January 1918. President Woodrow Wilson appears in Congress and announces his list of Fourteen Points, fourteen goals the achievement of which was to guarantee decades of peace for Europe and the world. January 2018. The first year of Donald Trump’s presidency passes. The world is not threatened by a Great War, the economy is thriving, stock markets are growing. But can we say that on both sides of the Atlantic we feel much better and safer than one hundred years ago?
Historians argue about the role and meaning of Wilson. In the domestic history of the United States he is not remembered as a particularly successful president. However, he governed for two terms and had a gift of winning the voters over. He was the first to organize press conferences and he skillfully used the press and media to maintain his popularity. But in Europe, Wilson has been regarded as the main author of the peace ending the bloody World War I. In the newly emerging independent countries, such as Poland, he is hailed as an idol and in the interwar Poland he was an object of a personality cult, noticeable even today. Out of the fourteen causes listed by him in the American Congress, point 13 was crucial for Polish people, since it offered an opportunity and a genuine foundation for recreating a strong, independent Poland with access to the sea. Wilson’s declaration also contained many other important elements, such as the postulate of lifting trade barriers and ensuring free navigation on the global seas.
Twelve months after the inauguration, we still have a huge problem with assessing what kind of President Donald Trump wants to be and how he wants to be remembered.
Today, one hundred years later, we find ourselves at a completely different juncture. Wilson’s actions and establishing the League of Nations did not prevent the outbreak of World War II; Nazism and communism ravaged Europe, borders were redrawn on the map with large amounts of blood being spilt. Eventually, a time of relative peace came, and the existence of the European Union and NATO diminished the turmoil in our part of the world. And this is the moment when a new president appears in the US. He has one thing in common with Wilson: the ability to play the media, to use their unprecedented role and meaning to keep up and enhance the interest in his own person. However, everything else puts the two presidents apart. Among many controversial causes on his banners, Trump placed something going in the opposite direction to Wilson’s e orts: the demand for major restrictions on world trade, creating barriers, building walls.
What Kind of President Donald Trump Wants to Be?
Trump began his presidency by withdrawing the US from the talks on creating the Pacific free trade zone TPP—a zone which was meant to save a dozen Asian countries from Chinese dominance. He announced first the abolishing and then renegotiation of the NAFTA agreement with Canada and Mexico. And finally, he practically buried any remaining chances for signing the TTIP treaty on free trade with Europe—although, admittedly, these chances had been meagre anyway because of the distrust on both sides. The first businessman-cum-showman in the role of US president used his power to build walls and restrictions for free trade under the motto of helping American economy.
How should we treat these and other behaviors and decisions of Trump as president? How should we interpret today’s state of relations between the United States and Europe and their influence on the fate of the world in the 21st century?
We need to start with the fact that, twelve months after the inauguration, we still have a huge problem with assessing what kind of President Donald Trump wants to be and how he wants to be remembered. If he were to be judged only according to his actions, Trump does not come out quite so badly. Besides questions regarding trade agreements, the announcement of withdrawing the US from the Paris Climate Agreement and restricting America’s contribution to the functioning of global aid organizations, Trump has not committed any major blunders.
The Proverbial Dog Whose Bark Is Worse Than Its Bite?
During the campaign, he announced things, he threatened and proclaimed quite a lot. But then, already as president, he did not make any real changes in important areas. He had threatened to diminish the American activity in NATO—and then he went back on it, claiming that under the pressure of his words the Alliance started reforming itself from the inside in the right direction. Crucial for Central Europe was the fact that without a word of protest Trump fulfilled the obligations inherited from his predecessor and deployed American soldiers and equipment in Eastern Europe—for the first time since the end of the Cold War.
This president of the United States is too unpredictable for anyone to vouchsafe that he will not harm the functioning of the transatlantic community.
During the campaign he spoke warmly about Russia and Putin, but when push came to shove, it turned out that the fears about a new great agreement between the US and Russia had been much exaggerated. True, Trump is burdened with the investigation concerning the “brotherly help” that he might have indirectly received from Russia during the 2016 campaign. He cannot do anything that would deepen the suspicions that he wants to be too nice to Russia. Whatever the real reasons, until today, Trump has made no real moves to curb or lift the sanctions imposed on Russia for the aggression against Ukraine. What is more, he accepted and signed—without enthusiasm, but also without resistance—the expansion of sanctions passed by the Congress.
