Never in my lifetime have I seen an American President act in such a disgraceful, destructive and counterproductive manner against the interests of the United States of America and our free liberal order as the present occupant of the White House.
American world dominance began with World War II and, along with the nation domestically, has been slowly declining internationally. The global shift started in the late 1990s and was accelerated by G.W. Bush’s war on terror and the Iraq war.
Today, we are at a turning point in how the world thinks and the choices its makes. It’s a world in a period of transition, influenced by how the US has turned away from multilaterism towards isolationism with eroding democratic values.
That shift marks the end of the era of US exceptionalism and social, economic and international supremacy. Our present “rule-based order” will in time be replaced by a more “transaction-based order” dominated by different regional / world players.
With the election of Donald Trump, one can safely conclude that humanity as a whole has been set back years because of one single person, be it on climate change, public health, nuclear threats, equality, racism or multilaterism.
He has revealed himself to be an erratic leader without legal, moral or ethical norms, a populist who has given fresh oxygen to the burning fires of nationalism, hate, racism and bigotry. He has uncovered and boosted the evil that was long hidden beneath the shiny surface of US society, a society currently off kilter..
On the positive side, this is a moment, which, if properly understood, should be used to rediscover, reinvent and reposition the country, correct the imbalances and make the massive investments in human capital, infrastructure and good governance that are long overdue.
Today America stands at a crossroad. The foundations of the country are being jeopardized by the lawlessness of the Trump crime syndicate.
The upcoming election will decide which road the country will take. It will either follow Donald Trump on a downward spiral towards chaos, crony capitalism, lawlessness, isolation and authoritarianism. Or the electorate can follow Joe Biden on a path leading back to responsible leadership, the restoration of law and order and multilaterism.
Which begs the question: When we survive Trump — and we will — where is the US and world to start?
It’s safe to conclude, that since 2017 our world has moved on and will never return to its original unipolar state. It has become, and will remain, multipolar.
To quote Oliver Wendel Holmes Sr., “One’s mind, once stretched by a new idea, never regains its original dimensions.”
During the last seventy years, our world has often been influenced for the better by American exceptionalism. The USA has long been the leading power among the free nations and instrumental in the creation of international organizations like UN, NATO, IMF and the World Bank.
Averell Harriman, Dean Acheson, George Kennan, Robert Lovett, John McCloy and Charles Bohlen were the subject of a book by Walter Isaacson and Evan Thomas entitled The Wise Men: Six Friends and the World They Made. Their contribution to post-WWII US Foreign policy and America’s status as a World power is undeniable and worth mentioning. During this period, the US was committed to freedom and liberal values.
It is a world in which international relationships were based on laws. The relationship between EU, Russia and US, for instance, was influenced by the 1975 Helsinki Final Act, the post-Cold War settlement and the 1990 Paris Carter for a New Europe.
It was also a world in which there were fundamental differences between the main powers, China, Europe, Russia and the USA. The European Union and the USA were founded on certain values, like human dignity, freedom, democracy, equality, the rule of law and respect for human rights, as a way to coexist in peace and prosperity.
Russia and China on the other hand are both models of authoritarian governance, in which the interest of the state supersedes the interest of the individual, human dignity, freedom, the rule of law and human rights.
Both authoritarian models share a contempt for western liberal democracy, which they seek to undermine. These sentiments also seen in the Arab world, where a reorientation (notably by Saudi Arabia & UAE) appears to be taking place, away from the liberal West toward the authoritarian powers of Russia and China.
Along with the drumbeat of global nationalism comes the remarkable rise of authoritarianism, which was stimulated by the election of Donald J Trump, an erratic leader without any legal, moral or ethical compass or standing, a national populist of the worst kind, who has given fresh oxygen to the fires of nationalism, hate, racism and bigotry.
“America will never be destroyed from the outside,” says a common meme that paraphrases Abraham Lincoln. “If we falter and lose our freedoms, it will be because we destroyed ourselves.” It’s actually happening: The current Trump-McConnell-Barr triumvirate is attacking the presidency, democracy, the legitimacy of the institutions, the rule of law and human dignity on a daily basis with a viciousness never seen before.
Donald Trump is the kind of barker-con man persona common in American society. His transgressions are well documented and have marked the entire career of the businessman Trump. He has been involved in about 3500 lawsuits, has settled many, and filed six times for bankruptcy.
Today, the deficits are exploding, the jobless rate is close to a Depression high of 25% and Trump’s failure in leadership during the corona health crisis has cost massive loss of human life. All the while, Donald Trump is playing golf, abjuring any responsibility and is busy on his seventh and largest bankruptcy, that of the United States of America.
