Democracy is retreating worldwide. As Freedom House reports, the US has not escaped this trend. The system of checks and balances of American democracy managed to thwart Trump’s assault on democracy. But together with longstanding institutional and structural defects, his
presidency clearly indicates that American democracy is on the verge of political decay. Political polarisation, inequalities, identity politics and the inability of the two political parties to reach compromises are further testing the American democratic institutions. To avert decay, the US
needs a reform coalition to bring about institutional changes; and more importantly, to establish inclusive economic policies and a renewed focus on citizenship, duty and a shared purpose.
Democracy, Checks and balances, Vote suppression, Polarisation, Inequalities, Identity politics.
Democracy is retreating worldwide. Freedom House reports that the number of democracies is shrinking and that democracy is declining in the US itself (Freedom House 2019). The same report maintains that the great challenges facing American democracy started before Donald Trump’s presidency. ‘Intensifying polarization, declining economic mobility, the outsized influence of special interests, and the diminished influence of fact-based reporting in favor of bellicose partisan media’ were some of the problems already facing American democracy before Trump (2019, 17).
The US is in the midst of a political and constitutional crisis that could seriously threaten its democracy over the next years. The storming of Capitol Hill on 6 January 2021 was an assault on democracy that continues unabated. The hope that Trump would fade away after the January 2021 insurrection and his subsequent electoral defeat has proved futile. Trump’s shadow lingers over the political system and the Republican Party. He has built a movement around a cult of personality that allows him to maintain high rates of popularity and support among his followers.
Under Trump’s ‘hostile takeover’ of the Republican Party, as Jared Kushner phrased it (cited in Diamond 2020), all kinds of tactics are being used to bend the rules to the party’s advantage, including suppressing the vote. State legislatures are enacting legislation
that amounts to vote suppression, while giving themselves greater control of the election certification process (Kagan 2021). More than 100 leading scholars of democracy have signed a Statement of Concern warning about grave threats to American democracy stemming from the efforts to suppress voting (Norris 2021).
This article argues that American democracy is being threatened with political decay by the lasting effects of Trump’s presidency together with longstanding institutional defects, as well as extreme polarisation, widening inequalities and identity politics. For this decay to be averted, there is urgent need of enlightened leadership and a broad reform coalition to bring about institutional changes; inclusive economic policies; and a renewed focus on citizenship, duty and shared purpose.
The effects of Trump’s presidency on American democracy
Aristotle warned that demagogues who could capture the minds of the people posed a real threat to democracy. Aware of these risks, ‘the framers of the Constitution instituted a system of checks and balances. The point was not simply to ensure that no one branch of the government dominated the others but also to anchor in institutions different points of view’ (Snyder 2021). They designed a system ‘to protect minority points of view, to protect us from leaders inclined to lie, cheat and steal, and to protect the majority against minorities who are determined to subvert the constitutional order’ (Galston and Kamarck 2022).
Proving resilient at both the federal and state levels, these checks and balances managed to thwart the Trumpian assault on democracy. Congress held its own, confronting the president with impeachment charges not once but twice. The judiciary remained independent and resisted his attempts to overturn the election results. A total of 62 lawsuits that Trump’s legal team filed were either dropped or unsuccessful in court. Many of these decisions were made by Republican judges. The former president’s biggest disappointment may have been ‘the Supreme Court’s decision not to hear election challenges concerning states he claimed he had won’ (Galston and Kamarck 2022).
The states also resisted Trump’s federal actions or decisions, especially regarding the pandemic. And the military upheld the long democratic tradition of civil–military relations in the US whereby the armed forces, under civilian control, stay out of politics. Finally, the press remained fundamentally free even though Trump ‘spent four years using the bully pulpit of the presidency to mock the press. He revoked the press credentials of reporters he did not like. Nevertheless, reporters were not afraid to call out his lies’ (Galston and Kamarck 2022). However, the discrediting of the traditional media—together with the decline of local news, which was a result of the financial crisis of 2008—and Trump’s skilful use of social media, especially Twitter, led to distortion of the truth and reality during his presidency. In a functional representative democracy, the social media cannot be citizens’ only source of information. Social media ‘supercharge the mental habits by which we seek emotional stimulation and comfort, which means losing the distinction between what feels true and what actually is true’ (Snyder 2021).
The checks and balances of the American political system withstood the Trump presidency’s frontal assault on the democratic institutions, norms, conventions and traditions of the US. However, his presidency polarised this system to the extreme and exacerbated weaknesses in its institutions. His constant attack on the truth, culminating in the ‘Big Lie’ of the rigged election, has misinformed and disoriented US citizens and has sapped the foundations of American democracy. ‘There is no guarantee that constitutional democracy will survive another sustained—and likely better-organized—assault in the years to come’ (Galston and Kamarck 2022).
