A European goes to Trump’s Washington
For a European, visiting the United States these days is a bit like going to the dentist: Your mouth is agape, you smell trouble, and you leave with a lingering bad taste. I recently spent three months in Washington as the Henry A. Kissinger chair at the Library of the Congress. My job, ostensibly, was to make sense of a world that has gone wild. But I think in my time there the only thing I really achieved was high-level confusion. This wasn’t my first visit to America, but it was my most disturbing one. What I found so disconcerting was the pervasive political polarisation afflicting the country.
It was also clear that America has become inward-looking and conspiracy-minded. And in Washington now, people are incapable of discussing anything but President Donald Trump. They talk about Trump even when they pretend to be speaking about something else. It’s all Trump, all the time. The only people who refrain from Trump talk are those who work for him. It used to be when I visited Washington, people in the government were eager to talk to me, an analyst, about everything from the war in Ukraine to trade with the European Union.
They wanted their talking points heard on the Continent, and they wanted outsiders’ perspectives on world events. But officials in the Trump administration shy away from many — especially foreigners like myself. Perhaps they fear that we might figure out that even senior White House officials have little clue about what the president plans to do next. Those who do like to speak on behalf of Trump, though, present unorthodox foreign policy as similar to Richard Nixon’s. But what I could never figure out in these conversations is who plays Henry Kissinger to Trump’s Nixon. (Kissinger was, naturally, on my mind.) Unlike government officials, the president’s critics in the think-tank world and the media seem eager to cavort with Europeans.
It is a sort of never-ending psychoanalysis, in which it is not easy to figure out who is the patient and who is the analyst. As I met with dozens of such people around Washington, I heard the same things: Trump is at best an accidental president; he is a minority president; he was elected by the Russians; at some point soon (though not soon enough) he will be cast out of the White House. Behind this talk is a combination of anxiety and hope — anxiety about what Trump has broken and hope that as soon as he’s gone everything will return to normal. That part is familiar.
I’ve heard a similar hope in Europe, too. In most European capitals, policymakers and the chattering classes want to believe that before too long, Trump will be gone and the world order — including the close alliances between Europe and the United States — will return. But here’s the dirty secret that I learned in my three months in Washington: That’s not true. The world will not boomerang back to where it was even if Democrats take back the White House in 2020, and not simply because even if Trump will be gone, many of the Trumpian leaders in power around the world will remain. Many of the changes Trump has ushered into America’s foreign policy will remain long after he’s gone.
When it comes to America’s role in the world, he could end up being more consequential than George W Bush or Barack Obama. The Trump moment in the end may resemble the Truman moment, when over a short period America dramatically changed its views of the world. This may be hard for Europeans to swallow, but it’s the message I am bringing back with me from Washington. The post-Trump world will not be the pre-Trump world. Trump’s presidency has ushered in two significant changes that are likely to have staying power. First, with his administration, Americans have lost confidence in their exceptionalism. It’s not just the president but also the millennials (who predominantly oppose him) who no longer share the belief that America is an “indispensable nation” with a moral obligation to make the world safe for democracy.
The difference is that the millennials believe that America is hardly better than other countries, while Trump believes that if America wants to defend its global leadership, it has to be nastier than others. Second, under the Trump presidency, rivalry with China has become the organising principle of American foreign policy. Republicans and Democrats disagree on almost everything today, but one area where there seems to be effective bipartisanship is that America must change its policy towards China. Only a few lost souls in Washington continue to believe that China’s economic development will lead to a political opening. There is now a consensus that allowing China to join the World Trade Organisation in 2001 was a mistake and that if America fails to contain China’s geopolitical reach now, tomorrow it will be impossible to do so.
America’s anxiety about China is in my view a realisation of the fact that China’s market-friendly, big-data authoritarianism is a much more dangerous adversary for liberal democracies than Soviet Communism ever was. It’s common to hear Europeans today wax nostalgic about the Cold War, a time when the United States and Western Europe were united in an alliance against the Soviet Union. But Americans don’t share that nostalgia. They are looking for allies aligned against China. And confrontation with Beijing is not something most Europeans are interested in.
It would be a tragedy and, worse, a mistake if Europeans failed to realise that their relationship with the United States will be defined by China, not just now but even after Trump is out of office. And for Europe to take a clear stand in the coming confrontation between Washington and Beijing will be a lot more painful than going to the dentist.