Postcard From Europe: How the U.S. Election Plays There
BERLIN--As Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump bounce from gymnasiums in Ohio to university halls in North Carolina, folks on the other side of the Atlantic are watching nearly every movement in the 2016 presidential campaign with bated breath. Europeans have plenty of their own political drama to monitor, of course, but the U.S. elections appear to be more interesting and consequential to them--even if they can’t cast a vote.
“It’s a reminder that when we elect a president, we are electing a president of the world,” says Bruce Stokes, director of global economic attitudes at the Pew Research Center.
I spent the week after Labor Day in Brussels, Paris, and Berlin, briefing parliamentary and embassy personnel, think tank analysts, journalists, and other political observers about our elections as part of a program hosted by the German Marshall Fund. The parallels between our politics and theirs are numerous -- from the rise of populist movements to debates about immigration and diversity to the disconnect between the elites and working class to the perceived toxicity of trade agreements and globalization. But despite those parallels, there is still a sense of bewilderment as to how the Trump-Clinton race came to be -- and how it has come to be so close.
Experts abroad are operating largely under the assumption that Hillary Clinton will win, but aren’t taking for it for granted. Regardless of the victor, they understand many political questions will remain. They are curious about the extent to which Clinton would be a continuation of the Obama administration -- what her Cabinet will be like, for example -- and whether Trump, win or lose, will leave an indelible mark on U.S. politics and the future of elections.
In interviews and exchanges during my time there, I found similarities to questions being explored in election coverage here. And the level of engagement seems to be high. I received many questions, for example, about the upcoming debates, campaign organization, and how the congressional elections will play out. Here is a distillation of those questions -- a snapshot, if you will, of what Europeans are saying about the campaign:
The State of American Politics and the Future of Our Two-Party System
Many of our conversations began with a question several Americans have also been asking: How did we get here? While many European countries have seen their own Trump-like figures emerge, there was a feeling that none was a perfect comparison. There were many questions about the nature of Trump’s rise, and how he came to be the standard-bearer of the Republican Party, but there was also an understanding of the disconnects both here and there between the establishment and the voters. Many wondered about the role of the media and campaign coverage in this election, whether it helped in any way to fuel Trump or whether it underestimated his appeal -- indeed, whether the proper scrutiny had been applied.
There was great interest in the idea that the two presidential candidates are the most unpopular in history, and questions about what that portends for the victor once elected. Many wondered about turnout, and whether there would be a clear mandate for the next president.
Europeans have also been closely following the divides within the Democratic and Republican parties, and wondered whether this election might create multiple mainstream political parties. There was particular interest in what would become of the GOP, regardless of Trump’s fate. And there were many questions about how both parties plan to address the populist sentiment coursing through American politics.
There was also a keen interest in the congressional elections, as Europeans have come to understand the role of Congress in determining the success or failure of the president’s agenda. Many wondered about the makeup of the next Congress and what that would mean for the new president in terms of governing.
But nearly each conversation ended with the same question: “So who do you think will win?”
The Trump Effect: Temporary or Lasting?
Another feature of the conversations I had involved the mark Trump will leave on American politics and whether his campaign, regardless of victory or defeat, might inspire similar ones in America or in Europe. There were questions about what the Republican Party would represent in the post-Trump era, and how it could appeal to his supporters.
The primary victories of Sens. John McCain and Marco Rubio last month, beating back Trump-style insurgents, serve as data points to consider when assessing the impact on other races. Several GOP incumbent senators are running ahead of Trump in their respective states. Also of interest were Clinton’s efforts to portray Trump as an outlier of the GOP when it comes to the issue of race and nationalism.
Many wondered the extent to which Trump would be involved in politics after the campaign if he is not successful. There were few who imagined him leaving the scene.
Where Does U.S. Foreign Policy Go From Here?
