Making Elections Great Again: Why US Foreign Policy Is Threatening Liberal Democracies
Since Donald Trump’s election as President of the United States, the norms of diplomacy and international relations that many had considered settled have been revisited and redefined. Among the more striking examples are the administration’s willingness to talk to North Korea, igniting a trade war with China, and praising various authoritarian leaders. Most radically, what we have seen out of this White House is a redefinition of how the United States deals with its allies. In order to understand this new dynamic, one need not look further than how the United States and Europe have conducted their affairs.
Last month, in an interview given to Politico Europe, Gordon Sondland, the US ambassador to the European Union, criticized the European block for being out of touch, overly protectionist, and for purposely, and in bad faith, delaying trade negotiations. Such discourse was new for Sondland. Only five months prior, he declared it his mission to “strengthen the transatlantic partnership and nurture its transformative power to create mutual security and prosperity.” But that was an ambassador who had been confirmed to his post recently. He was still speaking the language of diplomats. By December, when he sharply criticized the European Union, Sondland spoke as a member of a campaign team, not as a foreign service officer. Indeed, this transformation did not happen randomly. It is indicative of the Trump administration’s Elections First approach to foreign policy.
When the current White House is not delivering on promises made during the campaign, it makes decisions in preparation for future elections. What could be considered its most prominent foreign policy decision, namely withdrawing from the Iran Nuclear Deal, was done despite the pleas of European allies, opting instead to score domestic political points. Similarly, the threat to impose tariffs on European cars and car parts came on the heels of the mid-term elections. Foreign policy seems engineered to create soundbites that can rally up the base as the 2020 Presidential elections approach. Unfortunately, this strategy risks straining a longstanding relationship based on a shared understanding of democratic ideals.
Maintaining a strong–and traditional–transatlantic alliance is, in a world defined by democratic recession, critical. By slowly retreating from Western-liberal alliances, the United States is indirectly becoming a champion of illiberal democracies. Seeking to criticize and rebuke the integration efforts of the European Union for the sake of fulfilling an election platform gives those who wish to limit democratic freedoms the ammunition necessary to achieve their goals.
While the White House has made a habit of antagonizing European Union institutions, Trump and some of the more illiberal rulers of Europe, such as Hungary’s Viktor Orbán or Poland’s Mateusz Morawiecki, have enjoyed fairly stable relations. In fact, a great deal of the populist messages that Trump pushed during his 2016 campaign and beyond are also widely used by right-wing politicians across Europe, as is much of the anti-E.U. rhetoric promoted. In September of 2018, for example, Trump urged leaders at the United Nations General Assembly to reject globalism and embrace patriotism, clearly appealing to an electoral base that has long disliked the United Nations. Only a month later, during a speech in Budapest, Viktor Orban also urged his audience to reject globalism, warning of the dangers of a European empire. It is in such parallels that the perils of an Elections First foreign policy is best contextualized.
What the White House is currently doing is not necessarily new. Foreign policy has often been shaped by electoral considerations. Trump is not the first and, more than likely, won’t be the last president to do this. Likewise, this is not the first time that Europe and the United States navigate through tense times. What is remarkable is the disregard that Trump and his supporters have for the possible consequences of the current state of US-EU affairs. By applying the Elections First strategy to foreign policy, Donald Trump and his team are scoring valuable electoral points. This strategy could just work for Trump and give him an upper hand in the 2020 Presidential Elections. Nevertheless, gaining this upper hand at the expense of liberal democracies will allow for a prolongation of the current democratic recession. Only by deescalating tensions between the United States and the European Union can the ammunition be taken away from those leaders who are curtailing the freedoms of their citizens.