He is supported by people who are apparently intellectually incapable of discussing or understanding the merits of ideas or policies and who need the issues to be simplified. They need a figure to believe in and a simple enemy, which Trump and his backers have termed the “elites.”
In general life has all the colors of the rainbow, so does human nature. The election of Trump in 2016, however, was driven by nationalism, racism and falsehoods. One must really question the “wisdom” of the electorate, because it begs the question: “In what kind of America do people wish to live and parents wish their children to grow up?”
Is it an America that bans travelers from select Muslim countries, that builds a wall on the Mexican border and has state officials tearing children and babies from their parents to put them into concentration camps? Is it a country that backs autocrats, ignores climate change, fails to act in a health crisis and considers 100.000 coronavirus deaths a success?
Some of this is bringing back memories of the shameful inhumanity of the McCarthy period or the internment of citizens of Japanese descent during World War Two. We would do well not to ignore history.
The main factors for the election of the would-be mobster Donald J. Trump lie in the vulnerabilities and polarization of US society, exacerbated by grievances due to technological development, AI and education problems. The country suffers from a high level (about 15%) of functional illiteracy. All this has ultimately produced a dysfunctional Congress.
The election was also marginally influenced by Russian meddling, but as Stephen Kotkin pointed out: “The phantasm of an all-Powerful Kremlin has diverted too much attention from Americans own failings.” The reality is that states can and will meddle in each other’s affairs, unless stopped and punished, like the US has done all over the world.
In Congress the culture is negatively affected by money and influence, which has a long sordid history. The dysfunctional climate in Congress is the direct result of the climate Pat Buchanan and Newt Gingrich created quite overtly, to which was added a loud Tea-Party minority, which made consensus impossible.
The gridlock that is paralyzing Washington is actually a sign of total human failure. A return to centrist positions and balanced budgets is crucial, whereby those who are elected can easily correct the dysfunction just as they created it.
Trump’s “America First” has actually suffocated American Exceptionalism. The US has now returned to the Hobbesian jungle, as it did with Bush43. Today the protection of our free liberal society, human rights and international law have been taken off the agenda and been replaced with racism, xenophobia, nationalism, isolationism and falsehoods, the hallmarks of this administration.
Instead of leading the world and working together in order to face the current global health threat, the Trump administration ignored the danger and reacted inadequately at the cost of trillions of dollars and thousands of otherwise preventable deaths.
The warning signs from the WHO regarding the health threat were not ignored in Germany and this was approached with typical German Gründlichkeit, in order to minimize the number of victims. On January 16, already, twenty 20 researchers from DZIF developed a laboratory assay to detect the new coronavirus.
But Trump, in typically self-obsessed manner, chose disengagement, antagonism and competition with China. As for the Republicans in Congress, they decided, in their infinite wisdom, to leverage the crisis as yet another further opportunity to support Trump in finding a new villain and decouple from China. But they are ignoring the dangers of increasing the tensions over Hong Kong, Taiwan or the South China Sea.
The daily coronavirus press conferences were in reality designed as daily campaign events from the White House podium, public relations exercises in futilities in which Trump contradicted scientific and medical experts while spreading his hunches, peppered with false and misleading information, and arguing with journalists.
These briefings show a toddler with temper tantrums and with increasing mental health issues that are seriously impacting America’s standing in the world.
The blame-game with China reflects Trump’s obsession with trade imbalances and his neo-isolationist impulses. Calling the pandemic the “Wuhan virus” is part of the “Anti-China 2020” election strategy. This strategy is dangerous, pathetic and short-sighted given the fact that the world has had epidemics since 420 BC: plague, typhus, smallpox, cholera, AIDS, SARS, Ebola, to name but a few.
The Trump administration is like the theater of the absurd in its systematic efforts to downplay scientific research, expertise and data in the midst of an epidemic, when science should be leading the way to protect public health. All Trump and his enablers have done until now is frantically point fingers at others it would like to convince their base are responsible for their own failures, be it China or the WHO.
Defunding the WHO is a fool’s errand and also strategically unwise since the WHO addressed the corona virus early on and nothing prevented the Trump administration from recognizing the dangers and acting accordingly in January 2020. This strategy, blaming the WHO, only shows weakness and strengthens China rise to power.
The reality today is that science is under attack. Facts, morality and truth have become the main casualties of this societal disaster that the Trump kleptocracy has unleashed. In one-thousand plus days, Trump has managed to destroy what his predecessors built over the last 70 years, something which a new President will have to restore.
But today in the Trump transactional world communication with autocrats, dictators, despots and tyrants are favored over communications with the allies and are held far away from the public eye, causing the allies to distance themselves from the US.
