Transatlantic Thoughts: America’s role as respected global leader may be ending

Credit: Paola Mathus/ Credit: Paola Mathus/ Credit: Staff Artist Credit: Staff Artist
Editorials featured in the Forum section are solely the opinions of their individual authors.

Editor’s note: Transatlantic Thoughts is a weekly column that examines Carnegie Mellon’s student life from a foreigner’s perspective. Find previous installments

For my last article in this newspaper, I want to share my impressions about a significant shift that has unrolled for the last year and a half in how we perceive the world. Indeed, Brexit and Trump’s election have confirmed the end of an Anglo-Saxon supremacy over international relations. However, the rise of movements in Western Europe which was predicted to swallow the Netherlands, France, and Germany during 2017 has ultimately failed to bring to power Trump-style nationalist leaders in those countries. As a little break from the U.S. news frenzy, I propose this week a little recap on what has been going on in Europe for the past year.

One thing to always keep in mind about Europe is that nothing is simple, and the European Union (EU) raises complexity to an art. Nevertheless, it is important to know what the EU really is. The EU is an alliance of 28 member states that started out as a free trade and single market zone, but has gradually become some kind of supra-national entity with a Parliament, an executive body (the European Commission) and a court system. The main accomplishments of the EU are the common currency (the euro), the possibility for individuals to move and work freely anywhere (the Schengen area), and a comprehensive set of common regulations that transformed the 28 little states into a unified commercial power. But the most important accomplishment of the EU has been to eradicate war from Western Europe: the “balance of powers” geopolitical equilibrium that dominated in Europe until WWII has been replaced by a peaceful collaboration, necessary for Europe to continue to stand out in the international scene.

Because nothing is simple in Europe, the EU has suffered a long sequence of setbacks. In the ‘90s, it failed to stop the conflict in the Balkans (one of whose military leaders has just committed suicide in an international court). It has also failed to build a clear and common international policy, as was shown during the Iraq War when Germany and the U.K. participated but not France. The EU has enhanced social dumping inside the EU with its Posted Workers directive of 1996 (which has just been revised), and has failed to appease increasing social discontentment from those who suffered from globalization.

But the biggest failure of the EU recently has been the handling of the migrant crisis triggered by the Libyan and Syrian conflicts since the mid 2010s. While Italy and Greece had to rescue most of the migrants that ran aground their shores, only Germany took a clear pro-welcome stance that led to the asylum of 1.7 million people seeking applications for this country alone. The free circulation of individuals inside the Schengen area made it impossible for the member states to consider the problem individually.

It is necessary to distinguish the illegal migrants from the refugees that flee their home country because of war or prosecutions, and which represented the majority of the migrants arriving in Europe. However a lot of nationalist parties in Europe used the confusion between them to raise fear among local populations, prophesying a “great replacement” of their people by some supposedly blood-thirsty Islamists wanting to impose Sharia law.

That is why Poland and Hungary (both members of the EU) have elected as leaders right-wing nationalistic personalities that have promised to specifically save their country from this imminent peril. However, these leaders have been mostly busy undermining democratic institutions in their countries since their election, which poses a problem to the EU — one condition to be a member state is to be a functioning democracy.

This bleak perspective and apocalyptic ideology suggest in some aspects the state of mind in Western European countries in the 1930s, where part of French and British elites were sympathetic to the new German regime. According to a prominent historian Marc Bloch, in his book The Strange Defeat, one of the causes of the quick defeat of the French army in 1940 is that many of its generals believed that the country should be punished for having elected in 1936 a socialist leadership that granted the people two weeks of paid holidays (by the way, paid holidays now equal five weeks in France).

In this context, Brexit and the Trump election sent shockwaves throughout Europe. At that point, it appeared that one could not count on the unwavering support of the U.S. as leader of the free world. But as the 2017 elections were approaching in France, Germany, and the Netherlands, the real-world consequences of the choice of the U.K. and the U.S. was becoming clear. Particularly, the total collapse of the UKIP leadership after its historic victory showed that these politicians did not want to serve their country but rather were seeking to transpose trolling into real life.

And so people denied Trump wannabes Marine Le Pen (FN), Geert Wilders (PVV), and Alice Weidel (AfD) leadership, despite giving their parties their largest shares of vote ever. But these elections brought real changes in their countries. In France, the 30-year-old two-party system has been single-handedly shattered by Emannuel Macron and his movement “En marche.” Meanwhile, Germany is facing its most important parliamentary crisis since WWII as Angela Merkel’s future as chancellor is undermined by her inability to form a coalition.

In this new Europe, the left-right divide is less relevant than before, and a new force seems to emerge for protecting the people from the excesses of capitalism and neo-liberalism. Member-states of the EU understood that the only way to move forward in this direction was to unify their social policies, and thus the first European Social Summit was held three weeks ago.

We have been used to imagining the future as apocalyptic for a certain number of years, and it is true that climate change is a sword of Damocles that is already halfway into its fall on our heads. However, my opinion is that there is still hope for the EU to become a major power in the world that upholds a balanced mix of social policies, democratic values and individual freedoms, in contrast to the forced stability of the Chinese, maintained by limiting freedom of speech and political opposition.

The road to this scenario is paved with European leadership and consensus issues, and it would be presumptuous to predict anything at this point given the world’s instability. Nevertheless, what is sure is that the U.S. will be the missing player in the European equation. This month, 20 EU member states signed a deal to integrate military planning, weapons development and operations, furthering the effort for a European common defense to weigh in. As 1989 was the fall of the Eastern block, 2017 may well be recorded as the end of the Cold War-era Western block and its American leader.

Given this perspective, one could understand the alleged Russia’s efforts and meddling in the Western countries electoral life. From the Russian perspective (and especially Putin’s perspective), 2017 may well have been the final act of the Cold War, that evened the scales and questioned Western supremacy.

As a conclusion and after this broad and incomplete summary of what one could arrogantly call “the state of the European Union,” let us come back to the U.S. Like many American citizens, I am appalled by the current level of American politics. However, I want to believe that this is just a temporary affliction and that the outcome of the special counsel investigation will put an end to this masquerade.

Given this, it is important for Americans to think about what will come next, and for that the country will need informed opinions. That is why I urge people to get interested and involved in politics, to read good news sources both domestic and international in order to forge an opinion on complex matters that should be based on confronting your values to the reality. As engineers, it is easy to get obsessed by technology and to think it is the answer to all problems. But technology is neither good nor bad — all that matters is the manner in which you use it. In conclusion, never forget to apply your knowledge to the cause you believe is good for the world!