LONDON – In the world of post-truth (a word that has just made it into the English dictionary) where the “establishment” is condemned, experts denigrated and polls give false predictions, politics have become increasingly unstable.
The election of Donald Trump as the next president of the United States has caused tremors throughout the world. In Europe his victory has been greeted with dismay and anxiety. There are fears that his election will be followed by a surge of support for right-wing elements.
In France, where a presidential election will be held next year, Marine Le Pen, the leader of the right-wing National Front, has gained support among French voters who are troubled by Muslim immigrants and disillusioned with the European Union.
Germany also has a general election next year. Angela Merkel, Germany’s experienced and capable chancellor, has announced that she will seek a fourth term. Her popularity has been damaged by the influx of refuges into Germany from Syria and North Africa. The anti-immigrant party Alternative for Germany (AfD) seems likely to gain seats in the Bundestag.
Italy faces a constitutional referendum, which many predict Matteo Renzi, the Italian prime minister, who has staked his reputation on winning, may lose. The opposition would like to take Italy out of the single currency.
Right-wing parties in the Netherlands and Denmark have been encouraged by the Trump victory, which has also been welcomed by right-wing leaders with autocratic tendencies, such as Victor Orban of Hungary.
In Britain, Nigel Farage, acting leader of the pro-Brexit UK Independence Party and a supporter of Trump in his campaign, was the first foreign politician to be received by the president-elect, who had declared that his victory would outdo Brexit. Farage, who is a publicity seeker and populist, has tried to suggest, much to the irritation of the British government, that he should act as a channel to Trump.
The British media implied that the British government was upset by the fact that greater priority was not given to the congratulatory call from Theresa May, the British prime minister. The media have also been trying to revive the concept of Britain’s “special relationship” with the U.S. and have emphasized Trump’s U.K. connections, especially his golf courses in Scotland.
Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson, who had used insulting language about Trump during the election, has changed his tune. He claimed that he had spotted an opportunity for Britain arising from Trump’s victory. He boycotted an EU meeting to discuss the results of the American election and accused his European colleagues of whinging.
The most pressing issue for Europe is the future of NATO and relations with Russia. Will a President Trump stick to American commitments to the alliance? Will he support the continuance of sanctions on Russia over Russian infringements of the sovereignty of Ukraine and intervention in Syria?
There is no expectation that the negotiations on a North Atlantic free trade agreement can be brought to a successful conclusion. The focus is now on how existing trade agreements can be maintained.
Climate change deniers, of whom there are still a few around, look forward to the Paris accords being torpedoed. Environmentalists and scientists are appalled.
The meeting between Prime Minister Shinzo Abe and the president-elect has been widely covered. Abe’s upbeat remarks after the meeting were received with some skepticism. There is speculation about many points. How much reassurance did he obtain about the U.S. commitments to Japan and about the likely costs for Japan? Was the Trans-Pacific Partnership agreement discussed? Did Trump give Abe any hint that he would be happy if the Japanese could come to an arrangement with Putin over the disputed islands off Hokkaido?
A few Japan watchers will also have wondered whether the election of such a right-wing American president could encourage Abe to pursue amendments to the Japanese Constitution, in particular to Article 9, and adopt other right-wing policies.
Trump has certainly been an effective publicist. He may have been a clever businessman and deal-maker. But he lacks knowledge of government and of how to deal with Congress. His knowledge of the world is limited and he has a lot to learn in a very short time.
No one really knows (perhaps he too does not know either) what Trump’s election will mean for America, let alone for the rest of the world. Will he carry out the threats that he made during his campaign, or will he be tamed by the responsibilities of his great office? How much will he be restrained by Congress and the machinery of government? Will he keep in check the right-wing elements, which supported him and included not merely the gun lobby but also racists (including the Ku Klux Klan) and misogynists?
Some of his initial statements have suggested that he may be rowing back on some of his promises, but his initial appointments do not inspire confidence. He was elected by just under half of Americans who turned out to vote. He will want to show his supporters that he will fulfill at least some of his promises.
He has declared that he wants to make America great again. This means that he intends to put American national interests first. He is not an internationalist in heart or mind and he will not be willing to sacrifice any American interest for an international cause such as combating climate change.
He will only support America’s allies where such action is clearly in America’s interests. On trade issues he seems to be an old-fashioned mercantilist.
Very much is going to depend on how he defines American interests. How long term is his perspective? Does he see beyond the next presidential election in four years time? Does he care about his legacy? Can he be induced to take a broad view reflecting the values and principles of the American Constitution and heritage? World leaders face a daunting task in dealing with a President Trump.
Hugh Cortazzi was Britain’s ambassador to Japan from 1980 to 1984.
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