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European scholar on the Trump era: ‘It’s no longer clear whether America stands for democracy anymore’

Hans Kundnani
Hans Kundnani

The partnership between the United States and its European allies has had its ups and downs, but the fundamentals seemed like a settled matter for most of the post-World War II era. The election of 2016 has unsettled it, to say the least. Or perhaps, to put in starker language, the election of Mr. Trump will be an “unmitigated disaster” for the Euro-American partnership.

That two-word phrase in quotes above comes from a luncheon talk I attended Wednesday as a guest of the Minnesota Consular Corps, an organization that brings together the consuls who represent other nations in our state.

The luncheon speaker, Hans Kundnani, Senior Transatlantic Fellow of the German Marshall Fund, has observed Euro-American relations for years and said he had believed that he “understood this country quite well” until November. What he called the “political earthquake” shattered that confidence and left him struggling to understand how the U.S., where he last lived in 2001, could have changed so much as to bring about that election result. He confessed that it left him feeling “bleak and pessimistic” about the future.

Chances are, you know some others who lived stateside the whole time and were also quite surprised by the election result, present company included. But because of his day job, Kundnani is able to tell an American audience how it felt to many Europeans and those who have internalized the post-war era as the European new normal.

The development of the European Union over recent decades, with the help and encouragement of the United States, had made Europe the “symbol of multilateralism moreso than any other institution the world,” Kundnani said.

Yes, European nations have had issues with one another, and yes, Brexit happened before the Trump election happened. And yes, there were growing tensions between rich and poor EU member states about how much the rich ones were obliged to help out the poor ones. But the combination of the increasing cooperation within Europe, the growth of the EU, the reliability of the mutual Euro-American security understandings symbolized by NATO, and the reliable united front that the European-American bloc presented in dealings with Russia, had created a sense that Europe had learned the right lessons from the carnage of the 20th century.

And suddenly, on November 9 of last year, a great many assumptions that seemed so settled were suddenly unsettled, Kundnani said.

Take Russia, for example. For most the Cold War era, it was the hardline Americans who were jawboning their much wobblier European allies to stay firm against any hints of Russian (or, in the older days, Soviet) aggression. And that system had produced a lot of cold peace and containment that led somehow to the dismantling of the Soviet behemoth without a hot war.

Now, suddenly, the U.S. is led by a man rumored to have unholy relations with Russian president Putin, a new president who seems to think that allowing Russia to expand into Crimea and other unspecified places is a thinkable thought, and who is scaring a lot of European states by waffling on the inviolability of the basic NATO guarantee that the world’s greatest superpower has their backs.

Since November, Kundnani said, “it’s no longer clear to Europeans whether the United States will come to the aid of their [NATO] allies if they’re attacked.”

And frankly, he added darkly, he can’t imagine anything that Mr. Trump could do or say, having once created those doubts, that would make those doubts go away.

Keep your eyes on Latvia and Lithuania, Kundnani suggested. These are two small states, former Soviet republics, separated geographically from the main body of European NATO states, and they are among the many NATO members that do not spend the required two percent of GDP on their military. Candidate Trump often complained about free riders like that. If the Russians start agitating along the Latvian or Lithuanian borders, will the message from Washington to Latvia be: Don’t worry, NATO has your back? Or will it be something more ambiguous?

If Europe decides that it can no longer rely on the so-called U.S. nuclear umbrella, what does it do next? Kundnani wondered aloud whether Germany might show some interest in becoming a nuclear power, or lead the European members of alliance to jointly pursue an arsenal that they could use if they felt they could no longer rely on U.S. nukes as their ultimate deterrent. He didn’t take a position on answering that question. But he said for most of the last 70 years, it was the Americans who generally tried to prevent nuclear proliferation. Trumpism, Kundnani said, at least implicitly encourages more nations to want to have their own nukes.

