In his inaugural speech last week, President Donald Trump blazed a clear path for his regime. “From this day forward, a new vision will govern our land, from this day forward, it’s going to be only America first. America first.” This was not the first time in recent weeks that Trump has displayed his vision for American protectionism and isolationism, breaking from the traditional world order set by the United States after World War II. In an interview with the Times of London on January 16, Trump expressed disinterest in the future of the European Union, stating, “I don’t think it matters much for the United States.”
For Europe, the new direction of American foreign policy is extremely consequential. Previously, a large part of Europe’s ability to act as a single bloc was the strength of its alliance of interests and institutions with the United States. The US-European alliance together pursued a global platform of democratization, liberal economic policies, multilateral action on issues of security and war, and recently even on environmental policies. This alliance defined the liberal world order as we knew it--until Friday. That is what makes the aspiration of the Trump presidency so radical.
Whether it is in the best interest of the US to preserve the historic policy of the liberal order including European integration, Bretton Woods, NATO and the United Nations is debatable. But the question arises: who benefits from destroying this order? When looking at Russian foreign policy in Europe over the past decade a pattern emerges. Moscow has consistently pursued a policy of “divide and conquer”—pursuing negotiations with individual states rather than face Europe as a single bloc. This strategy weakened Europe as an adversary and allowed Russia to pursue a number of strategic interests with relatively little resistance. Of course, part of the reason for Moscow’s success was not only its aggressive grand strategy also but the inability of the European Union to act coherently. But the outcome has been that Russia has been very successful in pursuing both its economic and security interests by dividing Europe into discreet units.
Russia was particularly successful in thwarting European Union efforts to create a union-level energy policy, which would have placed Europe in a much better negotiation position vis-à-vis Russia. Although Russia provides one third of Europe’s total energy needs, the degree to which states are dependent on Russian commodities and the price they pay for them varies widely, even between neighboring states. Moscow gives preferential treatment to some states in order to create a divergence of interest, breaking down cooperation across states. As a result, each country in Europe deals independently instead of as a union, which weakens their bargaining leverage and gives Russia a comparative advantage. A recent example was Germany’s refusal to comply with a Brussels initiative to increase transparency in natural gas contracts with Russia. Gazprom, Russia’s state owned gas conglomerate, charges German companies up to 2/3 less than it does neighboring Poland, which was in favor of the initiative.
On a political level, Russia has been sponsoring far right movements that promote Euro-skepticism and opposition to a single monetary zone. Part of the reason these parties disrupt European unity is that a large part of their electoral success is in the European parliament, where political competition is weaker and turnout is lower. Russia’s real foreign policy coup was that these parties, small as they may be, led to a rise in populism across the political spectrum. Leaders including Hungary’s Victor Orban, France’s Marine Le Pen and others support Russia’s worldview and seek increased economic and political ties. The rise of far right parties in Europe has also been associated with a rise in crony capitalism: a system that Russia fostered because it helps Moscow retain its economic and political foothold in former satellite states.
Unsurprisingly, these leaders also support Donald Trump. After hearing Trump’s speech, Orban heralded the “end of multilateralism” and said Hungary had “received permission from, if you like, the highest position in the world so we can now also put ourselves in first place.” This aligns perfectly with the rhetoric of leaders like Orban and Le Pen who depict their own countries history as a struggle for independence from foreign imperial powers. Trump and Orban’s speeches are Moscow’s greatest coup to date: breaking down the historic ties between the United States and Europe creates a system in which each country fends for itself and heralds the end of the “West” as we know it. In such a world, Russia is the big winner. Since the collapse of the Soviet Union, Russia lacked strong alliances and was persistently challenged by the West. Now, with the help of Donald Trump, a predatory country can legitimately prey on the weak.
Trump is often labeled as a Manchurian Candidate operated by Russia, but it is not only his business and alleged personal ties with Vladimir Putin that endanger American interests. Trump’s address shows that Russia’s divide and conquer strategy has found an ally in the White House. This has grave consequences not only for Europe, but also for the United States. It is naïve to think that Europe is the sole beneficiary of its alliance with the United States. Because of its once powerful alliance, the US set the terms for global trade and security for many years. Evidence from Europe shows that once countries are divided, they lose their power, and they lose it to Russia.