Donald Trump didn’t win, and neither did Trumpism. For the world beyond the United States, these facts are of fundamental importance. Whatever happens in the coming weeks and months, most American allies—certainly in Europe—are thankful that he will soon be leaving the White House. And yet the result nevertheless sparked very little of the joy one might have expected from those who had come to loathe the U.S. president and his perceived threat to the transatlantic alliance.
Had Trump won, many in Europe would have thought that the “rules-based liberal order,” as it is now known and revered, was in real jeopardy. That Europe’s own commitment to that order had been ambivalent at best before 2016, marked by resentment toward successive U.S. administrations, is largely ignored on this side of the Atlantic. Europe’s veneration of the old order was less a genuine desire for its restoration than a declaration of independence from Trump. But with Joe Biden soon to take over the White House, Europe has lost its unifying bogeyman. The question for the Continent’s leaders now is whether they can agree on what they are collectively for, not just what they are against.
In one sense, Biden’s victory returns a recognizable, reassuring figure to the Western throne—a restoration of the old dynastic order—a figure who will hear Europe’s petitions with respect and grace. Yet in another sense, his success only reminds Europe of its own impotence, as France’s Europe minister, Clement Beaune, hinted in comments criticizing the neediness implicit in much of the elated commentary surrounding the election result. “Let’s not behave like children eagerly seeking American benevolence,” Beaune told the French broadcaster C News. “What’s important for Europeans is that they don’t expect their future to be determined by America.” (An uncomfortable reality for Beaune and other Europeans is that, despite the scale of Trump’s Electoral College and popular-vote defeat, had a few thousand votes gone a different way in Pennsylvania or Wisconsin or Nevada, then a man committed to a very different world order would once again be in charge.)