After two world wars in the 20th century, both of which visited unimaginable destruction on Europe, Europe has avoided a major war for seven decades. Europeans may congratulate themselves for the creation of the European Union and other institutions that have helped deter war and resolve disputes peacefully, and many Europeans may see this is a great accomplishment of their own. But that achievement, Kundnani said, has been “much more linked to Europe’s relations with the United States than a lot of people realize.”

In the area of trade, the U.S. has long favored an assumption of multilateral, open free trade. Trump’s attraction to what Kundnani called “mercantilism,” which roughly translates into forms of protectionism and bilateral trade deals, “breaks with decades of bipartisan consensus” in America that free trade policies are best for America and for the world, he said. This could lead to trade wars and a broader unravelling of the existing free trade consensus that is symbolized by the work for the World Trade Organization.  

At the moment, based on what Trump has said, and Kundnani added that this is one of the things that worries him most about the Trump moment, “it’s no longer clear whether America stands for democracy anymore.” Trump “seems to actively prefer authoritarians like [Vladimir] Putin to democrats like [Angela] Merkel.”

Comments (29)

  1. Submitted by Roy Everson on 03/09/2017 - 11:34 am.

    Commitment to democracy?

    What is clear is that a dangerously high percentage of Americans take a lot for granted. We can avoid becoming a plutocracy even if we don’t control money in politics. We can loosely use words like freedom and liberty to espouse causes that mean the exact opposite. We can trust Pence to fly to Europe to assuage anxious allies. We can send a message to those urban hipsters who keep insulting us by voting for the guy who drives them nuts. We can go quiet when the president degrades the free press, immigrants and people with out-of-favor religions because, after all, we should not take him literally. We can stay home and not vote because, hey, they’re all bad.

    And there will be no consequences.

  2. Submitted by Ray Schoch on 03/09/2017 - 11:45 am.

    My guess

    about the Trumpist response to the above is that it might be “What does he know? He’s a European.” Or perhaps, “How much will the Latvians or Lithuanians pay us to defend them against Russia?” Neither one inspires confidence, but then, I’ve yet to see anything from the Trump administration (so far, and I understand that it’s early…) that inspires confidence, though I do have some hope for John Huntsman as Ambassador to Russia. He’ll have a tough job explaining some of the lunatic tweets from the White House, but he’s proven himself capable in similar positions.

    We’ll need all the expertise we can get, from Mr. Huntsman and others, as Mr. Trump has already demonstrated he knows nothing about the world beyond resort and hotel development, and our new Secretary of State thinks “foreign relations” is spelled “O – I – L.”

  3. Submitted by Bob Petersen on 03/09/2017 - 12:21 pm.

    False Premise

    This is just more baseless drivel in an attempt to smear the elected president. His premise is that Trump ‘prefers’ Putin to Merkel, but offer zero substance behind it other than a long winded proposition if the US would protect Europe for the bazillionth time.
    It is clear this scholar does not know our democracy because one man cannot change it. That has always been the case and will be the case. Even if Trump is a dictator, what can he do? He still needs Congress to pass laws or they don’t come into effect. And the executive orders? How many did Obama pass, even in his last days? Trump is getting blasted for executive orders that Obama has done. And let’s not forget the numerous laws Obama did not want to enforce and tried to select what the press covered. Is that not dictatorial behavior?
    If this scholar thinks we are not going to help Europe just because it’s Trump is gravely mistaken. Trump is tough on people but he is going to be much more protective than he thinks. I’m actually surprised he’s not more pleased that we have a much more hawkish president than Obama who cut and ran from Iraq and allowed ISIS to flourish as well as sat on the sidelines while Russia took over parts of Ukraine.

    • Submitted by Roy Everson on 03/09/2017 - 01:21 pm.

      Here’s more drivel to consider

      Correct, one man can not a dictatorship make. But when a winning coalition includes one group which feels it has nothing to lose, another group which expects great profits, and another group which holds blatantly anti-democratic views on demographic groups they don’t like, don’t be surprised when the compromises with democracy are easier to accept as long as the goodies are handed out. Just ask Europeans who lived through the 1930s.

    • Submitted by Paul Brandon on 03/09/2017 - 01:42 pm.