Our foreign policy debate is top-of-mind among Europeans. Based on my conversations, many were less concerned about what a Clinton administration might portend for policy; instead, there were many more questions about what a President Trump would do, particularly as it pertained to participation in NATO and the WTO, both of which the GOP nominee has criticized.
Many raised concerns about Trump’s relationship with Vladimir Putin and whether his administration would empower Moscow and in turn undermine NATO’s Article 5 – which stipulates that an attack on one state is considered an attack on all -- and thus upend traditional U.S. alliances. The nominee’s support for Brexit is also a worry.
When it comes to foreign policy, Clinton is not much of a concern among Europeans, as most cite her support for NATO and for bolstering unification in Europe. Many believe she would largely continue current U.S. foreign policy – though with a more hawkish tone -- while Trump would mark an abrupt change of course.
“Hillary Clinton would signal the return of a more classic, traditional vision of U.S. foreign policy and world affairs, something that Obama has continuously rejected as the ‘Washington playbook,’” says Alexandra Hoop de Scheffer, director of the German Marshall Fund’s Paris office. “Europeans expect she will use coercive diplomacy or the threat of military force more frequently as a way to deter other powers or actors from taking military action.”
The prospect of a Trump administration is concerning, Hoop de Scheffer says, “because of his purely transactional and sometimes absurd approach of foreign policy matters.”
“‘Trumpism’ may further undermine European security by creating more uncertainties in an already divided and fragile continent,” she adds, “but it may also encourage U.S. and European allies to redefine the terms of the transatlantic strategic partnership and be transparent about what they expect from one another.”
Parallels on Immigration and Trade
During my stops through Brussels and Berlin, signs that read “No T-TIP” were hard to avoid. Opposition to the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership, a U.S.-EU trade agreement, is widespread, akin to opposition to the Trans Pacific Partnership in the United States. Roughly 100,000 demonstrators are expected at protests in various cities across Germany on Sept. 17.
Questions about the future of T-TIP and TPP in a Clinton administration, and how she would approach current and future trade deals if elected, were common. While there is an understanding of the opposition to trade deals in the U.S., many Europeans were surprised at how toxic the word “trade” had become on the campaign trail, as most view America as a proponent of and leader on the issue.
My trip coincided with two weekends of local elections in Germany and there was much discussion of the anti-immigration Alternative for Germany Party, which opposes Chancellor Angela Merkel’s pro-refugee stance. The party raised some alarms by its success in the rural state of northern Mecklenburg-Vorpommern on Sept. 4, but finished a distant fourth in the western state of Lower Saxony the following weekend. Merkel’s approval ratings have dropped from the mid-60s to the mid-40s over the past year. She faces re-election in 2017.
According to analysis from the Pew Research Center, Europeans have a less positive view of diversity than Americans do. A survey of 10 countries shows Europeans ambivalent about whether increased diversity is positive or negative, but there was no country surveyed in which a majority viewed increasing diversity as a positive. Nearly 60 percent of Americans, on the other hand, said growing diversity is positive for the country.
The Future of Transatlantic Relations and the Obama Legacy
My discussions in Europe also coincided with Obama’s final trip to Asia as president. Thus, there was much interest in the president’s legacy, particularly when it came to his administration’s so-called “Pivot to Asia,” a foreign policy effort initiated by then-Secretary of State Hillary Clinton. Initially, there was concern among European elites that Europe and the Middle East would take a backseat in terms of U.S. priorities.
There also were questions about the future of Obama’s legacy in this frame, particularly with the fate of the TPP up in the air. But there was also a sense that global events during Obama’s second term, from terrorist attacks and the rise of ISIS to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine to Syria’s civil war and the refugee crisis, have put Europe and the Middle East back in the spotlight.
“Irrespective of who wins the 2016 presidential elections, Asia will continue to be of huge importance for the future of the United States,” says Hoop de Scheffer. “In practice, the U.S. pivot to Asia will be possible only if European allies succeed in developing their own capacities to manage the many crises around them, and rely less on U.S. power.”