Another conclusion for world leaders is that whatever happens to Trump and Trumpism over the next few weeks and years, the causes of their rise, and the issues they have identified, have certainly not gone away. Yes, these leaders believe, Trump was, and perhaps will be again, a fundamentally malign, ignorant, and dangerous president, but he was not the cause of the structural problem at the heart of the U.S.’s relationship with the world. I spoke with dozens of diplomats, officials, and aides in the U.S. and Europe in the run-up to the election, most of whom expected a Biden victory, and many of whom spoke on condition of anonymity to discuss sensitive diplomatic issues. Almost all accepted that serious questions about America’s role in the world would not go away just because Trump was dethroned. The fact that the election was closer than they had expected only confirms this conclusion.
“The old politics is over,” one senior aide to a European leader told me before the election. It was a message that was repeated back to me again and again, particularly by those more skeptical of the transformative powers of a Biden presidency. Over the past four years, a muscle memory has developed in Berlin, Paris, Brussels, and London of how to work not just with American power, but against it, on issues such as climate change and trade. Less antagonistically, but just as important, I was told that America’s allies had also learned how to work in the space left open by Washington’s indifference, whether dealing with the crisis in Belarus, facing up to Turkish maneuverings in the Mediterranean, or managing the devastation in Lebanon. Where once the U.S. might have played mediator or imperial savior, today it is often absent, disruptive, or simply unclear in its goals and commitment. A new president may soon reside in the White House, but confidence that any American decision is secure is all but nonexistent. What can Biden achieve with an angry, prowling Trump menacing his every move for the next four years?
Most of those I spoke with across Europe already took for granted that the U.S. retrenchment actually began under Barack Obama, even if it intensified under Trump. So even if Biden, Obama’s vice president, were able to bring together enough of the American system behind his leadership, such an analysis—fair or not—risks turning into something much more acutely problematic, metamorphosing into a shared idea that it is not Trump who cannot be relied on, but the U.S. itself.
“If you open that Pandora’s box,” Britain’s great postwar foreign secretary Ernest Bevin once quipped, “you never know what Trojan horses will jump out.” In Europe, at least, we already know that one idea has jumped out: independence from America.
In Common Sense, the revolutionary pamphlet in support of American independence, Thomas Paine argued that there was “something very absurd, in supposing a continent to be perpetually governed by an island.” At the time, of course, he was referring to England’s rule over America. Paine likely could never have imagined that America might one day be the geopolitical island governing the European Continent—its leaders forced to petition the great U.S. sovereign for protection. This reality is what European political elites, particularly those in the Continent’s three biggest countries, are rebelling against.