      No one has to smear Trump

      He does it all by himself.
      But he is not yet America.
      Remember, he lost the election by three million voting Americans.

  4. Submitted by Patrick Ledray on 03/09/2017 - 12:26 pm.

    Hans Kundnani’s Presentation on the Trump Era

    Eric Black again demonstrated his outstanding ability to listen to a speaker and, in short order, not only write a fine column, but truly capture the meaning of the presentation, and then use it to highlight the dangers presented to post World War II stability.

    • Submitted by Misty Martin on 03/09/2017 - 01:29 pm.

      Patrick, How right you are!

      Yes, Eric Black does write a very fine column. It is one of the highlights of my week to read his column and capture the true meaning of all the events that are transpiring in our political madness existing here in the United States (and abroad . . .) ever since November 8th, 2016, when “normalcy” as we Americans knew it (before the whole campaign nightmare began) and Trumpism started to reign supreme.

  5. Submitted by Joel Stegner on 03/09/2017 - 12:55 pm.

    Trump does not speak for most Americans

    A minority managed to elect him, with many saying they were voting for him despite considering him lacking the basic job requirements. His popularity is the lowest of all modern Presidents at this point in the Presidency, and his policy positions and bad attitude strengthens his opposition and lowers his support.

    Germans of course have Hitler top of mind. There are many similarities, although Trump is not going to have the element of surprise, but he can unleash our military might without Congressional approval, which is right a grave concern.

    We must not be “good Germans” who will sanction whatever he does, even though that is what and his supporters are demanding. A bullet had been fired in our direction and we need to dodge it, for the good of humanity.

    • Submitted by Patrick Tice on 03/11/2017 - 05:05 pm.

      Who will follow him into war?

      If a conflict were to arise, the nation would be divided as never before. It is difficult to imagine any level of real competence at the WH in an emergency. Responding to an attack of some sort would be bad enough, but a Trump-initiated war would elicit immediate protests in the streets and pushback from Congress.

  6. Submitted by John Hasselberg on 03/09/2017 - 02:29 pm.

    US & Europe Since 1945

    Eric Black encapsulates well Kundnani’s perspectives, which I also heard yesterday at a different venue from his. A pair of fundamental points merit attention here, partly in response to Eric Black and partly to a couple of the earlier posts.

    First of all, for those who are truly interested in tracing the post-WWII US/EU relationship, I strongly recommend reading Geir Lundestad’s “The US and Western Europe Since 1945: From Empire by Invitation to Transatlantic Drift”. It’s a 2003 publication, but still most relevant. In essence, he provides the foundation for how we arrived at the current state of affairs.

    After WWII the US policy, Eisenhower in particular, was to very strongly support European unification. Ike, in fact, favored a “United States of Europe”. This supportive attitude prevailed until the Nixon administration when Nixon & Kissinger, with their “America in decline” premonitions, began to see the growing EU more as a competitor to US hegemony. “Why help them surpass us?” was their attitude. In essence this attitude has continually grown in prominence ever since, resulting in the rather strange situation in which we now find ourselves.

    Keep in mind that the first Director General of NATO, Lord Ismay, described the purpose of NATO as “To keep Russia out, keep Germany down, and keep America in Europe”. It appears that all three of these legs of the NATO stool are now under reassessment. What will come of it is unclear, which is, as Kundnani emphasized, precisely what is disturbing Europeans. The firmly established post-WWII Transatlantic relationship, i.e., America’s willingness to provide a “nuclear umbrella” of protection, upon which Europeans have relied, has been eroding for quite some time–which Europeans were rather naïve to ignore.

    Secondly, paralleling this shift in Transatlantic relations, it is not difficult to see the rise of Trump as a logical extension of the hollowing out of the American industrial economy, rampant growth in identity politics, and, something which many Trump supporters vehemently deny, the intensely racist and misogynist assumptions embedded in Anglo-American societies. Many of them will point out that there were a lot of women and people from non-European cultures who voted for him, too. To this I simply say “Self-loathing is another deeply embedded assumption in Anglo-American culture–particularly amongst the Evangelical crowd, regardless of gender or ethnicity.”

