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Lincoln Mitchell: Trump will cause enduring damage in Euro-Atlantic relations

Lincoln Mitchell is an Associate Research Scholar at the Arnold A. Saltzman Institute of War and Peace Studies at Columbia University. He has worked on democracy and governance related issues in the former Soviet Union, Eastern Europe, the Caribbean, the Middle East, Africa and Asia.

And for more than two decades he has worked with Freedom House, the UNDP and DFID, the United Nations Democracy Fund, the National Democratic Institute for International Affairs,  as well as several private businesses, political interests and investors working in the former Soviet Union. He is also the author of several books and numerous articles on US foreign policy.

Because he has worked with almost every institution shaping the role of America in the world since the fall of the Berlin Wall, the European Interest approached him for an interview focused on the present and the future of the Euro-Atlantic community.

How do you see America’s role in Europe right now?

It is in transition.

Europe can no longer expect American leadership.

The State Department appears to be in “default settings” doing the kinds of things the US does around the world until explicitly told to do otherwise. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson has indicated he is committing to reducing the size of the State Department and many posts remain unfilled, but the administration has not demonstrated the competence necessary to make significant changes in any area. Therefore Foreign policy seems to be humming along in some respects and will continue to do so until somebody orders diplomats to stop. Perhaps, we should be thankful for that.

But, there is no vision for anything more than status quo maintenance.

For example,

Whereas even President Donald Trump realises that American cannot simply withdraw from places like the Middle East, there is a notion that Europe functions by itself. And when we talk about major challenges in which America usually weighs in, one cannot imagine sitting down to coordinate policy.

Take the challenge of Jihadist fundamentalism. Today, President Trump retweeted a far-right British nationalist {Jaydan Fransen of Britain First}, which shows that dealing with ideological extremism in a coordinated manner on both sides of the Atlantic does not appear possible.

Think of climate change.

Consider Russia. France and Germany are deeply concerned. But, this government can only remain in deep denial for very political reasons.

There is an underlying paradigmatic change here. Both liberal and conservative foreign policy elites in America agree that Europe is a valuable ally. Previous administrations – from Reagan to Bush – may have wanted to take this relationship to another direction, but they have never questioned its significance. For this administration, Europe is “part of the problem” it is trying to fix. It is a nationalist government in a very different way.

For Europe, Washington always was the force that came in from outside to save it from itself, preventing us from turning one against the other. Do you believe Washington will be able to play this role again?

We may now have to think whether Europe can play a role in saving Washington.

The US still has a lot of hard power. However, it is clear that it has lost much of its legitimacy and soft power.

And there is a rising concern. We should not underestimate the possibility of low-level instability and democratic rollback in America. That is something that should worry Europe.

Do you see this as a Nixon situation we have to wait out, in the hope that “this too will pass”?

We all suspect what the result of the Mueller investigation will be; but, I don’t think this is going to end like anything we have ever known. I cannot see the result of this investigation as the point of departure for unity.

The Nixon precedent is a universe of one, and many things have changed since then.

In pushing through policy, the Trump administration has been ineffective. From his failed attempt to repeal Obamacare to his current effort to pass a major tax bill, the Trump administration has not been able to pass any significant legislation. This speaks to their incompetence.

But, politically, the division is real.

So, is this permanent damage?

Permanent is too long. But, this is enduring damage.

But, imagine in a parallel universe that Hillary Clinton had won this race. The question we would be asking is how 45% of Americans could support Trump, why these people are so willing to abandon the notion of truth. That is not a case of disputing over facts. It is rather a case of contesting facts as “fake news,” which means no debate is viable.

Today, we might say that one-third of the American people will challenge what is in New York Times as fact, not the interpretation of facts.

No single American has produced a single convincing answer that can “fix” this challenge. That is a problem that cannot simply be “fixed.”

So, you don’t see this as a case in which the international system is strained only to rebalance eventually? Should we not expect things to get back to where they were before?

The system must rebalance. But I am not sure about returning to where we had been.

Obviously, the American vacuum is being filled. Germany is being called to take on a much more significant leadership role. There is a wider scope for China to define its role in the world.

And what about the Euro-Atlantic Community?

The Euro-Atlantic Community has some residual staying power and is not going to fade away, but there is also reason for concern.

In this scheme, the issues before us suggest that this leadership is not conducive to building a community understanding of how to address these challenges.

Let me reiterate: climate change, cyber-security attacks, North Korea, and Russia. We do not have a single mindset, and it is hard to envisage working together to address these issues.

Instead, I am afraid that another kind of community dynamic is emerging.

When last summer in Virginia far-right nationalist took to the streets with blazing torches, chanting “Jews will not replace us,” they were echoing the work of a French far-right thinker.

We have seen these echoes from WildersNigel Farage, and other occasions. That is no longer just Trump. In Europe and some sections of America, Putin is no longer seen as merely an “autocrat,” but as the guarantor of a white Christian state. That is a very different sense of community.

This Interview was first published with European Interest: