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An election of stark choices for Americans, but also for Europe

Transatlantic affairs / COMMENTARY
David O'Sullivan

Date: 14/10/2020
The stark choice confronting US voters has big implications for the EU, too. This should force us to do some soul-searching of our own.

America’s weight in the world means that every US presidential election attracts huge interest from other countries. However, this election really does feel like an epoch-defining moment. At no time in living memory have Americans faced a starker choice between two completely opposing visions of both America‘s sense of self and its place in the world. This election is about Americans deciding who they really are. However, it is also an election which should force us Europeans to ask ourselves who we are and what our place will be in the tectonic plate shifting world in which we now find ourselves.

America First, America alone?

President Trump offers the reversal of what he sees as years of decline due to an excess of political correctness and left-leaning policies. His infamous “American carnage” Inaugural Address in 2017 is more Cormac McCarthy’s The Road than Obama’s The Audacity of Hope. He believes that America has been taken advantage of by its allies and trading partners alike. His agenda is one of discontent, divisiveness and disruption.

Trump has succeeded in a hostile takeover of the Republican Party, which has chosen to give him free rein. His electoral success in 2016 was based on playing to the aggrieved, the bitter and the resentful. He openly flirts with racism, misogyny, far-right extremism and even armed militias. His biggest supporters are angry, non-college-educated white males, evangelical Christians, social conservatives, and well-off businesspeople. They forgive his many personal failings, his bombast, his tweets and his lies because they believe, in spite of all this, that he speaks for them and will pursue their wished-for agenda.

But that agenda is often contradictory. Tax breaks for the rich do little for the unemployed. His trade wars have hurt farmers and US manufacturing. The trade deficit has never been higher, despite his promises to rebalance it. The fiscal deficit has ballooned, in flagrant breach of Republican fiscal orthodoxy. In foreign policy, he scorns alliances, offends allies and cosies up to adversaries, all without generating any obvious benefit to real US interests.

Despite these contradictions and his all-too-evident personal flaws, many Americans share Trump’s sense that the country has lost its way and needs a renewed sense of self-assertion, both domestically and internationally. The country is more divided and polarised than at any time since the 1930s. The divide between the urban and the rural, the coasts and the heartland, the rich and the poor, the socially liberal and the socially conservative has never been greater. The percentage of Americans who no longer believe that their children face a brighter future than they did has never been higher. The conveyor belt of American optimism is broken.

Winds of change?

To a certain extent, former Vice President Biden is swimming against the tide. He offers a more traditional menu of moderate Democratic values: inclusiveness, tolerance, and confidence in America’s ability to offer prosperity and social progress at home and be an international force for good. Where President Trump seeks only to please and appease his aggrieved base, Biden is trying to build a broader coalition across regions, ethnicities and income groups.

Biden might well benefit from the US’ demographics, which have moved decisively in favour of a more pluralist society. Between 2000 and 2018, the net increase in the non-white population was 76%. The comparable figure for whites is 29%. They are expected to be a minority by 2045.

Furthermore, the most populous US states are increasingly the most liberal. California is starting to lead the way on issues like data protection and climate change. Even in traditionally conservative states, such as Texas and Georgia, the cities – think of Austin or Atlanta – are often progressive and liberal. As the current election demonstrates, the growth of those cities is making Texas, Georgia and other states more competitive. Even in such a polarised country, there are still many who want to build a more optimistic future rather return to a divisive past.

A polarised and disruptive election

So, this is the America that will go to the polls on 3 November. A divided nation, choosing between two sharply contrasting candidates. The bombast and the safe pair of hands. The disruptor and the builder of bridges. The defender of the ‘animal spirit’ of American individualism and the advocate of a gentler and more inclusive society.

If the polls are correct, then President Trump’s dazzling defiance of political gravity may soon come to a halt. Nevertheless, the polls have been wrong before, and a surprise can never be ruled out. Equally, there are real concerns that the election result might not be clear or take time to emerge. If President Trump declines to concede or the Republican Party chooses to contest the outcome, the US could plunge into a constitutional crisis.

A changing transatlantic partner

We in Europe should care deeply about the outcome. If President Trump is re-elected, then we can expect his policies of the last four years again – but on steroids. If President Biden wins, there will be an immediate change of tone and style. However, it would also be naïve to expect a return to the America of the last century.

The structural and demographic changes in America are irreversible and will continue to influence US policy, regardless of who is in power. The base of Trump’s support, estimated at somewhere around 35-40% of voters, will not go away even if Biden wins. It will take some time to heal the wounds of the last two decades: 9/11, the blood and treasure lost in the endless wars of Afghanistan and Iraq (not forgetting the still open wounds of Vietnam), the deindustrialisation of the US economy, culture wars, the yawning gap of economic inequality, the unfinished business of racial discrimination, the feeling of an America bearing an unequal share of the world’s problems, and, above all, the prevailing sense that America needs to take time out from running the world and spend more time nurturing its own well-being.

These are powerful forces which cannot be ignored by any administration. America needs time and space to get its own house in order. There are many wise people around Biden who understand that this requires the US to rebuild alliances and friendships. However, we – the friends and allies of the United States – must also understand that we will have a part to play. We will need to do more to shoulder responsibility for our own defence and security. We will need to find a new balance in our trading relationship. We will need to figure out together how the global digital space is managed in a world of hugely increased digital opportunity combined with hugely increased vulnerability. We will, above all, have to find an agreement on how we manage the rise of China as a rival, competitor and partner, to build a new global environment of the 21st century.

Redefining the Transatlantic Alliance for the 21st century?

For us Europeans, this means having our own vision of how to build a new world order; where America remains the indispensable nation but is no longer willing to shoulder the entire responsibility of managing the system.

We should certainly hope for a Biden victory because it will open the door to reinventing the transatlantic relationship in ways that a Trump victory would close. Only time will tell whether a new administration can definitively reverse some of the trends accelerated by Trump. Or, indeed, whether the Republican Party will react to a defeat by doubling down on Trumpism or returning to the political centre. People are already thinking about 2024.

In any case, Europeans should be under no illusion: a Biden victory should mark the beginning of a new willingness on the part of Europe to stand on its own two feet and be a more equal partner of the US in addressing global challenges. The last four years have changed the rules of the game, and we must learn from that lesson. The transatlantic alliance will remain our most important relationship, but can no longer be taken for granted. Even with a Biden victory, Europe needs to become a more equal and mature partner to ensure that the transatlantic relationship will continue to deliver for both sides.

David O’Sullivan is Chairman of the EPC’s Governing Board and a former EU Ambassador to the United States (2014-2019). 

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