Veronica Anghel: Eastern Europe, President Trump and his not-so Great America

Veronica Anghel, Bukarest
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Photo: Erakogu

Trump’s mandate to the White House indicates that human rights and democratic political reform are no longer at the core of American foreign policy. A vanning American power is bad news for the young democracies of Eastern Europe.

…loosing pockets

The US is counting billions, not understanding these are pennies when compared to the possibilities. Non corrupt state administrations, the rule of law, transnational alliances based on shared values, peace and international order are the foundation of open markets, free trade, movement of capital and labour. They incite peaceful competition, lead to entrepreneurship and innovation and distribute prosperity in the long run. Both in the US and abroad, such fundamental values are diluted through the promised policies of victorious Trump. Besides going back on the fundamentals, free trade and economic unnationalistic schemes with new governing mechanisms are bound to be replaced by protectionist policies.

America has admitted defeat in the face of internationalism. It is an important switch of paradigm, unprecedented after the Second World War. Its role in the world has not been undermined by any external forces. The choice came from within. The significant shift led by President Trump’s administration is to pull the country from what it made possible to happen: free economic order in exchange for what seems to be pragmatic immediate gain. A defining trait for Trump, the business man. The US would also no longer be working to stay ahead with the set-up of a common ground where like-mind countries could play cooperative economic games (through economic agreements such as the TTIP or TPP) or backing out of those which already proved their worth (NAFTA). But the void this withdrawal leaves behind is not destined to remain a void. One option is replacement by regional hegemons. Eastern Europe has an economically ailing neighbour that awaits the possibility to jump in. Coercion, much less than cooperation would be the Russian Federation favourite negotiation pattern.

A navel-gazing US, cut off from the world’s teething troubles, ran by representatives of an affluent economic elite could hardly be the backbone of a Great America. Surely, there is little newness in the underlying rhetoric coming from the US that claims it wants to stay out of the world’s problems but constantly seems sucked back in. And it didn’t start with one man. But this one single man accentuates the US withdrawal in all the wrong ways, at a fast pace, seemingly uncaring about what it leaves behind. Fingers crossed we got this wrong. Political realism may seem good for “America only” now and make smaller economies with troubled democracy shutter at the thought, but it could have a more serious backlash for all in the long run.

…loosing minds

The world’s biggest loss in the aftermath of the US election is the serious discredit that Trump’s victory brought to the country’s image abroad. A religious society that voted for an amoral, unscrupulous man; a progressive nation that elected a misogynist; an equal rights beacon for the rest of the world that chose to be led by a seeming racist and xenophobe; an example for freedom of speech drenched in anti-free-press rants; a model of meritocracy and success grounded on hard work that put its faith in the hands of a gambler who finally won on a fluke. American soft power is going soft. Foreigners traveling to the US who had contact with a less dark side of America know this is not a correct generalisation and Trump is an incomplete symbol. Yet, for a lot of people this is an image that will stick and feed anti-American sentiment under the watchful eye and intervening hand of America’s world competitors.

The peoples of Eastern Europe (and other new democracies) who would have looked to the US as to a model of economic and political freedom could surely find reasons to question this ideal. This will have an effect sooner rather than later as it happens in a context where rule of law is constantly brought under question by politicians who force or break it for private gain without expecting to pay a price. It would add fuel to an increasing sentiment of fatigue and disenchantment with democratic practices and its (long time distorted) value based discourse often branded as stale and undermined by populists and sometimes technocrats.

…loosing hearts

The neoliberalist dream came true: a CEO is running the world’s biggest economy and military power. We would do right to expect all this to go wrong as there are major differences between running a country that is at the centre of the world and running a business that is, well, at the centre of “The Trump”. One of these is that you can never have enough financial resources to keep every worker happy. You can also not fire groups of people who do not agree with you indefinitely. And you can hardly be effective with an improvised administration consisting of heavy handed picks into top positions that show a certain amount of improvisation. Most telling is Michael Flynn’s forcing out as national security adviser in the wake of reports that he led improper discussions about sanctions with the Russian Ambassador to the US and then lied to the public and vice-president Pence about it.

In addition to having managerial success, you must also win hearts; build hope and dreams that go beyond economic prosperity. Democracy is maintained by a daily choice to put individual freedom not on a par with economic welfare, but above it. It requires economic equity to be an instrument towards the fulfilment of higher goals such as equal human rights, just governance and the limitation of informality in favour of institutionalized processes in decision - making.  Contrary to what we might thing now, American hearts are hungry for progress in the human rights department.

For all the uncertainty coming from the election of Donald Trump, that he is a political realist with a hunger for immediate success is a sure thing. Countries need to brace themselves and adjust to a different type of bargaining partner. In all bilateral negotiations, US diplomats are usually the most (measurable) results driven interlocutors one could ever encounter. The adjustment should not be that difficult, but the pace is much faster than Europeans are trained for.  

Trump likes strong foreign leaders. This enhances Eastern Europe’s problems, even if it should by now be used to the constant struggle to be looked at for the important strategic region that it is and lobby to sit at the right table and brush shoulders with the big boys called friends. Eastern Europe does not have the strong leaders that through their personality alone could win Trump’s favours. Fence building Hungarian PM Orban could be the most likely contender to come closer to Wall building Trump, but how sure is the Eastern Flank of this type of representation? Now is the time to test how far the recent ‘one voice’ policy of the Eastern Flank has come. And that might work for NATO, but in everything else there is no better option than working with and through the EU. Any bilateral, scattered action of any single Eastern European country has a great likelihood of losing itself in the far greater noise surrounding Trump’s ‘Great America’.