The deterioration of democracy started even before Trump, it being the result of ‘the persistent gridlock in US Congress, deepening political polarisation and the corrupting role of dark money in politics. It accelerated during the last four years, with attacks on the news media, risks to the impartiality of the courts, and the weakening role of Congress as an effective check and balance on executive powers’ (Norris 2021). Moreover, the assortment of deep structural problems and sweeping historical changes that are taking place simultaneously make this an existential crisis for American democracy.
The aftermath of the 2020 presidential election highlighted the problems of the ‘unique combination of a majoritarian electoral system with strong minoritarian institutions’ (McCoy and Press 2022). The Senate, for example, is highly disproportionate in its representation, with ‘two senators per state regardless of their population, from Wyoming’s 580,000 to California’s 39,500,000’ (McCoy and Press 2022). This disproportionality becomes particularly problematic when it comes to the electoral college. ‘All but two states give the winner of the popular vote in their state all of the electors from that state’ (Lessig 2021). This disproportionality has resulted in elections being focused on the so-called swing states. These states provide sufficient electoral college votes to win the election regardless of the outcome in the popular vote.
This, in effect, is how Trump won in 2016, despite his claim that he had won not only the electoral college but the popular vote as well. His argument was that Hillary Clinton had won the popular vote because millions of people had voted illegally (O’Toole 2020). After the 2020 election Trump actively tried to overturn the will of the people. When that failed, the assault on the electoral process took a more organised form. ‘Republican majorities in state legislatures are passing laws making it harder to vote and weakening the ability of election officials to do their jobs. Trump’s supporters are also trying to defeat incumbents who upheld the integrity of the election and replace them with the
former President’s supporters’ (Galston and Kamarck 2022).
If you add to these efforts the traditional gerrymandering, you have a new organised attack against American democracy from the ground up. Partisan gerrymandering has resulted in a radical manipulation of legislative districts. A study by the USC Schwarzenegger Institute found that after the 2018 election the result of gerrymandering was that almost 60 million Americans live under minority rule in their state legislatures.
The destructive power of polarisation in American politics makes things even worse. A recent Carnegie Endowment article argues that ‘the United States is the only advanced Western democracy to have faced such intense polarization for such an extended period’ (McCoy and Press 2020). According to the authors one of the reasons for this intense polarisation is the so-called white backlash, the reaction of the white population to a demographic shift that threatens their dominant position in all arenas of power. Polarisation goes beyond politics to the basis of the social pyramid, affecting even consumer interests and lifestyle preferences (Ruch et al. 2020). The result is a polarised political system and an increasingly polarised society.
There has been a fundamental change in the ideological nature of the two major parties in the US, and this has contributed to the intensity of the country’s political polarisation. The two parties have been transformed from large associations encompassing wide ideological trends to ideologically homogeneous parties. In recent years partisan identities have gradually merged ‘with our racial, religious, geographic, ideological, and cultural identities’ (Klein 2020). These merged identities make the two-party system highly polarised and rigid and have ‘attain[ed] a weight that is breaking our institutions and tearing all the bonds that hold this country together’ (Klein 2020).
Democratic institutions rest on norms, as well as ‘on compromise, cooperation, respect for truth and are bolstered by an active, self-confident citizenry and a free press. When democratic values come under attack and the press and civil society are neutralized, the institutional safeguards lose their power. The gradual erosion of checks and balances thus gives way to sudden institutional collapse’ (Acemoglu 2020). The Trump
presidency not only assaulted democratic institutions; perhaps equally importantly, ‘he destroyed many Americans’ trust in their institutions’ (Acemoglu 2020).
The growing polarisation, distrust, intolerance, the intertwining of partisan affiliations with racial, ethnic, or religious identities, and the inability to forge political compromises across partisan divides’ are all signs of political decay (Diamond 2020). The term ‘political decay’ was first used by Huntington in his seminal 1968 work Political Order in Changing Societies to explain the instability in many developing countries after the Second World War. His argument was that ‘socioeconomic modernization caused problems for traditional political orders, leading to the mobilization of new social groups whose participation could not be accommodated by existing political institutions. Political decay was caused by the inability of institutions to adapt to changing circumstances’ (Fukuyama 2014).
