Was Europe in any way reassured by what we heard from President Trump in his inaugural address?
Hardly. And let me mention just three points.
First: America First!
That’s a story that Europe is much too familiar with. Each nation putting itself first, explicitly or implicitly seeing other nations as hostile to its interests, is the European story of centuries of real carnage and catastrophe.
Italy First! Sweden First! Serbia First! Germany First! Russia First! France First! Ireland First!
We have been there, seen that and done that in Europe. And carnage was the consequence for generations.
That doesn’t mean these slogans don’t have popular appeal. Trump knows they do, and the history of Europe certainly proves that this is the case. Every confrontation with any other nation normally starts out with being popular — but that has nothing to do with where the story normally ends.
And there is — or should be — something in politics called leadership. To learn the lessons of the past, to try to see ahead, to lead and inspire people to go beyond where just the raw emotions of the day might take them.
Second: The Civilized World.
As long as I can remember, the concept of freedom was key to not only the American conception of itself but also to its view of the wider world and what the United States tried to achieve in its global role.
Sometimes, no doubt, the concept of “the free world” has been simplified and abused. But this in no way denies that the dream of freedom has been at the core of that shining city on a hill that America has been and still remains for generations around the globe.
Apart from a passing reference in a domestic context, freedom was notably absent from Trump’s remarks.
In his inaugural address in 1981, President Ronald Reagan spoke to “those neighbors and allies who share our freedom, we will strengthen our historic ties and assure them of our support and firm commitment.”
And that theme has been resounding from that podium, in the one way or another, at every inauguration since then.
Trump pledged to unite “the civilized world” in order to “eradicate completely from the face of the Earth” radical Islamic terrorism.
Undoubtedly, the fight against terrorism, in whatever form, must be fought also by and in cooperation with nations we hardly would acknowledge as free, but to completely dump the idea of freedom is to deprive us of one of our most powerful ideological weapons in a struggle that in the end is far more ideological than kinetic.
And then, of course, it invites the question of what a “civilized” nation is. No one can deny that China and Iran, to take two obvious examples, represent ancient and proud civilizations. But should we now describe them as “civilized nations” in the Western use of that term?
So what does this jettisoning of “freedom” in favor of “civilized” actually mean? Is it just a way of including Russia in the family?
Third: Economic Protectionism.
The thrust of the address was efforts to create jobs for Americans. That’s fine, although the U.S. economy is producing jobs at a pace that’s the envy of the world.
But traditionally the United States has led the world because of innovation, entrepreneurship and competitiveness. Of these we heard nothing; instead, the message was: Buy American! Hire American!
“We must protect our borders from the ravages of other countries making our products, stealing our companies, and destroying our jobs, Trump said. “Protection will lead to great prosperity and strength.”
Will it? Isn’t the lesson of history the opposite?
North Korea certainly has a protected economy; South Korea radically less so. And in Europe, it has been the dismantling of barriers that has created prosperity, not least for those nations that liberated themselves from the borders, walls and restrictions of the communist system.
They were “protected” — and they were poor.
Trump’s message can easily be translated into “Don’t Buy European!” — and then we will soon have “Don’t Buy American!” spreading throughout Europe. The most integrated, most innovative and most productive economic relationship in the world would risk unraveling.
By themselves, these are each disturbing and worrying issues. If you add them together, and see them reinforcing each other, the risks magnify.
Translating the populism of a campaign into the politics of an administration is never entirely easy. There has to be a difference, but there also has to be some continuity.
We had been hoping things would settle down. And there is still the hope that the inaugural address will be seen by history as the end of the campaign rather than as the start of the administration.
But are we reassured? Far from it.