By Stefan Munk
US presidential elections are events that move the world. I still remember, when – as a high school student in Germany – I watched a speech of then presidential candidate Obama in 2008 draw about 200,000(!) cheering onlookers into the center of Berlin. The contrast with the current contest could hardly be any starker. When I came back to Europe over the summer from my studies in the US, I was startled by the fact that merely mentioning the United States in any political context makes many Europeans roll their eyes.
One may ask why that should be surprising. President Trump has taken a string of measures that were met with deep hostility throughout Europe, such as the tariffs on European steel and aluminum based on national security interests. Polls show confidence in the US leadership is at depressing lows in most countries throughout the Old Continent.
But it’s not simply that people deeply dislike Trump – there was no need to leave my US campus to get a dose of that sentiment. Public opinion seems to have reached a much wider, and more dangerous, level of disillusionment. Some Europeans profess general apathy, stating that US policy abroad always failed to live up to its promises, and current officeholders therefore matter little. The fact that, in the course of the same dialogue, the division of American society and political parties usually comes up should serve as an illustration that the image of a uniform political establishment, also with regards to foreign policy, is deeply flawed. That this view nonetheless exists is even more troubling.
Others show a more nuanced skepticism. They ask how, in a post-Trump period, Europeans can ever be certain that someone similar (one does not hear ‘worse’ very often, for some reason) is not around the corner. There is indeed not much to say to that argument, except that it highlights the fragility of trust and thus the importance of rebuilding and then conserving it.
Now, the skeptical American voter might ask why they should care what a bunch of people on the other side of the Pond think of their president. On the fringes, some may even welcome the dismay. Right-wing Columnist Ann Coulter, an early Trump supporter, said on a British TV show that she had been “dying [for the US] to be hated in Europe again”, seeing it as an indication of American strength.
This mindset, and even the more benign “I don’t care” version, is extremely dangerous for the United States. In a world in which authoritarian states like China and Russia become more assertive, there is an overarching need for cooperation between the main democratic players.
A main reason why many of president Trump’s initiatives on the world stage did not yield results are because he was not able to leverage a coordinated effort with allies, Europe in particular. Take the president’s critique of Chinese industrial practices, for example, on which Europeans have voiced very similar concerns. The EU and the US together account for close to half of global GDP and would therefore have had enormous leverage. Going it alone, the United States did not have the strength to extract any meaningful concessions from China. With their economic clout relative to rising powers weakening continuously, both Europe and the US are going to need mutual support even more in the future.
Respect and trust in American leadership is a key promise of the Biden campaign, but it can seem quite abstract at times. Living on both sides has put a more human angle on the problem for me. Losing the trust of a generation of Europeans seems like a real possibility if the United States continues on its current path. This is nothing that Americans, or indeed believers in freedom and democracy around the world, should treat lightly.
Stefan Munk is a German graduate student at Columbia University