This piece is part of The Conversation Global’s ‘The View From …’ series, explaining how governments and citizens in key countries worldwide view the US election. Today, Richard Maher explains why Europe is so afraid of Donald Trump, and how it all comes down to Russia, NATO and trade.
As the US presidential election enters its final week, most poll-based models show Democratic nominee and former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton in front of Republican challenger, Donald Trump.
There are questions about how Clinton’s ratings will bounce back from the announcement that the FBI is reviewing a newly discovered trove of emails that relate to her use of a personal server for government business when she was secretary of state. But her significant lead in the polls will be hard to beat.
While Clinton has not garnered the same level of enthusiasm across Europe as current US President Barack Obama received in 2008 or 2012, European leaders are no doubt breathing easier now that a Clinton victory seems more likely.
In mid-summer, polls showed a real possibility that Trump could win the election and become the 45th President of the United States, an outcome that was seen as catastrophic across Europe.
European leaders watched Trump’s ascent first with dismay and then with growing alarm. Some offered uncharacteristically blunt assessments of his fitness to be a party nominee, and their preferred electoral outcome.
French President François Hollande said that Trump “makes you want to retch”. Italian Prime Minister Matteo Renzi criticised what he called Trump’s “policy of fear”, and made clear his “very strong” support for Hillary Clinton.
German foreign secretary Frank-Walter Steinmeier called Trump’s portrait of the United States as being beset by internal and external enemies “grotesque”, and warned that a Trump presidency would lead to “many uncertainties for the trans-Atlantic relationship”.
For European leaders thinking about the election, three major issues occupy attention: the future of the NATO alliance; the West’s relations with Russia; and whether the moribund Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP) can or should be revived.
The candidates’ views of NATO mark one of their most striking foreign policy differences.
While Clinton has called the alliance “one of the best investments America has ever made”, Trump has said the alliance is “obsolete”. Trump has also been coy over whether he would respond automatically to a hypothetical Russian incursion into one of the Baltic republics, which have been NATO members for more than a decade.
Every US president since Truman has interpreted Article 5 of the NATO Treaty – the mutual defence clause – as establishing a legal and moral obligation on the United States to aid another alliance member facing external attack. Instead of automatically upholding this commitment, Trump has said that he would condition a US response on whether the NATO ally had previously “fulfilled their obligations to us”.
Anders Fogh Rasmussen, former Danish prime minister and former NATO secretary general, condemned this statement, saying it undermined US credibility and risked allowing Russia to increase its influence in Europe.
No Democratic or Republican presidential nominee in history has spoken with such admiration of Russia as Donald Trump. Russia is, at the very least, a country most US and European security experts continue to view as a rival if not an actual adversary.
Trump has praised Putin’s intelligence and leadership style, invited Russia to commit cyberespionage against Clinton, and suggested that, as president, he might formally recognise Crimea as part of Russia. This is despite the fact that, in the most blatant and serious challenge to post-Cold War Europe’s political and security order, Russian military forces forcibly seized the peninsula from Ukraine in a show of force reminiscent of Europe’s darker periods.
If elected, Clinton would enter office with the most strained and contentious relationship with Russia of any president since the end of the Cold War. As David Sanger of the New York Times has reported, some of Clinton’s longtime advisers are already thinking of ways to put pressure on the Russian government and on Putin himself. These include the imposition of additional sanctions, diplomatic isolation, and international condemnation.
While European leaders would hardly welcome an escalation of US-Russia tensions – especially since the question of how to respond to Russian actions in Ukraine, Syria, and elsewhere is already dividing European governments – Trump’s apparent infatuation with the Kremlin creates even more unease.
A key battleground for the US election has been the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP), which aims to widen market access, enhance regulatory cooperation, and set common rules to promote transatlantic trade and investment. The 15th and latest round of talks took place in New York in October 2016.
For the United States, TTIP is a corollary to the 12-country Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP), which was signed in February 2016 but has not yet been ratified.
Regardless of who wins the election, the odds of concluding the TTIP agreement seem unlikely. Trump (along with Democratic Senator and former presidential candidate Bernie Sanders) has stoked opposition in the United States to free trade agreements generally.
Trump has made opposition to the North American Free Trade Agreement and the TPP a core element of his candidacy. While bemoaning the loss of domestic manufacturing jobs to globalisation and free trade, he has proposed a range of tariffs and other protectionist measures unseen in the United States since the 1930s.
Clinton supports the expansion of free trade agreements less enthusiastically than Obama, who pushed hard during his presidency for both the TPP and TTIP. As president, Clinton is unlikely to make TTIP a priority.
Even if Clinton decides to push for the conclusion of TTIP negotiations, however, diminishing popular appeal in both parties for new free trade agreements will make it hard for her to get it ratified by Congress, even though many economists on both sides of the Atlantic have said that the agreement would create jobs and give an important boost to sluggish economic growth in the EU.
If the talks fail, Europe may lose more than just greater access to transatlantic trade and investment. Its ability to promote its values and set global standards – in areas such as workers’ rights, environmental protection, and sustainable development – through trade would take a hit.
Cheering for Clinton
A Trump victory on November 8 would be viewed across European capitals as calamitous. While Clinton is well known to European leaders, they view Trump as erratic, unpredictable, and even unstable.
Trump’s views regarding NATO, his overtures to a revanchist and increasingly authoritarian Russia, and his opposition to the expansion of free trade deviate in profound ways from America’s approach to Europe since the end of the second world war – an era that has spanned twelve presidential administrations, six Democratic and six Republican.
European leaders are also worried that a Trump victory might embolden their own national populist movements.
Marine Le Pen, the leader of France’s far-right National Front, has said that she would vote for Trump. Nigel Farage, a major figure in the successful campaign for the UK to leave the EU, has appeared on the campaign trail with Trump. Anti-Islam Dutch politician Geert Wilders appeared at a fringe event of the Republican National Convention in Cleveland in July, praising Trump’s proposed ban on Muslim immigration into the United States.
For all these reasons and more, leaders across Europe are rooting for a Clinton victory on November 8, some quietly and some more openly.
UPDATE: This article originally stated that Nigel Farage led the Leave campaign in the UK. This has been amended to state that he was a major figure.