Future of the Transatlantic Relations after the U.S. Presidential Elections

Mika Aaltola / Photo: Alvar Aalto-Setšlš Mika Aaltola / Photo: Alvar Aalto-Setšlš
Daniel Hamilton / Photo: Alvar Aalto-Setšlš Daniel Hamilton / Photo: Alvar Aalto-Setšlš
Charly Salonius-Pasternak / Photo: Alvar Aalto-Setšlš Charly Salonius-Pasternak / Photo: Alvar Aalto-Setšlš

Pe 9.12.2016 klo 9:00-10:30
Auditorium of the Finnish Institute of International Affairs
Ankkurikatu 5, 4th floor, Helsinki

The fears of Donald Trumpís Presidency weakening the post-World War II transatlantic relationship have caused anxieties on both sides of the Atlantic. Much seems to hang in the balance. In the aftermath of the Brexit and before crucial elections in France and Germany, some commentators are seeing a major upheaval of the transatlantic relations while others are arguing for fundamental continuity despite of the political rhetoric. Trump has promoted policies based on national interests rather than on liberal values. His transactional approach puts new impetus on the long held U.S. complaints concerning the burden sharing especially within NATO. However, the importance of the European allies and partners for the U.S. have been clear over the decades. They have participated in the U.S. led operations and in the military missions against terrorism. Europe is a key market area for U.S. companies. The mutually beneficial economic relationship might provide the transactional basis for the continuity of the transatlatic relationship. However, rising economic nationalism might provide a disruptive force for the continuation of the transatlantic trade talks. 

Speaker: Daniel Hamilton, Director of the Center for Transatlantic Relations at the Paul H. Nitze School of Advanced International Studies (SAIS), Johns Hopkins University

Comment: Charly Salonius-Pasternak, Senior Research Fellow, the Finnish Institute of International Affairs

Chair: Mika Aaltola, Programme Director, the Finnish Institute of International Affairs

Summary of the seminar: 

Programme Director Mika Aaltola from the Finnish Institute of International Affairs opened the seminar. Mr. Aaltola pointed out how the topic of the seminar is currently one of the key topics in the world. The result of the U.S. election was a surprise to many and has caused anxiety on both sides of the Atlantic. Therefore, the consequences of the election should be discussed. Even though possible changes and regression of transatlantic relations might in the end be limited, even small changes could have huge consequences for Europe.

Mr. Aaltola also pointed out that the business side of the transatlantic relationship could be the most durable during this new period, especially considering the importance of Europe as a major market for U.S. businesses. This side could therefore offer a more transactional basis for the transatlantic relations. 

Daniel Hamilton, Director of the Center for Transatlantic Relations at the Paul H. Nitze School of Advanced International Studies (SAIS), Johns Hopkins University, began by noting that even though we do in fact live in different times now, it is still too early to know for certain what will happen with Donald Trump as the President of the United States.

Hamilton introduced the four domestic currents which have prevailed in the U.S. for a long time as a way to explain the Trump phenomenon and the domestic roots of U.S. foreign policy, and as a way to perhaps predict the future. The first of these schools of thought are the Wilsonians (named after Woodrow Wilson) who believe that the United States is better off with other nations also as democracies. Therefore, the spread of democratization, even by force if necessary, is seen as one of the main foreign policy goals of the United States. The Hamiltonians (named after Alexander Hamilton, the first Secretary of the Treasury) can be seen as proponents of strong institutions. They see economic ties as a way to maintain relationships with other nations. The last two schools, the Jeffersonians and the Jacksonians are, according to Daniel Hamilton, both more inward-looking as well as gaining in popularity at the moment. The Jeffersonians (named after Thomas Jefferson) believe that the U.S. should perfect its democracy at home, after which other nations would then follow its lead. Jeffersonians want to focus on domestic issues rather than go "look for adventuresĒ, and therefore are not strong supporters of intervening in crises abroad. The fourth school, the Jacksonians, is named after the first populist president Andrew Jackson. Just like Jeffersonians, Jacksonians see the focus on domestic matters as more important than solving crises abroad. However, if there is an existing threat to the U.S., then a strong intervention should take place. This is preferred to be done self-reliantly, as Jacksonians do not prefer taking part in alliances. Ideas such as unconditional surrender from the Second World War, as well as the George W. Bush quote "Youíre either with us, or against usĒ come from this Jacksonian premise.

