It was only last September that U.S presidential candidate Donald Trump, whose political dreams then seemed farfetched, was eliciting unconcerned laughter from European leaders as he appeared via a bizarre and sometimes rambling video link in Kiev discussing both Syria and Ukraine.
Persevering through his confusion with the few second delay of the broadcast, he managed to speak about a few major foreign policy areas. Repeatedly referring to the country as “the Ukraine”, something that is widely known to be offensive to Ukrainians, he passionately stated that his feeling towards Ukraine is “very, very strong”, that he knows many people who live there and that they’re friends of his.
Although he praised Germany at the time for taking in refugees, he criticised them and other European countries for not intervening more in Ukraine’s conflict with Russia. Also amongst his suggestions was creating “a safe zone someplace in Syria” to help ease the number of refugees travelling to Europe.
As is the case with America, Europe has followed the US presidential election with what could be described as a morbid fascination. The main spectacle this year has been Trump, with both his celebrity and inappropriate comments providing plenty of fodder for the press and amusement for the public. It has made for a good show, but nobody’s laughing now.
As the presidential race heats up and he enjoys, what to many, is very unexpected success, that amusement has Its leaders are now grappling with the idea that a Trump victory is not completely out of the realm of possibility.
The nature of that appearance in Kiev, and the rhetoric employed, was not an isolated incident for Trump. He has run his entire campaign on vague notions of making America stronger without committing to any real policy promises. This is part of what’s stoking the fear within international governments; nobody knows what he is going to do.
Although he has offered little in the way of solid policy ideas, those that he has spoken about have often been contradicted and it’s usually been done by Trump himself. He has backtracked on most politically angled statements he has previously made, either denying his initial stance outright or simply offering a new idea that completely conflicts with the original.
He often lambasts the management of the U.S economy and has been very vocal about his disapproval of the country’s debt, yet proposed tax cuts and economic ideas that would only significantly increase its debt. He has promised to “knock the hell out of” ISIS yet he has also expressed very little interest in deploying American troops to Syria.
It is expected that a Trump presidency would mean a shake up for European relations. He has expressed frustration both with the cost of maintaining a U.S military presence in Europe as well as pressure to lead NATO. He has argued in favour of U.S allies within NATO contributing more financially towards their own defence, although this has been met with some support by those who agree that American contributions are much too high and are actually a detriment to itself in the long run.
He’s also gone on the record several times to point out a perceived absence of German intervention in Europe’s problems, questioning where they are and why they aren’t doing more. “Where’s Germany? Where are the countries of Europe leading? I don’t mind helping them. I don’t mind being right behind them,” he said on one occasion.
As well as pushing for U.S allies to take more responsibility for their own defence, it’s expected that Trump would attempt to scale back American intervention in European conflicts. Taking into consideration current issues, this would potentially see troops withdrawn from Ukraine and Syria while making room for a greater Russian influence.
Trump and Putin
Trump has been quite vocal in his admiration of Russia’s President Vladmir Putin, suggesting last year that a shared dislike of Obama is something that could bring the two leaders together and overcome many of the current problems. Beyond intervention in Syria though, he did not elaborate on what they could solve together.
CNN writes that both Trump and Putin appear to view the world through a similar lens: one that shows a game they must win, or otherwise risk losing, while opponents wait in hiding around every corner. Although Trump views him as a strong leader, someone to emulate, he fails to take Putin’s track record into account as well as the fact that the rest of the Republican party have taken a hardened stance against him.
One of the main foreign policy areas where Trump finds his views aligning with Putin is that of Syria. As well as fully backing Russia’s intervention in the conflict, he has argued against the U.S becoming more heavily involved in the conflict and instead suggested that Russia take on a greater role and deal with the issues.
He has also called for less U.S involvement in Ukraine despite the rest of his party pushing for more intervention. It has been suggested instead that Germany, a key European ally, takes on a stronger leadership role in combatting the issue.
Apparently blindsided by his awe for Putin, Trump’s seemingly unwavering support ignores well-founded concerns that if left unchecked, Russia’s aggression will continue to spill over and spread further towards its Eastern European neighbours. His ideas for Russia’s increased involvement in Syria and Ukraine, in particular, could give it more power than most would consider wise and leave Putin with too much freedom to pursue his own agenda.
Rising Western populism?
Regardless of whether or not Trump is successful in attaining the presidency, perhaps Europe is right to fear his influence. He has tapped into deep-seated fears that Americans hold for themselves and their place in the world, perpetuating them to drive his campaign.
And despite the outrage and horror that might suggest Europe has never seen someone with his views on nationalism and protectionism before, it’s actually the formula employed by most of the continent’s successful right-wing parties. In fact, Trump would fit right in there and perhaps that’s cause for concern in itself.
Trump’s rise mirrors a similar show that Europe has seen play out before, and it didn’t have a happy ending. He’s quoted Italian dictator Benito Mussolini in the past, bringing those comparisons to the forefront himself. He initially accepted the support of racist groups and pushes a pro-violence, anti-immigrant agenda while he entertains by being almost consistently politically incorrect.
Writing in the New York Times, Roger Cohen said “Europe knows how democracies collapse, after lost wars, in times of fear and anger and economic hardship, when the pouting demagogue appears with his pageantry and promises. America’s Weimar-lite democratic dysfunction is plain to see. A corrupted polity tends toward collapse.”
In fact, many of those speaking and writing of Europe’s fears do not see Trump as an anomaly,but rather as part of a “populist surge occurring across Western democracies at the moment”. Warning against the dangers of nationalism, it’s suggested that there’s “little Trumps” in every country and that they’re rallying together to push a populist agenda.