Trump: Symptom or Disease?

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Simon Dekeyrel, PhD Candidate Early Stage Researcher at the University of Nottingham

Abstract: This post draws attention to the need of placing president Trump in context. It tries to illustrate that the discourse of the current United States (US) administration towards the European Union (EU), characterised by a degree of hostility or otherwise negative sentiment, might be of a more permanent nature than one would like to think. It thus argues that there might be a deeper-rooted cause, other than the idiosyncrasy of the current American President, for the peculiar EU-US interplay during the summer, through pointing at previous evolutions within American politics and drawing from international relations literature on multipolar systems.




One of the main questions the current US presidency poses for the EU (and, by extension, for the rest of the world and even the American people and politics itself), is the nature of the observed changes in US discourse and policy. Does President Trump present a wider, long-term change in for instance US trade, foreign and climate policy? Or is what is being witnessed just a small, four, possibly eight years long hiccup, with a president who first and foremost seems to excel in inconstancy, after which things will be returning to “normal” again? In other words, how serious should President Trump be taken, his acts, threats and comments; is he and all which is currently associated with his person a temporary, fixed-term phenomenon or rather a precursor of what is to come from a US power in decline?

In this post the focus will be directed at the foreign policy aspect, more specifically, the contemporary US stance towards the EU. Trump often wants to be loud and noticed before being consistent or coherent. As a consequence, carefulness is advised before drawing conclusions on what this American President does and says. Regardless, he should be taken seriously. While he has no trouble switching stances on certain issues (an article on the NBC news website, May 2017, counted as much as 32 “flip-flops” or changes of opinion on 13 different issues since his election in 2016, only a year into his presidency (Timm, 2017), he often vents deeper frustrations that live within the American society, which also point at some important, broader political evolutions, regional or global in nature which deserve attention.

These frustrations for instance concern the negative effects of globalisation on the American working class and the associated protectionist backlash. This is not a problem confined within the borders of the US: these undesirable excesses of globalisation have taken a similar toll on European politics, where a populist backlash is observable across a number of EU member states (or soon to be ex-member state).  A second example of such frustrations is the relatively low level of military expenditure as percentage of GDP of other North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) member states (NATO, 2018), which contributed to the view that the US is compensating for the lack of European investment in defence. The fact that this even is an issue, is certainly an indication towards a deterioration of the security situation in Europe. Although Trump often varies in the intensity with which he brings these issues on the political agenda, he undeniably did bring them on the agenda, and the aforementioned examples can be regarded as two of the main threads throughout his presidency. As an agenda-setter, Trump made and is unquestionably making his impact on the international political scene.

Depression of the EU-US relationship: Trump but a symptom?

A similar argument could be made for the transatlantic relationship between the EU and the US. In the same way Trump brought the aforementioned issues on the agenda of international politics, he did it with the EU-US-relationship in the spectacular style he is being known for. Some noticeable episodes in this regard took place over the summer. Ahead of his meeting with President Putin on 16 July, when he was asked to name “the biggest foe globally right now”, surprisingly, the EU’s name came up first and was consequently called a “foe”, because of “what they do to us in trade” (Baynes, 2018; Roth et al., 2018). Some week later however, Trump met with the EU Commission President Juncker, whom he allegedly accused of being a “brutal killer” during the G7 summit in Canada just a month before (an accusation which was presumably also related to EU trade policies) (Boffey & Smith, 2018). Relations seemed much more amiable than one would possibly expect, and they agreed to reduce tariffs (although the value of these statements should not be overstated).

While some rather strong (implicit) change of opinion or flip-flop on the EU and its head of Commission can be noticed, Trump again played his role as an agenda-setter: he put the EU-US relationship under a more critical light, and made a strong and close relationship, the one which became self-evident from a European perspective, appear less evident. Should Trump then be considered as a precursor or rather a hiccup, a small “bump down the road”? Are the Euro-American ties loosening because and only because of Trump, or is he but a symptom of a deeper-rooted cause? To answer this question, history can offer some insights. A first element that can be used to argue for the deeper-rooted cause instead of for the “Trump-argument”, is the pivot to Asia which already commenced under the Obama administration. Even before Trump, there thus was a redirection of focus towards regions outside of Europe (whether successful or not), from a president who appeared to be far away from being hostile towards the EU, or at the minimum far away from calling the EU a foe (Green, 2016).