    The Republican Party has shamelessly exploited this underbelly of our society to pursue precisely the economic and social policies that exacerbate it–particularly for many of Trump’s supporters. One name for that sort of voting behavior would be “Stockholm Syndrome”. People wanted change. Republicans wanted only power. They got it. Two adages embody the result: “Be careful what you wish for, you might get it”, and “The road to hell is paved with good intentions.”

    • Submitted by Ilya Gutman on 03/09/2017 - 07:35 pm.

      Naive indeed

      Europeans are naïve – a very true observation. That is why they have the multiple problems they have to face now… Now, Anglo-American societies are racist and misogynist; but which ones are not? Russian? French? Arab? Japanese? Just wondering…

  7. Submitted by Constance Sullivan on 03/09/2017 - 02:39 pm.

    Please remember: Hitler was not elected by surprise! He didn’t march into the Reichstag! He convinced the German people, who had a democracy but were embittered about the punishments they were subjected to by the allied victors of World War I and ready to follow a demagogue who rallied them on the basis of racism, xenophobia, and resentments-based fiery nationalism. Oh, wait. That’s what Trump is doing.

    A European like the man Eric interviews here is of course interested primarily in what Trump’s racism, xenophobia, resentments-based nationalism and saber-rattling mean for Europe. But in Europe, they’re already gathering together to figure out how to replace the U.S. in NATO’s defenses, with France heading up the nuclear bit. The end loser will be the U.S., when we’re isolated internationally.

    • Submitted by Ilya Gutman on 03/09/2017 - 07:36 pm.

      How will it look

      Can you please be more specific about how Trump rallies racism and xenophobia? I am also curious to see how Europe will be able to “replace the U.S. in NATO’s defenses.” They will have to spend way more than 2% on defense meaning that all their social achievements will go up in smoke because they will not have enough money for them. And we already see how their attitudes have changed towards refugees This is what Mr. Kundnani and others are afraid of.

      • Submitted by Paul Brandon on 03/10/2017 - 08:19 pm.

        They don’t have to

        spend as much as we do if they spend it more wisely.
        See: F-35, 5000 nuclear warheads (any 50 of which would destroy Russia).

        • Submitted by Ilya Gutman on 03/11/2017 - 09:19 am.

          Between UK and France, they probably already have enough nuclear warheads to destroy Russia (and maybe the world for that matter) but it didn’t seem to help them deal with renegade European nation (Yugoslavia) or backward African dictatorship (Libya): they needed America to achieve anything…

  8. Submitted by Ilya Gutman on 03/09/2017 - 07:35 pm.

    Funny but really sad

    “Since November, Kundnani said, “it’s no longer clear to Europeans whether the United States will come to the aid of their [NATO] allies if they’re attacked.” This is so funny. So Obama administration pulled missiles out of the Eastern European countries to placate Putin and practically reneged on promise to help Ukraine keep its territory, while at the same time allowing Putin to expand in the Middle East, and now it is Trump who they don’t trust? And of course, Trump can’t do anything to earn their trust back… Maybe the problem is in them? And by the way, why don’t they spend required 2% on defense?

    Trump seems to prefer Putin to Merkel? Maybe because the former has strengthened his country and the latter has weakened hers? It’s not a personal or governing style preference; it is a “strong horse vs. weak horse” approach. By the way, anyone remembers Gerhard Schröder, former German chancellor and a big friend of Putin?

    • Submitted by Paul Brandon on 03/10/2017 - 01:01 pm.

      Dimensions of strength

      Putin has strengthened Russia militarily at the expense of weakening its economy (remember, that’s how Russia lost the first cold war — by trying to match our military spending).
      Germany may be weaker in military terms, but it’s much healthier economically, which is more important in the long run.
      Of course Trump has a bro thing on Putin because:
      1. Putin is the kind of dictator he’d like to be.
      2. Trump has had more success doing business in Russia than in Germany.