So are there reasons for a sigh of relief? Has Trump turned out to be the proverbial dog whose bark is worse than its bite? Not in the least. This president of the United States is too unpredictable for anyone to vouchsafe that he will not harm the functioning of the transatlantic community.
A Large Section of the US Public Still Appreciates His Actions
This is because he di ers from all the previous presidents (even Reagan) in that the form is crucial for him, while content remains secondary. The show, the performance, and making an impression on the viewers are what counts. The public must be made to react with applause, plaudits, euphoria. As frequently and as aggressively as possible. Love me, such as I am, says Trump. For plainly I am just like you, I love fast food, I have a natural “masculine” attitude to women, from time to time I like to swear and bang on the table.
Europe has a big problem with that. It does not know if Trump can be regarded—for now and for the future—as a rational, stable, fully trustworthy partner.
So Trump invariably writes his Tweets, attacks and offends those who do not think like him, and sometimes he simply lies and fabricates fake news. He calls himself a “very stable genius.” And despite his poor showing in the polls, a large section of the US public still buys him, still appreciates his actions. Because after all, it was during his presidency that the so-called Islamic State was wiped o the Earth. It was his words which discouraged the head of North Korea from constant shaking his sabre and conducting rocket tests every fortnight (although Trump definitely has not stopped the Korean nuclear program). It was Trump who introduced great tax cuts for American companies—exactly as he had promised. And it was Trump who successfully encouraged, as he had promised, such giants as Apple to transfer billions of dollars from foreign lands to the US. So he really is making America great again, as he had promised.
Values Fundamental to the Europeans Do Not Mean Anything to the President
However, Europe has a big problem with that. It does not know if Trump can be regarded—for now and for the future—as a rational, stable, fully trustworthy partner. And whether his presidency is just a slip-up, a one- time failure of the system—or it suggests a great, unpleasant, and permanent change. A change meaning that the US will for years turn its back on its overseas neighbors, pare down American-European relations which in the 20th century built the world after two disastrous world wars and dozens of local conflicts. Europe does not know whether it means a divorce after years of sometimes warped but nevertheless effective and constructive cooperation.
After one year of this presidency, we still do not know the answers to the most important questions. We do see, however, that some values and symbols that are fundamental to us, Europeans, do not mean anything to the US leader. That he holds nothing sacred or unquestionable. Each of the previous US presidents regarded it as a dogma that America would defend peace, democracy, human, and civil rights. The issues of the rule of law, division of power, and self-constraint of the rulers were of major importance, at least in the sphere of declarations and announcements.
It could be different in practice, because America had and still has a multitude of interests scattered all over the globe. But authoritarian regimes, all kinds of warlords and tyrants, had to reckon with the risk of American intervention any day. All this is now history. For Trump is really interested only in “deals,” spectacular transactions to be shown to the nation as yet another personal, undeniable, intergalactic success of his own. Trump deliberately says nothing about democracy, about defending the world order, about counteracting lawlessness. He says nothing about freedom of speech and expression, about the necessity to support free media—on the contrary. He is absolutely obsessed with the media, he treats them and the journalists as his deadly enemies. You think differently than I think, so you are lying, you confuse people, you are Fake News Media.
America Seems Completely Uninterested in the Fate of Its Closest Partner
The US president is completely uninterested in these very traditional aspects of democracy. While in Europe a discussion is going on about the cohesion and the future shape of the European Union, the US president does not take part in it. And even if he does decide to speak out, he pats the British on the back for the Brexit and loudly reflects on who should follow suit in the EU… He provides extra fuel to all those in the West and East of Europe who would be happy to see the Union break up, its “dictate” to end, the discussions about the vision of United States of Europe to be closed.
Today’s America seems to be completely uninterested in the fate of its traditionally closest partner. We have never experienced it before. And this is why Europe treats its seemingly unbreakable ties with America with a growing distance and suspicion. Anti-American or at least anti-Trump sentiments are growing in Germany or France. Trump’s extreme America-centrism, threatening Germany with a trade war, or verbally undermining the Union generates anger and disappointment. At the same time, there is a growing feeling and awareness—perhaps very desirable—that Europe today must rely on itself, it has to think about its future, stability, and security with a greater responsibility and commitment than before.
