1989 Generation Initiative

By Salvatore Berger


The 2016 presidential campaign has polarized the United-States like never before. Between the two candidates, the trade-off is clear: political establishment or populism, status-quo or schism, openness or isolationism, another Clinton or another actor. This choice, left in the hands of the American people, will transcend the borders of the U.S. and is likely to have global and transformative consequences. At first sight, the potential impact of this election on the transatlantic relationship is clear-cut.

Two very different candidates

On the one hand, Hillary Clinton advocates for continuity. The preservation of a close relationship with Europe is at the core of her programme. As Secretary of State, she visited European leaders no less than fifty times and has managed to established long-term relationships with politicians and diplomats. As a candidate, she vows to “work hand in hand with European intelligence services” in order to dismantle terrorist networks around the world. While she might question President Obama’s pivot to Asia, as her opposition to the Trans-Pacific Partnership shows, she would remain loyal to European allies. The smooth functioning of NATO is set to be one of her priority, as she has repeatedly positioned herself against Putin. Business as usual would be her motto.

Donald Trump, on the other hand, is more suspicious of the transatlantic relationship. His recent courtship of Russian President Putin is proof enough of his skepticism, not to mention his tough stance towards NATO. He believes a closer relationship with Russia would be beneficial to the United-States. “Putin would rather have a puppet for president” remarked Hillary Clinton in the third Presidential debate. A shift back to an isolationist foreign policy would leave Europe standing by itself, potentially leading to increased European cooperation in foreign and security policy.


Nevertheless, a closer look at Trump’s foreign policy programme tells a more nuanced story. The candidate calls for increased burden sharing, asking European countries to meet NATO’s defense budget threshold of 2% of the GDP. Hence, we may cast doubt on the actual significance of the Presidential elections on the transatlantic relationship. U.S. Presidents have significant agency, but can they go against the will of most of the foreign policy establishment and sit on such an historic relationship?

New powers and old restrictions

The cross-border challenges of the 21st century have changed the way in which foreign policy is conducted. In his book “The Paradox of American Power,” Joseph Nye shows that globalization has turned geopolitics into a three-dimensional game. The United-States cannot solely rely on its hegemonic military hard power: it must share with other international actors – mainly China and the EU – the governance of the economic sphere. The third dimension, however, escapes the realm of State control: the power of non-State actors, from multinational corporations to international media, shares a role in shaping international relations. In such a polarized world, where sources of power are diverse and far-reaching, can one of the most powerful leaders on the planet undermine four centuries of common history, of bonds and exchanges, between the United-States and Europe?

The actual margin for manoeuvre that Presidents enjoy is debatable. The U.S. ‘spoils system’ allows American Presidents to fire high-ranking administration personnel at will and appoint new staffers once elected. It is doubtful however that, if elected, Donald Trump would be able to replace the entirety of the Department of State’s top diplomats with like-minded officials. Furthermore, the importance of checks and balances in the U.S. political system prevents the concentration of an excessive amount of power in a single person’s hands. The U.S. Congress has the power to challenge a President’s influence, including on foreign policy matters. For instance, the Republican majority in the Senate has recently overrun President Obama’s veto to a bill allowing families victim of the 9/11 attacks to sue Saudi Arabia. In 2015, the President of the United States was behind Vladimir Putin and Angela Merkel in the Forbes list of the World’s Most Powerful People – despite the U.S.’s superiority in terms of military and economic power. It is unlikely a single individual would be able to undermine the transatlantic relationship.

Fewer shared interests, more cooperation?

On the other hand, would European leaders allow for their historic alliance with the U.S. to shatter into pieces because of a man’s folly? The U.S. has demonstrated from early on a strong interest in fostering closer cooperation at the European level on foreign and security matters, including through their active role in establishing NATO or Eisenhower’s push for a European Defence Community. The bipolarity of the post-war international order and the lack of power balance between European countries recovering from years of war and a richer, stronger United-States created the vacuum for such increased involvement. Today, however, cooperation at the E.U. level in terms of foreign policy has become more independent from foreign influence. High Representative of the Union for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy Federica Mogherini has released the updated E.U. Global Strategy ahead of the U.S. elections, showing their outcome was not a core consideration. The E.U.’s main security threats nowadays are not of much interest for the United-States. The attempt at resolving the Ukraine crisis came from the initiative of both François Hollande and Angela Merkel. The refugee crisis, while it occurred as a direct result of the Syrian conflict, is not a chief concern for the U.S. The TTIP trade deal has failed independently of any change of American administration.

Further European cooperation on foreign and security policy is likely to take place, regardless of Trump’s stance on NATO. The U.K.’s decision to leave the European Union might well turn out to be a game changer for the creation of a European Defence policy. The U.K. had so far spearheaded the opposition to further integration in foreign and security policy. Brexit could pave the way for increased cooperation in this area, demonstrating that today, intra-European political dynamics weigh more than American influence in the shaping of a European foreign policy.


US-EU flags photo used under CC license by OpenDemocracy

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