According to Daniel Hamilton, a presidential candidate in the U.S. must combine at least a few of these schools in order to win the election. Bill Clinton represented a coalition of the Wilsonian and Hamiltonian schools with the idea of spreading democracy and supporting open trade. George W. Bush started as a Jeffersonian with a humble foreign policy. However, after 9/11 this changed into a coalition of Wilsonian and Jacksonian schools, where non-democratic nations as well as terrorists were seen as a threat to the United States, with a strong belief that the U.S. must take swift and strong action against these threats. Barack Obama represented the Jeffersonian school with the idea that foreign adventures were straining the U.S. economy, and instead focus should be put on domestic challenges. At the same time there was a strong support for trade deals which is more of a Hamiltonian characteristic. Daniel Hamilton described Hillary Clinton as a combination of Wilsonians and Hamiltonians. However, according to Hamilton Clinton was forced to pull in a direction she was not comfortable with during the election campaign, and her attempt to try and combine different schools did not in the end succeed.

When it comes to Donald Trump, Mr. Hamilton sees Trump as having the anger of the Jacksonians against the world of open trade and globalization combined with the Jeffersonian need to focus on domestic issues. Especially the dissatisfaction toward open trade cut across party lines, gaining support for Trumpís agenda. According to Hamilton, the Jeffersonian sentiment similar to that of Barack Obama in the end got Donald Trump his election win.

By explaining Donald Trump as a combination of Jacksonians and Jeffersonians might give us an idea of what is coming in the future. In short, this means no overseas adventures but focus on domestic issues. However, Mr. Hamilton did highlight that it is still very early to say anything certain. Mr. Hamilton did want to point out that the first year of presidency is never good when it comes to transatlantic relations and that any transition in the United States has usually made Europe nervous. Therefore, the current situation is not that different.

However, some priorities can already be pinpointed. According to Mr. Hamilton, the U.S. will go after the terrorists with force in order to "eradicateĒ them. This could mean new partners in this endeavor for the U.S. However, this does not necessarily mean more active participation in the Middle East, which Mr. Hamilton believes might be left to Europe and Russia to deal with. Hamilton also sees more focus being put on bilateral relations and the U.S. working directly with other great powers. This will mean less focus for example on the United Nations. Also, the European Union will not be the way for the U.S. to engage with the continent. This will have implications of course for the smaller powers of Europe. Multilateral trade agreements will also not be an interest of the United States. Nor will there be extended commitments for the United States, as it will not be willing to shoulder more global burden. One of the priorities will also be the rebuilding of the U.S. Navy and a strong stand for the freedom of the seas. The U.S. will not be participating in the Paris Climate agreement or advancing the climate agenda. The anti-terrorism agenda and China will make Middle East and Asia-Pacific as the two main arenas of conflict for the U.S., according to Mr. Hamilton.

Russia is seen as a fading power and therefore not as a major issue for the United States. However, Trumpís Russia agenda will depend on a combination of Trumpís personality, his assigned team as well as what role the U.S. Congress will play in the matter. The U.S. Congress does not agree with Trumpís Russia comments. There could be an internal fight between the President and the Congress on the matter of Russia, unless Vice President Mike Pence will be able to manage the relationship so that a bigger conflict will be avoided.

At the end of his presentation, Hamilton pointed out that Trump is not an isolated phenomenon, as can be seen from events in Europe as well. The months ahead will be turbulent and not the time for great new initiatives in transatlantic relations.

At the seminar we also heard comments from Charly Salonius-Pasternak, Senior Research Fellow at the Finnish Institute of International Affairs. Mr. Salonius-Pasternak agreed with Mr. Hamilton regarding the U.S. focus on terrorism as well as bilateral relations. He also went back to the description of Hamiltonians and highlighted the schoolís additional focus on commerce, also in attempts to turn the U.S. into a manufacturing power.

Mr. Salonius-Pasternak also looked at the popular opinion in the U.S. Despite the turbulent times, there are still strong economic and military level institutions that hold the transatlantic relationship together. Mr. Salonius-Pasternak talked about public opinion in the U.S. regarding matters such as NATO, the Paris climate agreement and the International Criminal Court, trade agreements and Europe. According to the poll, 77 % of Americans have a favorable view on NATO and see the organization as being good for the U.S. Also, 70 % supported the Paris Climate agreement and believed that the U.S. should join the International Criminal Court. Europe was seen as the most important area to focus on by 52 % of Americans echoing similar numbers from the 1990s.

Mr. Salonius-Pasternakís final comment concerned Trumpís nominations in his cabinet, especially the already nominated three generals. The previous political experience of the two generals was mentioned, as well as the experience (although not from the political field) of the future National Security Advisor. However, General Michael Flynnís interest in conspiracy theories worried Mr. Salonius-Pasternak, who pointed out how Trump clearly is a massive risk-taker and an unpredictable one at that. Trumpís nominations might indicate that he also realizes the need to have people around him who can control his risk-taking behavior.