The complicated ebb and tide of geopolitics has a far greater impact on America’s posture than any single Presidential administration is truly capable of producing. Since the end of the Second World War, American foreign policy has been largely stable. The primary beneficiaries of this status quo have been the nations of Europe, which have been able to focus on developing their economies under a comfortable American security umbrella. More so than any single feature of the post-war order, this security umbrella is widely seen as a force for good, and no candidate from either party has seriously proposed to alter the tacit agreement. In a saner year, this song would remain true, but this is 2016 and the world has gone mad. Thus, it should not be much of a surprise that the candidate proposing to upend the American-led world order won the Presidency.
On the stump, Donald Trump laid out his vision of America’s place in the world. It was a position entirely different from any previous president. For the first time since the 1930s, candidate calling for a more isolationist foreign policy won the nomination of a major party. Trump’s stances on foreign policy were an immense cause for concern among the leaders of American allies. On the stump, he has toyed with the prospects of downsizing America’s role in NATO, cooperating with Russia against Islamic extremism, and approaching foreign policy from a transactional perspective. On the flipside, Trump’s bellicosity, omens of authoritarianism, and disregard for the pillars of global order have thrilled autocrats around the world, most prominently Russian President Vladimir Putin. Donald Trump’s election ultimately represents, at worst, a complete break in the European order which has dominated since the end of World War II. His ascendancy marks an era which is certain to be more unstable and less predictable than those preceding it. European leaders, whose people depend on the United States, are steeling themselves for a storm, the end result of which no one can predict.
Keep America in, Germany down, and Russia Out
To understand why Trump is so revolutionary, one must understand the post-war European order that he has promised to shake up. This order was born in the fires of World War II, the most destructive conflict in human history. The war utterly ravaging the European continent leaving millions dead and reducing the strongest economies on earth to absolute ruin. In 1948, Eastern Europe had been conquered by the Soviet war machine and Western Europe was tottering on the brink of ruin and revolution. Following a Soviet backed coup in Czechoslovakia, the United States implemented the Marshall Plan with the intention of rebuilding the economies of Europe as bulwarks against communism. To counter the military threat of the Soviet Union, America took the lead in the formation of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO). The United States, as the head of the Western coalition, engaged in a geopolitical competition for dominance known as the Cold War with the Soviet-aligned Warsaw Pact. During the Cold War, American policy was to react aggressively against communist subversion of other nations. This policy entrenched the interventionist foreign policy that had been forced upon us by the World Wars.
To make a (very) long story short, the Cold War ended with the peaceful collapse of communism in the late eighties and early nineties. Warsaw Pact nations threw off their chains and became largely stable liberal democracies while Russia was consumed by internal chaos and rendered geopolitically impotent. What followed was a time of unprecedented global hegemony for the United States. The USA was now the uncontested hyperpower in global affairs. Both NATO and the newly consolidated European Union (EU) expanded to include many of the former communist states. The geopolitical shift was massive, creating a new world order, one dominated by free-market capitalism and liberal democracy, almost overnight. This monumental shift caused many commentators to proclaim “the end of history.”
The 1990s were a time of uncontested deployment of Western power with the United States intervening to stop genocidal wars in Bosnia and Kosovo, while the British and French worked to quash civil wars in West Africa. Measured use of Western power proved quite popular, and earned the United States international goodwill. This paradigm shifted drastically in the early 2000s when George W. Bush, a hawkish neoconservative, was elected in 2000. In the first year of his presidency, Al-Qaeda executed the 9/11 attacks, setting America on a course of global belligerence. In reaction to the attacks, the United States invaded Iraq without the consent of the United Nations Security Council. The unpopular invasion quickly devolved into a quagmire in which the United States would be entrenched for over a decade. By the time the American troops withdrew in 2011, 4,500 servicemen had died, trillions of dollars had been squandered, and America’s credibility on the global stage had been severely undermined.