The key question from the Central European perspective is if Trump notices us at all and distinguishes us from the rest of Europe in any way. There are reasons to believe that he does.
The effects of this new thinking are already to be seen. Europe had long talked about the necessity to reflect on its security and defense. But these were just words. Defense budgets were coming down and paci st sentiments were becoming more entrenched in European societies. Young Europeans did not intend to die for their countries, they spurned the idea of taking up arms to defend freedom. The situation started to change when a new and very real threat from the direction of Putin’s Russia emerged.
Europe Is Waking up from Lethargy
Trump has probably proved to be even more convincing than Putin. When he de antly announced cuts in expenditure for NATO (and America provides much more than half of the Alliance’s budget), the Europeans felt that the situation was becoming really serious. And they launched EU projects such as PESCO, which will eventually ensure a higher level of security for Europe and resilience to new threats—such as hybrid wars and cyber-attacks. The road from the European Defense Fund, an organization for cooperation of arms industries in Europe, to creating a European army is long and uncertain. Still, it is very important that first decisions have been taken, that Europe is waking up from lethargy. Perhaps we should even be grateful to Trump for that?
The key question from the Central European perspective is if Trump notices us at all and distinguishes us from the rest of Europe in any way. There are reasons to believe that he does. Not because we are so important and meaningful in transatlantic relations but rather because working with us, Trump has something to show to others: to Russia that it does not enjoy impunity and complete freedom of movement in its immediate surroundings, and to the Old Europe that it is not the only important party in American international relations. That besides Brussels, Berlin, and Paris also Warsaw, Bucharest, or Riga exist, with their own interests and principles. A characteristic event for the first year of Trump’s presidency was his July visit in Warsaw and his speech at the Krasiński Square.
Trump Strongly Supported the Three Seas Initiative
The Law and Justice government exploited the visit for propaganda purposes, hailing it as its great success and an expression of America appreciating the role played by Poland in the region. In fact, the visit was “invented” by Trump’s spin doctors as a counterbalance to Hamburg, where the US president was awaited by protests of the anarchists in the streets and unfriendly looks of the G-20 leaders. Images of crowds applauding in Warsaw were very precious merchandise for the president, who is very much afraid to visit even Great Britain, traditionally so close to America. Leaving form aside, the content of the Warsaw visit was important. Of course, Trump did not appeal to the Polish government to uphold the rule of law, he mentioned it only in passing, probably feeling obliged to do it. He did not speak about the assault on the Constitutional Tribunal and the judiciary, about freedom of the media, etc. Instead, he praised the heroic history of Poland, which in our country always evokes applause. In the realpolitik sphere he strongly supported the Three Seas Initiative, the project of a far-reaching deepening of economic cooperation between the countries from the Baltic, Black Sea, and Adriatic regions.
A Watershed Moment
From the very start, this Initiative has been controversial and in the West of Europe it is perceived as an unhealthy competition to the EU or even an attempt to break it up. Trump’s support for Poland and the remaining eleven members of the initiative was crucial and probably a watershed moment. Thanks to this support, convertible into the promised American investments in the region, chances that the project will be successfully launched are now more than nil. And Trump was not making empty promises: even before the Warsaw meeting the rst ship with American liquefied gas arrived in Świnoujście.
Świnoujście is today one of the main Polish gateways to the world. Woodrow Wilson insisted that Poland should have access to the sea, but when it came to specific negotiations in Versailles, he did not want to die for Gdańsk being incorporated into Poland. He preferred to agree to the creation of the bizarre and, as it later turned out, most conflict-breeding construct called the Free City of Gdańsk. For Wilson, as a consummate political player, politics was an area of compromises. Compromises which in his view ultimately led to world-historical changes—such as putting Poland and other Central and Eastern European countries on the map of the world. It is to be feared, based on the recent experiences, that Donald Trump thinks in completely different categories. He has to destroy his opponent and if a compromise is to be struck, then the only possible one is that which could be later sold as his epoch-making and crushing victory. And therefore, although we do not live today with a sense of a great global danger, we must be aware that the situation could suddenly and very unexpectedly change. It seems that we will not soon experience such transatlantic cooperation as we know it from the past. Something broke, something got stuck here.
Share this on social media
The support of our corporate partners, individual members and donors is critical to sustaining our work. We encourage you to join us at our roundtable discussions, forums, symposia, and special event dinners.