Fukuyama has used Huntington’s term ‘political decay’ to account for the causes of political dysfunction in the US today. The political system is decaying, he argues, because its traditional system of checks and balances has become rigid: ‘In an environment of sharp political polarization, this decentralized system is less and less able to represent majority interests and gives excessive representation to the views of interest groups and activist organizations that collectively do not add up to a sovereign American people.’ Fukuyama is rather pessimistic about the prospect of political reform, predicting that political decay in America will continue ‘until some external shock comes along to catalyze a true reform coalition and galvanize it to action’ (Fukuyama 2014).
That parts of the American public place less trust in the country’s institutions is also due to the increasing inequalities that have obfuscated the American dream. In recent decades inequalities have grown exponentially in the US. In a 2014 article, Nick Hanauer writes, ‘During the past three decades, compensation for CEOs grew 127 times faster than it did for workers. Since 1950, the CEO-to-worker pay ratio has increased 1,000 percent . . . CEOs used to earn 30 times the median wage; now they rake in 500 times’ (Hanauer 2014).
Globalisation brought about trade and development but in a very uneven way. For example, increased trade with China and other low-wage countries accelerated the decline in manufacturing employment in the developed world, leaving many economically depressed communities behind. Manufacturing communities in the US saw their jobs shipped off to China and Mexico and experienced rising rates of unemployment at home.
One of the major effects of the post-1990 wave of globalisation in the US is the decoupling of corporations from local communities. Companies and corporations have always been social units as well as economic entities. Corporations were first created in medieval Europe as an independent vehicle to achieve economic progress but also to create prosperity for society or to build institutions for the public good, such as hospitals and universities (Schwab 2020).
However, corporations gradually abandoned this vision and embraced that of Milton Friedman. For the University of Chicago economist, ‘There is one and only one social responsibility of business. To use its resources and engage in activities designed to increase its profits’ (cited in Schwab 2020). In short, the business of business is strictly business. The result of the transition was that ‘wages in the United States started to stagnate. Union power declined. The natural environment deteriorated as the economy improved. Governments found it difficult to gather taxes from multinational corporations.
In the four decades since 1980, economic inequality of all forms has significantly increased’ (Schwab 2020). The economy looks like a bottleneck with the rich in the neck, the poor in the bottle and no wealth going through. Furthermore, the US has veered away from the post-war spirit of social responsibility and public service, expressed by Kennedy’s ‘Ask what you can do for your country’, to the ‘Greed is good’ ethos of personal and corporate wealth aggrandisement. Eventually ‘the market became everything, public service was devalued, and taxes were for suckers’ (Walt 2020).
Inequalities were also exacerbated by the fourth industrial technological revolution. Technological changes created a new social stratification between technologically literate and technologically illiterate citizens and workers. Workers were being left behind, either because automation was leading them to unemployment or because they did not have the means to acquire the new skills essential to re-enter the workforce.
This was not the only impact of technology on American democracy, however. The growth of gigantic Internet platforms that wielded so much control over political communication posed a big challenge. ‘These behemoths now dominate the dissemination of information and the coordination of political mobilization . . . No liberal democracy is content to entrust concentrated power to individuals based on assumptions about their good intentions’ (Fukuyama et al. 2021).
Globalisation intensified inequalities, but the information available gave people immediate knowledge of those disparities. Citizens could now have all the data at hand and could make comparisons, and that brought resentment.
During the twentieth century political competition in the US was mainly defined by economic issues. The Democratic Party was largely associated with policies that favoured increased government spending, a larger welfare state and regulations on business. The Republican Party, in turn, was associated with policies that favoured limited government, fewer safety nets and more laissez-faire policies. In the twentyfirst century political competition appears to centre around the issue of identity.
Political struggles do not revolve solely around economic conflict anymore, but around the resentment of groups in society that believe their dignity has been affronted and their rights have been violated. The left shifted its emphasis from the ‘conditions of the working class to the often psychological demands of an ever-widening circle of marginalized groups’ (Fukuyama 2018). According to Fukuyama, the Hegelian struggle for
recognition, as the ultimate driver of human history, is the essence of identity politics— and it is this that drives a large part of the political struggles today.
McCoy and Press argue that one of the reasons that the US is so polarised is ‘the durability of identity politics in a racially and ethnically diverse democracy’ (2022). As the Black Lives Matter and #MeToo movements have shown, identity politics was a natural and inevitable response to injustice. More importantly, these movements have brought about a social awakening, and changes in public policy and cultural norms in the direction of greater socioeconomic equality.
However, the right used identity politics to focus on, and subsequently to mobilise, other groups of society that fall outside of the cultural scope of the new left. These groups include working-class people that have become impoverished or have been left behind because of the negative effects of globalisation or automation and the forces of the technological revolution, and farmers and farm households that have low income and low wealth. Among a significant segment of white American society that has been dragged into the underclass and feels threatened
by other social groups, there has been a negative reaction, the white backlash. Thus, a new political competition has emerged alongside cultural and identity politics.