Iraq arguably transformed the 2008 election into a referendum on the War. Given the choice between the dovish Barack Obama over the hawkish John McCain in the 2008 election, Americans overwhelmingly chose the former. Obama quickly set to work attempting to rebuild international goodwill. He adopted a more diplomatic and hands off approach, especially regarding the Middle East. Obama’s hopes to pivot American foreign policy towards Asia were quickly frustrated by the eruption of the Arab Spring. Fearing the frequent result of American intervention, Obama largely kept away from the rapidly deteriorating situation (with the exception of half-heartedly supporting an air-based, European led, intervention in Libya). While Obama’s general dovishness did help to generate a positive image of America, it also emboldened the geopolitical rivals of the United States. The Obama administration’s 2013 refusal to enforce its ‘red line’ on the use of chemical weapons in Syria proved a green light for the ambitions of America’s rivals. In early 2014, Russia launched a campaign against Ukraine, seizing the Crimean Peninsula and sending little green men into Ukraine’s eastern Donbass region. In the Middle East, the anarchy of the Syrian Civil war allowed ISIS to seize vast swathes of land and declare a caliphate. Its brutality and ceaselessness sparked a mass refugee outpouring into Europe, threatening to destabilize the EU. It was in this fearful and chaotic environment that the easy promises of a demagogue sounded most appealing. Trump decried Obama for the chaos which increasingly dominated the globe during his presidency, saying that America has been weakened and “does not win anymore.” Words and phrases like these resonated powerfully enough to put him in the White House. For all his criticism of President Obama, it is difficult to imagine things becoming any more orderly with the temperamental Donald Trump at America’s helm. In Europe especially, Trump could prove to be the straw that breaks the camel’s already fragile back.
Bulls in the China Shop
Taken individually, the nations of Europe are mere shadows of their former glory, long since overshadowed by the rise of the United States and developing world powerhouses like China or India. Taken together, however, the nations of Europe exert a towering presence on the global stage. After WWII, European leaders recognized the need to stand together or be left behind, laying the institutional and intellectual frameworks for what would become the European Union. At the end of the Cold War, with the specter of communism lifted, European elites initiated the project of continental unification under the European Union. Together, the EU represents the world’s largest economy, and is only kept from superpower status by its political fractiousness. So long as times were good, those who questioned the wisdom of the ever deepening European integration were largely confined to the fringes of politics. This changed in the aftermath of the 2008 financial crisis. While America was able to recover, many of Europe’s poorer Southern States remained economically stagnant and were to receive bailouts, primarily from Germany. In return for these cash infusions, the German government and the EU demanded harsh austerity policies. These policies pitted Northern creditor states against Southern debtor states, creating popular anger while exposing the glaring weaknesses of EU political institutions. Europe’s credibility suffered further from the reaction of the German government to the Middle Eastern refugee crisis in the summer of 2015. Prime Minister Angela Merkel’s unilateral humanitarian gesture was not well received in Europe outside of Germany, with many nations questioning the wisdom of introducing hundreds of thousands of Muslim immigrants to largely homogenous societies. These fears were cemented by the Bataclan theater attacks in Paris in November 2015 and the mass sexual assault of German women by migrant men on New Years 2016.
The net result of this never-ending parade of crises was the empowerment of far-right populists in Northern states at the expense of the EU. Eastern Europe, already uneasy at the prospect of mass a Muslim migration, shut its doors and locked them. Border controls were reimposed both along the European frontier and within the European Union, delivering a major symbolic blow to the free movement of people, a founding principle of the EU. While these steps reassured a concerned public, the damage had been done. The crisis had created space in public discourse which no mainstream party was willing to touch, allowing far-right movements to move in from the fringes. The most visible manifestation of this empowerment was the result of the 2016 Brexit referendum, where the people of the United Kingdom voted to leave the European Union, a long held goal of the populist United Kingdom Independence Party (UKIP). In Austria, the far-right Freedom Party was narrowly defeated in the recent Presidential election, though the margin was so narrow that another round of voting will take place in December. In the Netherlands and France, right-wing populist leaders Geert Wilders (of the Dutch Party for Freedom and Justice, or PVV) and Marine Le Pen (of the French National Front, or FN) are poised to have excellent showings in the 2017 elections.
For those who support the EU, the victory of Donald Trump was an unmitigated disaster, even more earth shaking than the Brexit loss. In Trump, the far-right leaders of Europe now have a powerful friend in the Oval Office and a massive symbolic victory to energize them. In the aftermath of the election, a top Front National official tweeted ,“Their world is crumbling, ours is rising,” a succinct summation of how Europeans on both sides of the divide feel. Most pressured is Germany, now feeling alone at the center of a continent it fought so hard to keep together. If populists can be staved off in France and the Netherlands, there is still hope for Europe. If not, the EU’s future is uncertain. While it is hard to imagine Europe descending back into the murderous violence which defined much of its history, it is equally difficult to see the division of the continent as a positive thing for peace and stability. For the nations of Eastern Europe, a resurgent Russia looms. In the West, the combination of a disaffected and alienated Muslim population and empowered xenophobic populists is a near-guaranteed recipe for further terrorist violence. United, Europe could likely face down both these problems, but Europe now seems divided and impotent in the face of looming chaos.