The murder of Khashoggi by the repressive regime of Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman confirmed that human rights are hardly a foot note in the book Trump is writing. Defense of our free and liberal society, human rights and international law have been taken off the agenda by this administration, this despite the attacks by Russia on American and European democracies.
At the same time, Trump has shown himself to be a useful tool to Russia, given his own kleptocratic interests. Gradually, he has been submitting to the demands of Vladimir Putin. Although the Russian contribution to the Trump election success was minimal and Russian attacks on American democracy cannot be called a success, there is some disappointment in Russia that the Crimea acquisition has not yet been recognized and sanctions against Russian interests are still in place. In fact, they were even extended. Overall, there is disappointment at what their man Trump has accomplished so far, but Russia will assist if allowed and is looking to the re-election of Trump to further its interests.
With the narcissistic, autocratic sociopath Trump in the White House, we have someone who seeks absolute power by internal and external destabilization, undermining the institutions, the judiciary, the free press, freedom of speech. It is a playbook the world has already seen before. Indeed, the media are under attack and attempts are being made to regulate media platforms since their criticism is unwelcome to the “supreme leader.” Such a culture leads to nihilism and opens the door to Fascism, pernicious ideologies against which the US, like Germany in the 1930s, is not immune.
Nevertheless, Donald Trump is an impeached president, and that is a stain that will not be touched by the tooth of time. Especially since his administration continues to confirm daily the old saying: “the fish rots from the head down.”
There is a lack of integrity within the Republican party, which was reinforced by the nomination of Donald J Trump. The GOP long stood for free trade, balanced budgets and interventionist in foreign policy. Today, it supports protectionism, nationalism and has totally abandoned normal values common to all, such as respect, integrity and truth.
Those who suggested that Bush43 was the last Republican president were right. The cancer that has metastasized throughout the GOP will only be cured when the Republican party is completely destroyed. Conservatism deserves better and needs to return to problem-solving, norm-adhering, thoughtful conservatism.
Moral and ethical decay entered the Republican party well before the day Trump was nominated. It was propagated by spineless politicians without virtue or moral compass, without any degree of human integrity, devoid of self-respect. This abscess started growing with Nixon under the watchful eye of Congress without integrity. It has now grown into a malignancy.
Today there are parallels between President Trump and Nazi Germany. The GOP and Senate Majority Leader McConnell are more than willing to play the role of the 1932 Franz von Papen conservatives who thought they could control Hitler and put him in a box. They, and the world, later came to regret this error.
In 1930, Germany launched a program of escalating oppression, including demonization, discrimination and isolation of vulnerable communities, that evokes what we are seeing today with Trump endorsing police brutality; demonizing people who look and believe differently; he has stripped people of their families, jobs or livelihood; attacked the courts, the free press and the media. He believes, simply, that he is above the law.
Future historians will be highly critical of this period. They will see how the soul of America was corrupted by the shameful MAGA policies and how people stood by and let this happen. They will compare this era to the 1920s, when the US went for isolationism, rejected the international organization it promoted, the League of Nations, and America First was America alone. There were also high tariffs, an increase in income disparity, a concentration of wealth at the top and a restrictive immigration policy. Ultimately, the country was unable to react to the Great Depression.
The rise of Fascism in the early 1930s was initially ignored. But it did find some support in the USA, with a number of rallies in Madison Garden, notably by the American Bund. In 1939, Jewish refugees on board of the St. Louis were refused entry in Miami and sent back. Angela Merkel was probably right when she said: “When those who have survived WWII have passed away we will know if we have learned from history.”
Trump has been shaping his government in his own image. Personal interests have been placed over national interests. His brand of populism is having serious international repercussions as well, as the coronavirus pandemic has shown. Another catastrophe of even vaster consequences is already unfolding, albeit the trajectory of climate change is slower than the pandemic.
Since 2017 we have seen the world change in front of our eyes, faster than was imagined. The geopolitical balance has been negatively influenced by Trump’s growing list of failures, from Paris to Jerusalem, Iran, North Korea to China. His thoughtless tariffs have created a void into which China and Russia are stepping in.
The result is that Europe must recognize that although the US-EU relationship was never balanced, seventy years of trust and cooperation with the US are now over and done with. The German Foreign Minister Heiko Maas pointed this out on June 13th, 2018:
“The world order that we once knew and were accustomed to no longer exists. Old pillars of reliability are crumbling under the weight of new crises. Alliances dating back decades are being challenged in the time it takes to write a tweet.”
