On Saturday afternoon, the sigh of relief was palpable across Europe. Having appealed for calm and praised the democratic resilience of the U.S. electoral process, most political leaders issued heartfelt congratulations, church bells tolled, and fireworks exploded across the continent.
A Toll of Unprecedented Instability
There is no precedent to the instability that U.S. President Donald Trump’s administration has caused to European politics. The U.S.-led intervention in Iraq of 2003 divided European governments but did not threaten the European Union. Following those events, the EU issued its first ever security strategy and in 2004 added ten new members—two accomplishments that promoted the EU’s evolution as a foreign policy player. During the past four years, Trump repeatedly accused European governments of freeriding on U.S. security guarantees, threatened trade wars, supported the UK’s departure from the EU, undermined the principle of multilateralism that is the very DNA of the EU, and stoked disunity among EU members. Even if a majority of Europeans disliked Trump, he has become increasingly popular among supporters of the far right, which has weakened Europe’s ability to be united.
A couple of years into Trump’s administration, most European governments gave up their early hopes that the transatlantic relationship would remain stable. Yet, their response to the United States has been uneven. While the EU has been able to fend off U.S. trade threats, it has not risen to the challenges that have continued to erupt on its borders: conflicts have degenerated, tensions risen, and peaceful demands for democratic change have been insufficiently supported.
This has just underscored how important U.S. engagement in Europe continues to be. Nearly all political leaders hope for a quick restart of collaboration across the Atlantic, and those who had invested in the Trump administration will soon adapt. British Prime Minister Boris Johnson, whose Brexit agenda was paired with Trump’s promise of a quick U.S.-UK trade deal, is already under pressure to finalize an agreement with the EU that will not damage the peace agreement in Northern Ireland (and thus the economy of the entire continent, by avoiding the “no deal” scenario he has been threatening Brussels with).
The Risk of Wishful Thinking
The risk in Europe is that the sigh of relief quickly turns into wishful thinking of a return to an earlier status quo, which will not happen. The traditional transatlanticism of European states has hampered its own growth as a foreign policy player. This time, renewed cooperation across the Atlantic Ocean will require a stronger commitment from Europe to take on a greater share of its global responsibilities.
With the new administration, the United States and Europe will find themselves side by side in the need to push for ambitious change. Joe Biden’s victory speech emphasized unity and healing. Three years ago, French President Emmanuel Macron’s victory speech, after a bitterly polarized run-off with far-right contender Marine Le Pen, also recognized the need to listen to and unite all French citizens. The United States and Europe head into challenging times: their advanced democracies need reform to prevent their erosion, their economies need recovery from pandemic times, and the world needs forces for stability. Together they can fireproof their societies and the multilateral order from disorder.