To discuss the Trump Presidency and the future of Europe without discussing Russia and its imperial president, Vladimir Putin, is impossible. During the Cold War, the Russian-led USSR was the primary geopolitical rival of America. After communism fell, the dramatically shrunken Russian Federation spent the nineties in a state economic and political turmoil. This turmoil was why Vladimir Putin, then the unknown head of the FSB (Federal Security Service, the successor to the KGB), was tapped to lead Russia by her political elite in 1999 as Prime Minister, and again in 2000 as President. He put down internal unrest, stabilized the economy and consolidated his hold over Russia through both popularity and intimidation. For most of his tenure as President, Putin was friendly, and expressed the desire to work with the West. The change in Russia’s stance, from hesitant friend to foe, can largely be explained by Russian geopolitics. One of Russia’s geopolitical imperatives is to deny Western forces the opportunity to invade Russia (a fear which sounds far-fetched from our perspective, but one must remember that Russia has faced two brutalizing Western invasions in the last two centuries). To this end, Putin has taken an aggressive line on liberalizing and westernizing leaders in the former Soviet Union. In 2008, Russia invaded the small mountain nation of Georgia, slicing off two of its northern provinces and putting its NATO accession on ice. In 2014, Russia annexed the Crimean peninsula and launched a campaign of hybrid warfare to destabilize Ukraine and prevent it from joining hands with the West in reaction to a pro-EU revolution in the country.
This intervention marked a turning point for relations between Russia and the West. The invasion of Ukraine was met sternly by Merkel, who led the charge in placing sanctions on Russia. With battle lines drawn, Putin had committed to reviving an Imperial Russia. The war in Ukraine proved an excellent way of allowing Putin to further consolidate his power, creating a spectacle for the Russian media to present to Putin’s base and providing a common enemy for the country to unite against. As the war in Ukraine stalled into a frozen conflict, Putin initiated an intervention on behalf of the Assad Government in the Syrian Civil War. This had the effect of providing Putin a new spectacle at home to present to his people, stabilizing the Assad regime, which Putin sees as a key ally, and asserting Russia’s position on the global stage. His intervention also had an unintended bonus for Russia; intensifying the outflow of refugees from Syria into Europe, further destabilizing the already tottering continent.
While denying the West footholds in their near abroad is effective, it is a fundamentally reactive strategy. For Russia, the best, most proactive, defense against invasion from a United West is to ensure that the West never manages to unite. Thus, coupled with their new aggression on the global stage, Russia has launched a campaign of disinformation and subversion aimed at the West. Russia has provided funding to European populist parties, as both share a common enemy in the EU. The most visible manifestation of this support came in the form of a massive loan given to the French National Front. Russian media is adept at shaping the narrative of conflicts, a core element of the hybrid warfare strategy. In the eastern Donbass region of Ukraine, false reports that the Ukrainian government was composed of fascists hell-bent on murdering Russians played a major role in inciting the people to war. During the height of the migrant crisis, Russia turned this strategy on Germany, running a false story about the rape and murder of a young girl at migrant hands, sparking a demonstration by Russians living in Germany. Between their funding of anti-establishment forces and spreading lies across the Western internet, they are able to keep their enemies paralyzed and internally while they act to expand their influence.
This sort of disinformation campaign is not new to Russian intelligence. During the Cold War, the KGB would provide funding to anyone trying to make America miserable, while the varying communist parties of the West were actively subversive and beholden to Moscow. With this precedent in mind, Russian intervention in this election was far more brazen than it has ever been. During the election, Russian hackers worked through Wikileaks in order to undermine the credibility of Hillary Clinton in the eyes of the voting public, according to the U.S. intelligence community. For Russians, Trump was the easy favorite. He has spoken glowingly of Putin in the past, and calls for a reset with Russia, while Clinton remained hawkish and hostile towards Russian attempts at reassertion on the global stage. Another eyebrow raising connection was that between Paul Manafort, Trump’s former campaign manager, and the pre-revolutionary Ukranian government. His connections and actions have caused some to declare Trump an unwitting pawn of Russia.
Pawn or not, Trump represents a massive opportunity for Putin. Trump seems actively interested in reconciling with Russia. Trump’s stated disregard for NATO must be salivating to a Russian leader desperate to weaken the alliance that keeps it in check. This opportunity for Russia has proven to be a cause of immense stress for smaller nations in Russia’s neighborhood. Fearing they could be sacrificed by a Trump White House, the Baltic nations have begun preparing for a Russian invasion. It is very difficult to discern how much of Trump’s bluster came from simple ignorance, and how his education to be commander and chief will change this. Until we are faced with another crisis provoked by Russian expansionism, there is no way to tell how exactly the Trump administration will react. In and of itself, a terrifying prospect for the far-away peoples whose freedom is dependent on America’s willingness to answer the call.