With the new dawn in the world the valid question for Europe is today “can the trans-Atlantic cooperation on economic, foreign and policy exist much longer, after being suffocated and hollowed out by Trump?
But the Atlantic divide did not start with Trump and the EU should have recognized in 2003 the changing winds of our times. The erosion in the Atlantic relationship started when George W Bush pivoted away from Western Europe towards New Europe due to the criticisms on Bush43 ill-advised adventure in Iraq.
President G.W. Bush his assault on the jurisdiction of the International Criminal Court in The Hague added insult to injury and so did the rejection of treaty based responses to climate change (Kyoto), withdrawal from the ABM treaty by the US together with the unconditional US support for Israel.
In doing so the Bush administration squandered away US moral authority and global leadership with Iraq, Guantanamo and by employing rendition and torture methods. All of this influenced and increased the Atlantic divisions and has led to the decline of US hegemony, which was further influenced by the rise of China.
But fact is the EU-US relationship was never stable and over time there have been many disagreements since the 1950’s when Britain and France had the foresight to develop against the wishes the US their own nuclear weapons, with France leaving NATO military command in 1966 to return in 2009 and West Germany seeking détente with East Germany in the 1970’s, just as events in the Middle East (Iraq, Iran, Israel) have sparked divisions.
Also in the early 2000 there were differences between the allies and the Bush administration but the Alliance survived the serious disagreements as a result of mutual respects and trust of the Allies.
Although Barack Obama was and is popular with the general public in Europe and was recognized as an intelligent, erudite and emphatic President who understood the limits of American power, his relationship with Europe fermented immediately. His administration “pivoted” from Europe to Asia and pursued his “reset” with Russia, while at the same time cancelling to build US Missile defense systems in new Europe. But Ukraine and Iran he knew to find Europe when he needed our help.
Not the moves from a master tactician and neither were his weaknesses in Libya, Syria and Ukraine very helpful. In fact his “feel good” sanction moment against Russian interests was not very impressive and only caused the rebalancing of the Russia-China relationship.
But today with Trump there is no trust or respect and the trans-Atlantic cooperation, which produced stability and prosperity over 70+ years was never more damaged in the way it has been by today. Trump, the nationalist, protectionist and populist has hollowed out U.S. foreign policy even further.
We must recognize the U.S. with President Trump has become an security threat and adversary to Europe and its interests and sounds more like he is running a protection racket using the US military to force trade concessions from Europe.
Questionable at this point in time is U.S. commitment to our international system of rules, norms and values, the value of US security assurances. After the recent withdrawal by the from Iraq with Trump it’s best to expect betrayal, in the same way the US left the Kurds to defend themselves and face the prospect of ethnic cleansing by Turkey.
Since taking office in 2017 Trump has pulled out of treaties, insulted America’s friends, undermined multilateral alliances, such as the G7, WHO, even NATO, and has chosen confrontation over cooperation. Sanctions, embargoes and boycotts aimed at China, Iran and Europe have been globally divisive.
The damage done by Trump to US credibility, reliability and reputation is most likely permanent despite some repairs envisaged in the future.
The refusal of the German Chancellor Angela Merkel to honor the invitation for the June G7 meeting is symptomatic of the disagreements on NATO, Nord Stream 2 Gas pipeline, WHO, Climate Change, relations with China and the Vladimir Putin invitation to the summit.
A Joe Biden presidency would be welcome as a path back to responsible leadership and restoration of law and order, essential for a functioning democracy.
Joe Biden stands for a return to normalcy. He could address some of the ills of society and repair some of the damage to America’s reputation as a safe, trustworthy, competent international leader and partner.
A possible re-election of Donald Trump would be disastrous for the USA and the world. To be blunt, it is the rule of law that is on the ballot in the Presidential election of 2020.
In the meantime, Donald Trump is stacking the courts with sympathetic judges and preparing the grounds for postponement or voiding of the 2020 Presidential election if it doesn’t go his way. That would be a recipe for further chaos or, worse. A truly terrifying prospect. All this with the support of Senate majority leader McConnell and “invertebrates whose unswerving abjectness has enabled his institutional vandalism, as George F. Will recently referred to them in his excellent opinion article in the Washington Post, “Trump must be removed. So must his congressional enablers.”
The recent killing of Georg Floyd, capping years of fear and injustice, has lit the tinder box of society. Trump continues to fuel the fires, preparing a new plank for his re-election campaign. He wants to conduct another “law-and-order” campaign, like the one Nixon conducted in the summer of 1968. But there’s one important difference, namely, Nixon was campaigning as the Republican nominee, he was not the incumbent.
