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However the US election ends, the damage will hurt us all

Participants holding a banner reading: "EVERY VOTE COUNTS/COUNT EVERY VOTE" at the protest in Times Square. - Credit: LightRocket via Getty Images

America’s battered and bruised democracy has taken another beating. And that means pain for the rest of the world, says JOHN KAMPFNER.

A month or so before the US election, European officials were under no illusions. They were wargaming scenarios around legal challenges and civil disobedience in the event of Joe Biden securing the votes needed but Donald Trump refusing to concede. They were even wondering out loud which side the army would support. As one diplomat put it to me: “Think Belarus, think America.”

The final results remained on a knife-edge at the time of writing, but one thing is clear: American democracy is in grave danger. America’s leadership of the Western world is in deep trouble. Those who believe in moral equivalence, arguing that authoritarians are no different to anyone else, have more to support their case.

Other distressing initial conclusions can be drawn. The ‘blue wave’ of Democrat support did not materialise. ‘Sleepy Joe’ appears to have galvanised precious few undecideds.

His decision not to campaign in-person in front of large crowds because of Covid, while sensible (an under-appreciated commodity) deprived him of potential support.

Whatever the final outcome, Trump has not been repudiated. His disruptive world view continues to attract as many as it alienates.

Authoritarians and populists around the world will feel further vindicated. Brazil’s Jair Bolsonaro, who loved being called “the Trump of the Tropics”, refused to countenance the prospect of a Biden victory.

The same applies to India’s Narendra Modi, who struck up a particular chemistry with the US president. Viktor Orbán’s illiberal democracy, which has strong-armed the courts and media, has more life in it yet.

Poland’s Law and Justice government, which has just outlawed pretty much every form of abortion, will feel more comfortable.

As for Vladimir Putin, Trump’s good friend, what’s not to like? He either gets four more years of someone with whom he can do thuggish business, or he gets a weak Democrat president trying desperately to preside over a country at war with itself.

Trump has borrowed from Putin’s playbook. If you don’t like the result, denounce it and recourse to courts that you have just stacked with your supporters.

Even if Biden limps over the line, he will carry little authority when it comes to standing up to China and Russia.

As for the more exotic, lesser-order authoritarians, being isolated will not be such a terrible thing for narcissistic autocrats. They will be able to play the victim, declaring that the world is out to get them.

Across Europe, the worst could still be yet to come. The institutions that define the West European settlement – the European Union and NATO – are under siege.

Liberal democracy is imperilled as never before. Ursula von der Leyen, president of the European Commission, told the European parliament in September: “Our global system has grown into a creeping paralysis. Major powers are either pulling out of institutions or taking them hostage for their own interests.”

Germany is seen by many in the White House as its main ideological antagonist. “China wants me out. Iran wants me out. Germany wants me out,” Trump told supporters at a campaign stop in Pennsylvania – lumping together Europe’s largest democracy with two dangerous adversaries.

From the outset, Trump loathed Angela Merkel. She represents everything he is not. On the international stage, she respects interlocutors who do their preparation and don’t spring surprises. She disdains his visceral vulgarity. The leader who let in a million of the world’s most destitute in 2015 refuses to be cowed by a bigot and bully.

Trump returned the favour by sending in a deeply hostile ambassador. He is shortly to be replaced by an appointee even worse. When recently Trump decided to pull 12,000 troops from Germany as ‘punishment’, Berlin learned about it through media reports.

Each major event in the US, each election, seems to embed an increasing psychological disconnect across the Atlantic.

The most recent Pew Research Center Global Attitudes survey in 2019 set out the ambivalence many Europeans feel towards America. When asked whether it is more important to have a strong relationship with the US or Russia, 39% of Germans said the former, against 25% for the latter. Only Bulgarians were better disposed towards Russia, and then only marginally.

The 2020 presidential election will have only reinforced views such as these.

A book summarising the mood has become a bestseller in Germany and has been accompanied by a prime-time TV documentary. 

Entitled Crazed, The American Catastrophe, it describes the US as “an angry nation united by nothing but hate”. The author is a former editor of the influential magazine, Der Spiegel. His previous work, in 2018, was called: America’s Obituary.

The buzzword across European chancelleries is ‘strategic autonomy’. Europe needs to be more self-reliant. It cannot look to Uncle Sam to solve its problems. Worse still, it cannot rely on the US to take its side, to be at its side. “In an increasingly brutal world,” France’s foreign minister, Jean-Yves Le Drian, told his country’s ambassadors recently, “Europe must finally fully emerge from its time of innocence and naivete to forge its own destiny. Otherwise, others will decide its fate.”

European policymakers have been planning for both scenarios, hoping for the best but preparing for the worst. Even their best – a Biden victory – was only marginally more cheery.

Some of the irritants in Trump-first-term Transatlantic relations have bipartisan backing in Washington: most Democrats and Republicans are increasingly hawkish on China; even the Iran nuclear deal, in which Germany, France and Britain have remained impressively united, has sceptics among Democrats.

In a fascinating speech a week ago, Germany’s defence minister, Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer, set out the sense of long-term alienation. “For this generation, America is most of all synonymous with liberation and the Berlin Airlift, the Marshall Plan and the first man on the moon, with open spaces and individualism, innovation and economic power, and later with winning the Cold War. But America also challenges us, with its untamed power, its many faces, its contradictions, and a modernity whose ambitions sometimes overwhelm us. From the McCarthy era to the 1968 protests to the #MeToo movement – whatever affects America, affects us.”

A central tenet of European policy over the last 75 years has been, as the Germans call it, Westbindung. It literally means tying Europe to America. Konrad Adenauer, Germany’s first post-war chancellor, called that more important than reunification.

Kramp-Karrenbauer said: “Only America and Europe together can keep the West strong, defending it against the unmistakable Russian thirst for power and Chinese ambitions for global supremacy.” But then she added: “And precisely because that is what I am, I should not hide the fact that right now, it is not always easy to commit to Transatlanticism. Because it is not only up to us to ensure that this relationship is working. Washington, too, must give us a sign that it considers the defence of our interests and values to be a joint project.”

As for Boris Johnson, he has been banking on Trump to win. He needs him as his lodestar and guarantor of a “world-beating” trade deal. Biden was furious at the prime minister’s cavalier disregard for international law, when he put the stability of Ireland as a bargaining chip in the final stages of Brexit negotiations. He recognises in Johnson a similar quixotic right-wing populism to the one he so disparaged in Trump.

The only result that was straightforward to call in the immediate aftermath of this 
week’s fraught election was that America’s battered and bruised democracy had taken another 
beating, at home and abroad.

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