Perhaps we should have been warned by the American predilection for zombie apocalypse dramas, that it was a precautionary signal from deep within the zeitgeist. I write this with not all the states declared, but the all-but-certainty that Donald Trump is going to be the next US president, swept into the White House on a tide of populism, nativism, spite, and downright anti-intellectualism, such as to make the whole Brexit affair look positively mannered and statesmanlike. A few quick thoughts:
- Let’s not exaggerate Trump’s actual impact on the world. Amidst the eschatological angst, it is important at least to start by noting that — as every president has had to discover — he (and someday she) is just one person. Even an aligned Congress can act as a brake on some of the more lunatic or destructive policies, as will the very machinery of government. Besides, Trump gives little evidence of being details-oriented or having any clear sense of a vision, which will mean that he may well prove more willing to let the machine grind along, so long as he gets enough photo ops and adulatory mentions. Yes, there is no question that a Trump presidency will have serious, dangerous implications, but here the very framing of the US political system — designed, after all, to make executive power hard to apply — and his own limitations may be useful.
- It’s winter in Central Europe. Whether or not Trump actually means anything he said, especially his backpedalling from US commitments to the defence of NATO allies, nonetheless this must be a real concern in the Baltics and Central Europe. Ultimately, there is no reason to believe Russia has any territorial designs on NATO states, but it will, if it feels it has the chance, bully and intervene. More to the point, Ukraine, Georgia, Moldova, even Belarus are going to have to come to terms with a future in which they are unlikely to be able to count on serious Western support and protection. Putin may have pushed for a Yalta 2.0 division of Europe, but this election essentially hands him the half of that deal he wanted, by default.
- The Kremlin’s glee must be tinged with a degree of nervousness. Nonetheless, the Russians never expected Trump to win, and their calculus was based on trying to ensure a Clinton presidency was weakened from the gate. Yes, Trump has been bizarrely positive about Putin and there is the possibility of a Putin-Berlusconi-type mutual man-crush as ageing, soi disant alpha males find fellow reinforcement in each other. But much of the Kremlin’s geopolitical playbook has been based on it being the unpredictable, risk-taking party, relying on the West to be the responsible adult, the force for stability and reason. Trump’s friendship is hardly an asset on which to rely, and his balance an even less stable foundation. The Kremlin might actually feel it has to be a little more cautious and predictable, precisely because it is dealing with someone who actually internalises the kind of devil-may-care belligerence Putin affects.
- Syria will burn. Between Trump’s open desire to get some more bombs dropped, and his expressed willingness to deal with the Assad regime as a lesser evil to Islamic States, we can expect no push for peace and regime change in Syria. Eastern Aleppo may itself prove a harbinger of this war.
- History restarts, and democracy loses some of its force of appeal. The notion that the end of the Soviet idea in 1991 meant that history had ended and liberal democracy had won has long been debunked, but this is pretty much the final spadeful of earth on its coffin. It is unlikely that, for the moment, American democracy will have anything like the same power of example, just at the time when Europe is in a populism and legitimacy crisis of its own.
- The security concerns are global. Trump appears to be unconcerned with climate change — the single greatest global security threat — and almost relishing a more confrontational approach to geopolitics. I can hardly see him interested in development aid, or disaster relief, or humanitarian foreign politics in general; his basic calculus appears to be a short-termist profit maximisation for USA Inc. This is bad for everyone, whether American or Zimbabwean, or from somewhere in between.
- Some hope at the bottom of Pandora’s box. There always needs to be some hope, but I confess this morning I am scrabbling around in the corners of this particular Pandora’s box to find any. It may galvanise Europe to be more serious in defending itself from overt and covert threats, no longer being able to count on the big brother across the ocean. At the very least hitting the 2% of GDP NATO target expenditure more consistently would be a plus.