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President Trump and Europe: What next?

Image credit: Frans de Wit (Flickr: Creative Commons)

There has been much written about the election of Donald Trump as the next President of the United States. While American commentators have addressed internal issues such as social solidarity and the nation’s place in a so-called Asian Century, European leaders have also been addressing the implications of the Trump presidency for the future of international security, both regionally and abroad.

One of the great difficulties, and perhaps strongest triumphs, of Donald Trump is his continued ability to candidly express simple views towards complex political and economic issues. The notion that reducing and reviewing the US’ preferential trade agreements will somehow revive America’s manufacturing industry overlooks a number of fundamental truths surrounding the global economy. At the same time, Trump’s view on China is incredibly difficult to pin down in one interview alone. For this reason, it is problematic to know exactly what a Trump Presidency entails for European security.

Yet one relationship Trump has consistently boasted about during his campaign is his admiration for Russian President Vladimir Putin. It seems farcical that a US President would hold a Russian leader in such high esteem, particularly when proxy wars between both nations seem to be underway in Eastern Europe and Syria. This gets even more complicated when discussing NATO, given that the US is the largest contributor and de facto leader of the security alliance. The recent allegations that Russia has somehow interfered in this year’s presidential election is an interesting development, with the CIA reportedly believing that individuals acting for Moscow hacked Democratic Party emails and gave them to WikiLeaks.

Immediately following the election result, most European leaders were quick to congratulate the new President-elect. But it's challenging to tell the extent to which these were genuine given the commentary leading up to the election itself. It's true to say that Trump’s presidency offers a series of challenges, but it also offers significant opportunities for a region that relies too heavily on the US when it comes to defence and active foreign policy. The potential rift forming between the US and Europe would force European nations to consider their position and strategic interests in an increasingly complex international system. This might lead to soft rejection of its ideational approach to foreign policy, or it could in fact enhance Europe’s normative allegiance to soft power.

Evidently, Europe is not in a cohesive position – Brexit should theoretically lead to Britain’s withdrawal from the European Union. Right-wing movements in France and Austria have also become much more visible, demonstrating a population dissatisfied with the current political system. The recent Italian referendum is also a testament to this; although the media coverage has been sensationalist in its claims that Italy is somehow on a path to leave the Union, the significance of the vote should not be overlooked. Donald Trump has predicted the forthcoming collapse of the EU, and should the economic and political dissatisfaction of the civil populace not be addressed, Europe risks disintegrating into a collection of weak foreign powers marred by social discontent.

While this hypothesis may seem extreme, Europe must also realise that it can no longer rest on being an enduring collection of world powers whose wealth and democratic institutions are envied around the world. The economic rise of Asia is accelerating, with new major powers with non-democratic systems of governance claiming a greater share of global wealth and sway. These are trying times for Europe, but it should not be dissuaded. The election of Donald Trump should be viewed as the catalysing event that compels the region to consider its present and future international role independent of its so-called ‘great’ ally.

Rhys Merrett is the Europe & Eurasia Fellow for Young Australians in International Affairs.

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