As another turbulent and chaotic week comes to an end in Washington, the White House remains in turmoil. It’s been half a year since Donald Trump was sworn in as the 45th president of the United States, and yet there is still no inner leadership in the administration and no government apparatus that is working smoothly.
On the contrary, there has been a revolving door for advisers and communication directors at the White House, and the tone of their communication has gone into the gutter. The next chief of staff is a retired general who is expected to bring order to the White House. But the problem does not lie with employees at the top level of management, if there is any management at all. The problem is the president himself, who continues to refuse to adjust his style of governing and, most of all, his communication behavior.
If Trump does not change, and there are no indications that he will or is even thinking about it, the chaos will remain. But is he also jeopardizing the entire American democracy by refusing to change? Are we witnessing the beginnings of a decline of the United States, or at least as the country we have come to know so far?
The US Senate has shown that this is by no means a foregone conclusion. Deeply affected by his most recent cancer diagnosis, Senator John McCain, that old warhorse of American politics, spoke movingly a few days ago to remind his colleagues and the country’s entire political class how much responsibility they bear – and how poorly they are all living up to that responsibility at the moment. His speech was met with lengthy applause from everyone in the chamber, an encouraging sign there still are some commonalities between Republicans and Democrats when it comes to the big picture.
Mr. McCain and other Republican senators voted against the repeal of Obamacare, inflicting yet another blow on the president in Congress. It was unmistakable proof that the balance of power in the United States is still in place.
Nevertheless, a sense of great concern remains. If a president who has been in office for such a short time is practically incapable of advancing his political agenda in Congress, even though his party has a majority in both chambers, it leads to growing doubts over the ability of American lawmakers to take action. This is especially worrisome at a time when strong American leadership, beyond all domestic political disputes, is urgently needed in foreign and security policy.
Even in the Middle East, where America is actually or supposedly demonstrating leadership, the situation is exacerbated by the president taking sides in the region and in Israel. After his trip to the Middle East, he seems to have lost interest in trying to influence the parties in the conflict. The new peace initiative seems to have disappeared into thin air. The United States is continuing to lose influence and importance in the world – a far cry from Mr. Trump’s promise to “Make America Great Again.”
This constitutes an extremely serious threat to the uniform position the West has taken against Russia.
And now the new sanctions against Russia. The president signed the bill presented to him by Congress against his will. In fact, the administration had been asked to initially coordinate a joint approach against Russia with the Europeans. But this was apparently too arduous for the president and his administration, which is why the sanctions are now taking effect.
This constitutes an extremely serious threat to the uniform position the West has taken against Russia since February 2015. It is not Europe but the United States that is questioning the West’s unity and joint approach. Washington is even accepting the possibility of a serious conflict with its European partners, because the sanctions are not just directed against Russia and its energy companies, but expressly against projects such as a second natural gas pipeline to Europe – a plan that does not fall within the political appraisal and jurisdiction of American policy in any respect.
In fact, the appraisal of this project lies exclusively in the hands of European countries, especially the companies involved. The pipeline is solely related to the European energy supply and therefore is not subject to any American influence. The United States is free to offer American liquefied natural gas to the Europeans; it would be an interesting additional option in a broadly structured European energy supply. But unless quick action is taken, the new American sanctions against Russia will place us at the beginning of a trade conflict between the United States and Europe.
This wouldn’t have happened if the Europeans and Americans had been able to wrap up TTIP last year. But that ambitious project is now history, and it makes no sense to waste time bemoaning its failure. Now the general rules of the World Trade Organization apply, and the European Commission will have to determine whether Washington’s Russia sanctions, to the extent that they apply to European investments and European companies, violate the rules of free world trade and can be contested before a WTO court of arbitration.
If anything else, the European Union must defend itself against this sanctions regime because it represents an unacceptable, extraterritorial expansion of the reach of American legislative action.
In view of this situation, European solidarity, at least if solidarity within the West cannot be maintained in the short term, is a more urgent dictate. Chancellor Angela Merkel expressed this notion a few weeks ago, when she said that we can no longer rely unconditionally on America, and that we must take our fate into our own hands. It is quite possible that the United States will resume its role as a reliable partner. In fact it is very likely as the US is increasingly weakening itself, which will eventually be reflected in economic policy. The weakness of the US dollar provides some initial indications of how the capital markets are assessing the situation. But it will be a long time before we reach clarity about the course and impact of the current American policy. Europe must take its own actions until then.
The EU must defend itself against this sanctions regime because it represents an unacceptable, extraterritorial expansion of the reach of American legislative action.
There are a few critical issues for Europe, with the stabilization of the euro zone remaining the top priority. The symptoms of the crisis are largely under control, but further corrections in economic and labor market policy, especially among the major European countries, remain necessary. At least Spain and France seem to be on the right track.
Europe is also taking steps toward a common European foreign and security policy, and it has also made some headway in establishing joint military units and in procurement. The causes of the refugee crisis, especially on the African continent, have to be taken into account before it returns with full force. Europe is finally paying attention to Africa and developing a common strategy. Finally, Europe must continue to actively work on trade agreements after wrapping up its ambitious agreement with Canada. The comprehensive trade agreement between the European Union and Japan was overshadowed by the many crises in the world and attracted little attention. Further agreements are currently being negotiated.
It is precisely this approach that presents an alternative model to the current US government: If a global trade agreement does not seem possible, we Europeans should create as many bilateral trade agreements in the world as possible. We are united in the conviction that only open and free world trade ensures prosperity, allowing it to arise in places where poverty has prevailed until now. We see open and free trade as part of a global order characterized by open and free societies. The allure of our liberal democratic order is by no means exhausted.
Europe and America are unlikely to reach a consensus on these issues at this time. We can certainly survive for a time, once again, with fundamental dissent on a strategic issue of global importance. If we Europeans consistently pursue our path, it will not be without influence on American politics, even if there is turbulence and disappointment along the way.
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