Josef Joffe is editor of Die Zeit in Hamburg and fellow of the Hoover Institution at Stanford University, where he teaches U.S. foreign policy.
For a country supposedly in decline, the United States is getting a lot of attention these days. Millions of people around the world, not counting 84 million in the United States, were glued to screens watching the Hillary Clinton vs. Donald Trump bout on Monday. Vladimir Putin is the new czar of Russia, and Xi Jinping the emperor of China. But who remembers Russia’s Duma elections? Hint: They were held on Sept. 18, and to nobody’s surprise, Putin won big. Does anybody recall when Xi moved to the head of the Chinese working class? In 2013.
Go through a pile of European newspapers, and you’ll see the U.S. electoral battle unfolding on Page 1. Same for the lead stories on TV. Russia is outmaneuvering the United States in Syria, China is expanding in the Western Pacific. But Clinton and Trump get the ratings — worldwide.
Why? First, whatever Trump spouts about has-been America, the United States remains the one and only global power — No. 1 in terms of economic, military and cultural clout. What it does, and what it doesn’t do, affects the entire world. Hence, the American president is “our” president, too.
How shall we count the ways? Take Europe. If a President Trump made true on his threats against NATO , the suddenly exposed Europeans would have to make nice with Russia. The “Easties” on NATO’s most exposed flank would be quaking. They remember life under the Soviet knout.
If Trump cozies up to his “good friend” Putin and accepts the Crimean heist, those European leaders who stick to sanctions against Russia would be discredited. The United States and the European Union add up to the largest trade and investment relationship in the world. If the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership — the Atlantic free-trade area — goes to the morgue, Europe’s anemic growth will persist.
Assume that Trump, an avowed protectionist, moves into the White House. British Prime Minister Theresa May, whose country is on the road to Brexit, would not be amused. She would have to say goodbye to the dream of a free-trade pact with North America that might make up for the loss of the E.U.’s single market.
Her German peer, Angela Merkel, would vote “early and often” for Clinton, to invoke the legendary quip. The German chancellor heads the center-right Christian Democrats. Yet, like some of Trump’s hapless Republican rivals, she feels no kinship with the man who hijacked the GOP and preaches strategic as well as economic isolationism.
It gets worse. Merkel faces her own elections a year from now. Her government will face leftish parties that, to put it mildly, are not enamored of the United States. A Trump victory would be a boon for them. Painting a picture of a reactionary and racist yahoo America, they could smear Merkel as a U.S. poodle and win a parliamentary majority. America’s best continental ally would shift toward Moscow.
Ironically, the same holds for Europe’s populist right. France’s Marine Le Pen has pocketed an 11 million euro loan for her campaign from Moscow, and she wants more. Strangely, Western Europe’s New Right is quite fond of Russia. Resentful of Western liberalism, these parties admire Putin’s authoritarianism and economic nationalism. So if a Trumpist America weakened Europe’s centrists, both extremes, left and right, would score and fray the Atlantic bond.
Postwar America designed and defended the world’s liberal order — free trade, open societies and such. It held the line against the Soviets and their sundry allies from the Middle to Asia. The European democracies profited handsomely from the toils of the United States, the world’s custodian. Now, the United States leads the battle against the Islamists, the spearhead of religious totalitarianism. How would an inward-bound America sustain an open-ended defense?
Given 24/7 exposure to the presidential contest, Europe and the rest are fully aware of the millstones around Clinton’s neck: the emails, the reputation for dissembling, the noxious mix of politics and profiteering. But “The Donald,” who in the first debate clearly failed Statecraft 101 again, isn’t just the greater of two evils. If he means what he says, as president he would put a sledgehammer to the global architecture the United States has safeguarded for 70 years.
Naturally, the Europeans and most of the rest don’t look forward to a Trumpist America. Only the Kremlin would cheer, calculating that Trump would erode America’s standing in the world, if not render the country ungovernable. Hence, all those “furreners” would hand Clinton a landslide victory if vote they could.
But why should Americans care, given what they have on their plates at home?
Charles E. Wilson, the former chief executive of General Motors, once famously said: “What was good for our country was good for General Motors, and vice versa.” Make that: “What is good for the world is good for America.” The United States is the linchpin of the liberal order. Take it out, and the United States, with its far-flung global interests, will decline for sure.