After one thousand plus days, with the US gradually sliding towards a illiberalism and a country transformed beyond repair, Trump has now declared war on the American people and set up a conflict between the military and civilian society. Helicopters flew over Lafayette Square, and peaceful protesters and members of the press were attacked.
Like a tin-pot dictator in a banana republic, he has now turned the peoples house into a fortress and hidden in the bunker of the White House, while putting his authoritarian credo “dominate the street” into practice, a gift to all repressive and authoritarian regimes all over the world.
This has caused all four living former Presidents to speak out, just as active and former military leaders have broken their silence and have denounced the president for dividing the nation. They have accused him of ordering the U.S. military to violate the constitutional rights of American citizens.
In this unstable political climate, American exceptionalism and the trans-Atlantic relationship have been placed on life support and there is a serious need for Europe to look at itself, prepare for a whole new world and re-prioritize EU strategic interests.
Part is this is reviewing the Russian-European relationship with the understanding Russia is a autocracy in need to modernization which does not seek to join our rule based world and shall remain our adversary.
We European should have no illusions, Russia seeks the weakening of the Transatlantic relationship and sees the EU and NATO as obstacles towards it’s main goals, the gradual reversal of the European state and the rise of national government states. It must be concluded Donald Trump is doing his best to assist Vladimir Putin in reaching this goal.
Russia favors a Europe that no longer is based on liberal values on which the post-war was based, but based on transactional relationship whereby Russia’s primary motive is to pull Europe into its sphere of influence. With the clear understanding of Russia’s geopolitical goals there is still the need for parties to return to dialogue and find solutions for the Global issues. Given the long term interests it is essential for both sides to find a formula in order to adjust the present interest and demands based on realism and pragmatism.
Today it’s more necessary than ever to find common ground in a new security arrangement with Russia. In this regard are the openings of President Emmanuel Macron to Russia in order to break the present impasse more than welcome.
All of these relations are headed for further change, also given the change in the global political power which is shifting from the west to the east with Europe in danger of being left behind, sleepwalking into irrelevance in a world dominated by US-China rivalry.
Also the relationship with China needs to be re-evaluated and become more balanced. The current diplomatic structure was initially launched in 2003 and reinforced in 2013 with the signing of the EU-China 2020 Strategic Agenda for Cooperation. The EU launched its new Strategy on China in June 2016 with a view to taking a more realistic approach to its relations with China. But the approach towards illiberal China has been fragmented with individual European countries pursuing deepening economic engagement, bilateral strategic relationships, and a general avoidance of sensitive political issues.
In this regard the CEE countries (16+1) play a “Trojan horse” role for China, which highlight the divisions which exist today between East and West Europe in many areas.
The position of the EU on the medium to long term will also be further influenced by changing demographics and shrinking populations, declining economic importance and in political significance, unless resources are combined and by working together in order to be able to influence the international political agenda and the solution of global problems.
To abandon European unification now, as Brexit has shown, would be wrong. To leave the world table for good and accept total insignificance, leaving the EU and its individual members to be used as a toy by other powers, would be a serious mistake.
In order to avoid this, the EU needs to put an end to the illusion of continuing national sovereignty by establishing the principle of collective responsibility. It must move forward with integration and consolidation, including a transfer of sovereignty to European institutions, in order to impose effective fiscal discipline and guarantee a stable financial system.
At the same time, we need closer coordination of financial, economic, defense, social and health policies in the member countries, in order to correct the structural imbalances within the common area. To avoid a return to nationalism we need to begin the process of moving towards full political, monetary and fiscal union.
A first step would be agreeing on majority voting in the Council and transnational voting in EU elections. As the French President Emmanuel Macron noted “We need to change the rules. (…) As long as we have not reformed the functioning of our intergovernmental method, we will not be credible at an international level or to our constituents, and it will be impossible to enlarge the EU in any way.”
The EU must stop romanticizing the transatlantic unity of the past, because they were not very romantic times. The EU needs to end its dependency on the USA and its complacency and become fully autonomous.
The EU must consider a multi-speed Europe and accelerate the political union, to ultimately create a unified defense force that would pool assets and centralize R&D budgets. The defense budget has to be increased and involve the European defense industry prioritizing EU hardware purchases
In sum: Trump is a clear and present danger to American democracy, to public health, to our free liberal order and peace and stability in the world. The USA has a weighty choice to make this November.
Let’s hope for the sake of the US, Europe and the world at large that the American electorate chooses wisely and, to conclude in the words of Alexis de Tocqueville, that “the greatness of America lies not in being more enlightened than any other nation, but rather in her ability to repair her faults.”
William J J Houtzager, June 10th, 2020
Marton Radkai, Editor