Although earlier presidents, just like Obama, had similar ambitions in regions outside of Europe (George W. Bush for example had started some initiatives in Asia on which the Obama administration tried to build on such as the strategic partnership with India or the Trans-Pacific Partnership) (Green, 2016), one could argue that this time is different. Undoubtedly, Krauthammer’s unipolar moment has passed (Krauthammer, 1990).The bipolarity of the Cold War has been substituted for the alleged End of History (Fukuyama, 1992), which in its turn made place for the multipolar system of today. When the continuity from the Obama administration into the Trump administration may show an indication towards a deeper-rooted cause for the loosening of EU-US relationships, the multipolarity of the international political system may be this deeper-rooted cause.

In a multipolar system, resources (military, political, economic…) have to be distributed among and directed towards a bigger set of “poles” in order to stay on top of things and avoid imbalances in the world system. The US cannot ignore emerging powers such as China like it could 30 years ago. This is something the Obama administration also seemed to acknowledge. Turning away from the EU through the Asian Pivot was consequently not inspired by the same motives (such as trade-related frustration) as under the current administration, but primarily and simply because it seemed necessary from a strategic point of view (Clinton, 2011). As a consequence, through the increased need to distribute resources, (historical) alliances may wane. This coincides with a balance-of-power logic present in multipolar systems, where a perceived ally can as well be your next adversary depending on the issue (be it military, political or economic). Consequently, distrust is an innate trait in relations among the biggest powers, which results in conditions of simultaneous cooperation and competition between them and an ever-shifting alliance structure.

The way forward (and the unavoidable Brexit discussion)

The EU should take this into account before putting current American discourses during this administration away as “Trump being Trump”. Trump’s recent statements could as well be regarded as an important wake-up call, to realise that, indeed, the historical transatlantic alliance between the US and the EU may become less evident (or relevant) the future and subsequently to realise that the EU needs to think of proactive measures to counteract this. Fortunately, the European train of thought seems to go in that direction. Quite recently, the 27th of August, French President Macron stressed the need for “strategic autonomy”, in times where the US may turn its back on its old ally. German Foreign Minister Heiko Maas made a suggestion in the same spirit on the same day, when he spoke about the EU needing financial “autonomy” to avoid US pressure on European companies (Rettman, 2018).

When one could regard these as the EU fighting fire with fire, one could as well see this as a pragmatic approach to a new strategic reality, which is certainly a good thing. Pessimism might emerge at the prospects of an international political system where distrust is omnipresent and alliances superficial, but then history may provide some consolation. The previous period of multipolarity in 19th century Europe, where much of the same dynamics played, was by any means not peaceful, but it was only when alliances started to crystallise at the beginning of the 20th century (Triple Entente and Triple Alliance), a truly devastating event took place in the name of World War I. This, in combination with, amongst others, the globalised economy of today, where waging war always means destroying yourself while destroying your enemy, and the increased prevalence of democracy since the last multipolar era (see for instance the Democratic Peace Theory: democracies are less prone to go to war against each other (Mello, 2016)) may suggest that some optimism about the future is not completely misplaced.

As a concluding note, it will also be interesting to see how more timely issues may play into this broader structural evolution of the world system and the associated effect on EU-US relationships. Highly relevant in this regard is the upcoming Brexit. With the UK leaving the EU, the American affinity towards the EU may take a further blow (Ash, 2018). Arguably, the undeniable Special Relationship existing between the US and the UK may have had a positive impact on EU-US relationships as a whole. This will soon be a thing of the past. Negative effects of a possible hard Brexit on the UK may also influence US views of the EU in an undesirable manner. What should the US think of the EU if they appear to economically bankrupt one of America’s closest allies? This discourse would of course neglects the UK’s role in this whole story, as it is at the very least partially to blame for whatever harm Brexit may cause upon them, it is a discourse that may well arise and prove powerful, and may be exploited by certain political actors as for instance the UK. While much of the Brexit debate focuses on the economic aspects (and rightfully so), some of the more strategic consequences such as its impact on the West should also be taken into consideration (Mead, 2018).


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[1] This refers to the moment where the US had gained absolute supremacy over all other contenders in terms of economic, military, political and cultural power, just after the end of the Cold War and the accompanying demise of the communist model.