PARIS — ‘We are going to do something terrible to you, we will deprive you of an enemy,” Mikhaïl Gorbatchev’s diplomatic adviser told the West in 1989. The implication was that Europe and the United States would lose focus without the threat of the Soviet Union.
Is Donald Trump, in 2017, doing the opposite to the Europeans: offering them an enemy against whom they can unite?
Seen from Europe, the first days in office of the new U.S. president have been a very Trumpian festival of executive orders signed daily, decrees held up in front of cameras dealing with Mexico, abortion, free trade, and citizens from seven Muslim majority countries banned from entering the United States for 90 days.
Europe, looking on, quickly realized that contrary to the secret hopes of many, the Trump of the White House is no different from the Trump on the campaign trail, tweets included. And that his immediate aides, starting with Steve Bannon, the former head of the notorious Breitbart website turned advisor at the White House and now a member of the National Security Council of the United States, are anything but a moderating influence on the impulsive new “leader of the free world.”
The craze created by this weekend’s decree dubbed the “Muslim ban” on social networks pushed Europeans out of their diplomatic silence. German Chancellor Angela Merkel set the example, to the point of letting it be known she had to lecture Donald Trump, during their phone conversation Saturday, about the Geneva Conventions on asylum…
Two million British residents have also signed a petition, supported by the Mayor of London, asking that Donald Trump should not visit the United Kingdom as long as the “Muslim ban” is in force. This call was rejected by British Prime Minister Theresa May, who nevertheless was embarrassed by this decision announced without any advance notification shortly after her meeting with Donald Trump.
In fact, Trump is doing what European leaders have been trying hard to avoid for years: pointing at Islam, as such, as an adversary and thereby falling into the “clash of civilizations” trap that is a key part of jihadist strategy and dogma.
Donald Trump is doing it his own way, putting into practice his slogan “America First,” which means that U.S. allies, starting with the historical ones from the Atlantic Alliance, are warned that they will be facing a continuous barrage of faits accomplis that have serious implications for them. In this case, citizens from European countries, who may have been born in targeted nations but often came to Europe as refugees fleeing dictatorships or wars, have also fallen victims to the executive order.
If Donald Trump is already being considered by several governments and a good proportion of public opinion in Europe as a dangerous and unpredictable character, he also has a fan club on the continent.
The implementation of his program is definitely popular with populist and far right groups. Marine Le Pen, the leader of France’s far-right National Front, said that President Trump is merely implementing what her party had been advocating for years. The President of Italy’s far-right Northern League wished Trump’s “Muslim ban” would also be introduced in Italy.
Parts of the far-left probably also looks on enviously—but in silence—at the way President Trump is twisting the arm of big American corporations to create jobs in the U.S., which is a far cry from the financial “gifts” without any commitments that the French Socialist government gave the business world in France…
But the way Trump acts is transforming him into boogey-man, particularly given the polarization he is creating in American society itself.
Even if it’s too early to judge the economic or social impact of Trump’s protectionist approach, he will create more hostility than enthusiasm in Europe, a continent that feels it is being treated with disdain and hostility by the White House, excepted, perhaps, in the case of the United Kingdom and its Brexit, which are promoted as a model to be followed.
The recent statement to the BBC by Ted Malloch, Donald Trump’s likely ambassador to the EU, saying he considered the European Union like the Soviet Union as a bloc to be destroyed, have surprised and shocked.
But they reflect pretty well the hostile mood of the new team in Washington, as was reflected by the pictures at Trump Tower shortly after election day when Nigel Farage, Brexit’s “guru,” turned up as the first foreign politician to be received by the then-president-elect.
Europeans (except the U.K. and a small group of increasingly “illiberal democracies” in central and eastern Europe) are now facing their moment of truth. They have accumulated failures and errors in the past few years without being roused to save them from disaster.
Previously unable to unite to face the crises Greece, refugees, and terrorism, will they have the energy and resources to face an enemy who is more dangerous due to the fact that he’s also, in principle, their main ally.
Timing is obviously very sensitive. French and German officials have had numerous talks in the last few days to prepare their coordinated answer, but what is the weight in the Trump White House view of French Foreign Minister Jean-Marc Ayrault who, whatever happens in the French polls in May, will no longer be relevant? The Germans, with less unpredictable parliamentary elections in September, are not totally free until then.
It’s always dangerous to talk of a “last chance,” since history is rarely as simple as that, but it is clear that the European we have built—“our last reasonable utopia,” as Spanish writer Javier Cercas called it last year when he received a European book prize—is being threatened with destruction if disunity and internal powerlessness is now exploited by blows from its two big “enemies,” Donald Trump and Vladimir Putin.
So, is it enough to have a good enemy to become coherent again?
It’s probably not, but it’s a first step; and, if only for that, Europeans might one day thank Donald Trump.