class—in the left wing of the Democratic Party, which is pushing Biden to engage in direct talks with Russia, and among pro-Trump Republicans. The latter have developed a center of protest in the House of Representatives demanding more control, and even a reduction, of the funds allocated to Ukraine. Senator Rand Paul’s proposal to appoint an inspector general to oversee how these funds are spent could resurface. The Republicans in the Senate nevertheless remain very committed to supporting Ukraine.
A consensus is emerging in Washington around the idea that the European countries will have to do more to finance and economically support the reconstruction of Ukraine. The posture of the Biden administration at the October 25 Berlin conference was in this respect very revealing of the US wait-and-see attitude. On energy, a growing number of Republicans are calling for US liquefied natural gas exports to Europe (which have tripled since Russia’s full invasion in February) to be scaled back to be able to redirect some to domestic consumers as winter approaches.
Decoupling from China
The Biden administration, which has already made strategic competition with China the biggest issue of its foreign policy, will have to be even more determined vis-à-vis Beijing and in its support for Taiwan. The US decoupling policy is accompanied by protectionist measures in favor of US technological or automobile industries, and it is to be expected that this would increase with a Republican majority in the House of Representatives. Republican hawks, such as Senator Josh Hawley, will pressure European countries to toughen their policies on China—especially Germany, which has been heavily criticized in Washington for its purely business approach to Beijing.
In the US Rust Belt, a strong momentum for decoupling from China can already be observed, as illustrated in the Ohio Senate race. JD Vance, the pro-Trump Republican candidate elected on November 8, insisted during the campaign that the Biden administration should beef up the Chips Act, passed in August, which will strengthen the production of semiconductors in the United States. The results of the German Marshall Fund’s Transatlantic Trends 2022 annual opinion survey, published on September 29, had 56 percent of US respondents saying they were ready to accept the economic cost of a tougher policy toward China.
A Change in Dynamics
Recent US decisions point to a return to the unilateralism and protectionism characteristic of the Trump administration. Will the Biden presidency be the parenthesis in a longer sequence of “Trumpification” of US politics? Europe has learned from the Trump years that the United States will not always coordinate with its European partners. Europe has also learned that it must be able and prepared to act alone. However, with the war in Ukraine, European countries have once again been confronted to the harsh reality that they are incapable of responding to the crises in their neighborhood without the support of the United States.
One thing is certain: the dynamics of the transatlantic relationship will no longer come from Washington but from Europe. European strategic autonomy—that is, Europe’s ability to reduce its strategic dependence on others, including the United States, in terms of defense and energy—will make it a more credible partner. This brings us back to a Europe of projects, two of which could usefully be implemented: a Europe of defense and a Europe of energy. To do this, Germany must change its approach and move away from the triple logic of Germany First in energy, America First in defense, and German Business First with China.
This is a translation of an article originally published in Le Monde on November 10, 2022 under the headline “Midterms 2022: ‘Donald Trump n’est pas la “parenthèse’ décrite par beaucoup de capitales européennes.”