The everyday and the existential: how Clinton and Trump challenge transatlantic relations

Press release

Clinton’s gendered diplomacy could damage transatlantic unity on Russia; Trump’s deal making could destroy it

The transatlantic relationship is likely to face difficult challenges whatever the result of the U.S. election.  If Trump wins, he will launch a revolutionary presidency - pulling back from NATO and other security guarantees, undermining key parts of the global free trade regime and building closer relations with strong-man leaders than traditional allies.  But new research by ECFR shows that even if Hillary is elected the transatlantic relationship could face difficult challenges. In particular, her feminist worldview and poor relations with Moscow could threaten transatlantic unity on Russia.

The existential challenge: President Donald Trump

Trump has consistently claimed that America is getting a raw deal from its allies.  He has argued that the US should not offer assistance on the European refugee crisis, because “we have our own problems”, and described German Chancellor Angela Merkel, Obama’s most important interlocutor in Europe, as “sitting back” and “accepting all the oil and gas that they can get from Russia”, while the United States is “leading on Ukraine”.

Trump is set on securing a “better deal” for America, which would involve European allies paying for the privilege of American protection. If they fail to meet their “obligations”, they will not be defended.  This worry is particularly acute when it comes to Russian aggression, given Trump’s cosy relationship with Vladimir Putin. Trump has praised Putin’s decisiveness and described him as someone he “would get along with very well”.  

All previous post-war American presidents have explicitly looked for a more equitable partnership with Europe, but they believed that Europe’s security and prosperity were a core interest of the United States and so never considered abandoning Europe and leaving it to its own devices.

Trump’s ‘America First’ doctrine is a genuine departure from this position. Because Trump could walk away from existing allies, his bargaining power with Europe and other allies would be greater than Clinton’s. But in the process it might destroy the transatlantic partnership that has made both sides of the Atlantic so secure and prosperous.

The everyday challenge: President Hillary Clinton

Clinton’s challenge to transatlantic relations is more everyday but still serious. 

Gender equity will be a cornerstone agenda of Clinton’s presidency, most prominently reflected in her intention to ensure that half of her cabinet is female.  This would almost certainly include the first ever female secretary of defence. Her view that women are critical actors for effective diplomacy implies that she will only seek to build alliances with other gender-inclusive governments, which may put her administration at odds with actors such as Russia, with whom she had a poor relationship as Secretary of State.

Critics frequently cite the 2009 reset as evidence that Clinton is soft on Russia. But in fact her experience as secretary of state deeply soured her view of the Russian regime. By 2011 she had accused the Russian regime of rigging elections to the Russian parliament and she has since harshly rebuked Putin for resuming the Russian presidency and compared the Russian annexation of Crimea to Adolf Hitler’s invasions of Czechoslovakia and Poland.

After Clinton criticised the December 2011 elections, Putin personally accused her of fomenting protests against his rule and remains angry with her to this day over those events. After Russia’s apparent effort to hack the Democratic National Committee to support Trump in the presidential election, Putin and Clinton now apparently see each other as personal enemies that have actively tried to sabotage each other’s rule. 

For Europe, this enmity could lead to a more confrontational approach towards Russia than Germany, in particular, is willing to support. If the Germans and the Americans fail to reach future agreements on Russia, transatlantic unity will break down and the Western approach to Russia will devolve into confusion.

Beyond Russia, though, Clinton is not likely to be the uber-hawk that many Europeans expect. As the first female major party candidate for president, Clinton has been careful to project an image of strength on the campaign trail. But the idea that she will be more inclined than Obama to use force abroad is not supported by her record as a policymaker.

As secretary of state, Clinton frequently complained about the militarisation of US foreign policy and touted the virtues of “smart power” in tackling national security challenges.  She started the secret negotiations with Iran in 2012 that ultimately led to the momentous Iran nuclear deal, supported Obama’s rapprochement with Cuba, and sought diplomatic over military solutions in response to China’s aggression in the South China Sea.

More importantly, Clinton has always reserved her greatest passion and vision for domestic issues.  She will likely reserve her political capital to make the deals and compromises that will be necessary to advance her domestic priorities such as immigration reform, better funding for infrastructure, and paid family leave, rather than risking it on unpopular foreign interventions.

Finally, even in the event of a Clinton presidency, Europe would be foolish not to learn lessons from the experience of Trump’s candidacy. Trump represents only an extreme version of a growing feeling in the United States that, in a time of relative decline, the country is getting a raw deal from its allies. The promise of future elections fought along Trumpian lines means that Europeans would be wise to take more proactive measures to visibly increase the burdens they bear within the alliance.

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