A side effect of this identity politics is the issue of political correctness, which has also mobilised the right. Trump’s rhetoric and behaviour would have ended the career of any politician in the past. For many of his supporters, Trump may be ‘mendacious, malicious, bigoted, and unpresidential, but at least he says what he thinks’ (Fukuyama 2018, 119). By attacking political correctness head on, Trump ‘was moving the focus of identity politics from the left, where it was born, to the right, where it is now taking root’ (Fukuyama 2018, 119). The identity politics of the right includes ethnicity; the Christian religion; rural residence; and belief in traditional family values. Trump dangerously included race. In fact, he ‘was careful not to articulate overly racist views. But he has happily accepted support from individuals and groups that hold them. Since his rise, white nationalism has moved from a fringe movement to something much more mainstream in American politics’ (Fukuyama 2018, 120).
Identity politics was embraced by both the Democrats and the Republicans in a way that, far from helping to overcome urban–rural, religious–secular and racial–ethnic cleavages, actually exacerbated them (Edsall 2022). In an article that has been highly criticised by the left, Mark Lilla (2016) wrote that ‘American liberalism has slipped into a kind of moral panic about racial, gender, and sexual identity that has distorted liberalism’s message and prevented it from becoming a unifying force capable of governing.’ In a book he wrote a year later, Lilla insisted that Trump’s accession to the White House was a backlash against an obsession with identity politics on the part of the American
left: ‘We need no more marchers. We need more mayors’ (Lilla 2017, 37).
Be that as it may, it is clear that identity politics has contributed to the polarisation of the political system. The Republican Party has moved to more conservative and extremist views, as represented by its Tea Party wing, while the Democratic Party has veered to
the left (Mann and Ornstein 2012).
Political polarisation, institutional factors, inequalities and identity politics are testing the constitutional stability of American democracy. Trump’s presidency weakened its institutions and traditions and assaulted the system’s checks and balances. Trump viciously attacked the separation of powers, the free press, the independent judiciary and the integrity of elections. He exacerbated existing weaknesses in the political system.
But more importantly he intensified political polarisation to such an extent that it is difficult to see how it could be reversed. Polarisation within the political system has trickled down to the electorate. In this way it has become self-perpetuating in that it places ideological
extremists in both parties at an advantage and leads to a situation where those running for office increasingly hold extreme views. According to McCoy and Press (2022), ‘only 16 of the 52 countries that reached levels of pernicious polarization succeeded in achieving depolarization.’
Polarisation is also fed by the ‘identity wars’ between the two parties. The remedy, perhaps, is not to abandon the idea of identity but to ‘define larger and more integrative national identities that take into account the de facto diversity of existing liberal democratic societies’ (Fukuyama 2018).
In 1941 Roosevelt made his Four Freedoms speech, which proposed four fundamental liberties that people everywhere in the world ought to enjoy: freedom of speech, freedom of worship, freedom from want and freedom from fear. He also outlined the benefits of democracy, which included economic opportunity, employment, social security and the promise of adequate health care. In this way he outlined a common ‘national good’, and his New Deal policies extended economic prosperity to almost all Americans.
Today American democracy needs another New Deal. It needs enlightened leadership and a reform coalition that will bring about not only institutional changes but also, and more importantly, inclusive economic policies and a renewed focus on citizenship, duty and shared purpose. Otherwise, it is threatened with political decay.
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AUKUS was an agreement high on symbolism but low on substance.
It symbolised the continuity of the “Pivot to Asia” policy through three successive Presidencies, from Obama, to Trump, to Biden. In terms of strategic substance, however, it did not add much to existent collective security arrangements. The US and Australia were already formally bound together, along with New Zealand in a tripartite collective defense agreement (ANZUS). The signatories of AUKUS are also members of other security arrangements, such as the “Five Eyes” agreement on sharing intelligence, that includes Canada and New Zealand.
Furthermore, AUKUS is not an alliance in the strict sense of the term, in that it does not include a collective defence commitment like NATO’s Article 5does. Accordingly, it does not provide for automatic collective action in the event, let us say, of a Chinese provocation in Taiwan. All this may have amounted, in strategic terms, to a storm in a teacup, if the Biden administration had not infuriated the French and annoyed the Europeans with the way it handled the whole issue.