      • Submitted by Ilya Gutman on 03/10/2017 - 06:54 pm.

        Rich and weak spells danger

        Putin has strengthened Russia militarily and its economy in now improving Merkel has weakened Germany and no economic gains will compensate for added stress in society; healthy economy is great, so long as no one comes and takes it away. Sure, I remember how Russia lost the Cold War (thank you, President Reagan) but the problem was Socialism. On the other hand, do you remember how frightened Europe was at that time and how much it wanted America to help? Why do we need to cover them when they think they are better than us? By the way, has Trump ever said that he wants to be a dictator?

        • Submitted by Paul Brandon on 03/11/2017 - 09:48 am.

          Improving is easy

          when you start from a disaster.
          And if you read your Marx, you’ll see that Capitalism was a necessary precursor. for Socialism. Russia went directly from feudalism to a fascism it called socialism.
          That’s why Marx expected communism to develop in Germany and Britain, not in Russia.
          Trump has never said that he wants to be a dictator (he hardly ever says anything that coherent), but he does a lot of dictating and clearly wants absolute powers. I will admit that he acknowledges that Congress and the Courts are a check on his actions, but he seems to view that as a necessary evil, to be reduced as much as possible.

          • Submitted by Ilya Gutman on 03/11/2017 - 10:27 pm.

            Of course, Marx is not mine but, by his theory, capitalism was supposed to be before socialism. And Russia did have developing capitalism in the beginning of the 20th century; Marx hadn’t lived to see it. Of course, fascism is an extreme right ideology so it could not have occurred in the Soviet Union which did have socialism, at least by its definition based on means of production ownership.

            • Submitted by Paul Brandon on 03/12/2017 - 10:26 am.

              How would you differentiate

              between socialism and fascism?
              What occurred in the Soviet Union happened, whether you want to acknowledge its nature by granting it a name or not.
              They simply renamed fascism socialism.
              Old Abe Lincoln story:
              Once he was out walking with his son Robert and they saw a mule.
              Abe asked: how many legs does that mule have?
              Robert answered “four”.
              Abe then said, “if you call its tail a leg, how many legs does it have?”
              Robert of course answered “five”.
              And Abe said “No, it still only has four legs. Called its tail a leg does not make it one.”

    • Submitted by Dennis Wagner on 03/13/2017 - 08:57 pm.

      I’d say

      Trump prefers Putin because he wants to emulate him!

  9. Submitted by beryl john-knudson on 03/10/2017 - 07:41 am.

    This nation is a mirror that reflects so much more than we dare


    We have become a world of Selfies with our minds turned inward and building walls of self preservation from all the ills we dare not recognize in ourselves because they document our own ignorance, arrogance whatever?

    We wall others out but essentially wall ourselves in?

    Patriot becomes a meaningless word that breathes, thrives on words like ‘exceptionalism’,”god bless america” respecting but one god one nation as a growing theme song ….all others need not apply?

    We build our own prisons of the mind and assume they are for others but only succeed in in destroying this nation as living in a cage of self preservation…that is what will destroy this blessed nation in the end…have nice day as they say hey?

  10. Submitted by beryl john-knudson on 03/10/2017 - 07:53 am.

    Pants-on-fire Trump

    When he lies and it comes back and fires up his back side as false, he blames the faulty untruth on others and offers the tantrum as a way of clearing himself…I bet his mama would have known the character of her son as a long time process fulfilled now in his presidency and we as a nation become its ultimate victims?

  11. Submitted by beryl john-knudson on 03/10/2017 - 08:22 am.

    As we tiptoe through the tulips

    of another Trump tantrum as even his aides reported recently, on-condition- anonymity…what will be the next of our civil liberties downsized?

    Wait and see I suppose…

  12. Submitted by DENNIS SCHMINKE on 03/12/2017 - 11:19 pm.

    US Democracy

    Good heavens. Just because the result of a DEMOCRATIC U.S. election does not square with YOUR political point of view–the U.S. is all of a sudden abandoning democracy? Give me a ‘blinking’ break!

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