The French were infuriated because the largest arms export deal in French history (roughly 56 billion euros) was “stolen” from them, and to add insult to injury to Macron, it happened less than a year from the French elections. The deal was struck in secrecy, with the Americans and the Australians failing to inform the French that they were involved in parallel negotiations. This is not supposed to happen among allies and friends, and the French struck back accusing the parties involved of lies, duplicity, and a major breach of trust. The agreement was also a real blow to France’s Indo-Pacific strategy, meticulously developed over the last several years, along the Paris-New Delhi-Canberra axis.
Finally, there was the ghost of Nassau. The French felt, once again in their history, slighted by the Anglo-Saxons. In December 1962, it was the Kennedy administration that tried to appease the Macmillan government over the cancellation of the Skybolt missile project that was supposed to provide the basis of the UK’s independent nuclear deterrence. In order to appease the British, the Kennedy administration conceded to provide them with the Polaris missiles that represented a much more technologically advanced missile system. De Gaulle became outraged over the special treatment of the British by the Americans and the fact that a similar deal wasn’t extended to the French. He castigated this “Anglo-Saxon collusion” and, months later, blocked Britain’s entry into the EEC. It would be the beginning of de Gaulle’s independent foreign policy. The force de frappe, the “all azimuth strategy”, and the eventual French withdrawal from NATO’s military structure would become de Gaulle’s heretical actions within the Western camp during the apex of the Cold War.
The AUKUS agreement felt like déjà vu to the French political elite. It was no accident that the French opposition revived the Gaullist rhetoric, while the official French communiqué talked about “the need to raise loud and clear the issue of European strategic autonomy”.
If the French felt betrayed by AUKUS, the Europeans felt that the honeymoon between the European Union and the Biden administration came to an abrupt end. First, it was America’s hasty withdrawal from Afghanistan that did not give the Europeans enough time to withdraw their own people. Second, it was the troubling aspect of AUKUS that included Britain at the expense of a European member state, giving Brexiters the pretext to boast that they have delivered on their promises on a post-Brexit “Global Britain”.
AUKUS reminded Europeans that Europe’s geopolitical significance to American policymakers has declined after the dissolution of the Soviet Union and the rise of China. More importantly, it was a sad reminder that Europe is not viewed by the US as a global power with whom America needs to deepen cooperation to face common challenges.
Suddenly, Europeans realised that Trump might be gone, but his policies remain, and Biden’s comforting words on the value of transatlantic ties did not amount to much more than words. It is no coincidence that besides the offended French, the Germans, the staunchest transatlanticists of the continent, argued that AUKUS “ought to be a wake-up call for all Europeans”.
No one in Europe would argue against America’s urgent priority to focus on China’s rise and the need to deal with the challenges of China’s global agenda. The “Pivot to Asia”, however, together with the American withdrawal from other regions, send the wrong signals to other revisionist authoritarian powers such as Russia. They signal that America is receding from its role as a global hegemon, abdicating its global responsibilities. Furthermore, while America may be pivoting to Asia, China is pivoting everywhere, as its globally ambitious “Belt and Road” strategy suggests. Whereas China is emerging as a global power, America is perceived to be posturing as a regional Pacific power.
The United States needs to address the rising Chinese challenge across the globe and in every relevant policy area. In this effort, “Pivoting to Asia” will not suffice. To effectively meet the Chinese challenge, America will need to resume its global reach. Doing so will require the cooperation of the European Union, and the unity of the Transatlantic Alliance. A united West “Pivoting to Eurasia” is a much more geopolitically sensible strategy to effectively counter China’s growing challenge.
This article analyses how the COVID-19 pandemic has affected the relationship between Europe and the US, and provides suggestions on how transatlantic cooperation should be taken forward. The pandemic has increased public distrust of the US in Europe due to the way the former has chosen to respond to COVID-19. However, this article argues that the pandemic has mainly accelerated existing transatlantic differences rather than creating new ones. To restore the transatlantic relationship, Europe and the US should strengthen their cooperation on common challenges such as climate change, health security, China, terrorism and migration. COVID-19 has highlighted the limitations of nationalist and unilateral policies in confronting global challenges. It may, in the end, provide the impetus for a rejuvenated transatlantic partnership and build a renewed sense of transatlantic solidarity.
EU, US, Transatlantic relationship, COVID-19, China, International relations
The novel coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic has not outright caused changes in international relations. Rather, it has reinforced and accelerated fundamental characteristics of the international system that had already appeared before the crisis (Haass 2020a, 2). The same holds true for its effect on transatlantic relations.
The reputation of the US has declined sharply over the past year, even among its key allies and partners. For example, just 41% of the public in the UK express a favourable opinion of the US. In France, only 31% see the US positively, and in Germany only 26% (Wike et al. 2020). Never in the history of Pew polling has the US ranked this low. This decline has been the result of its handling of the pandemic and of concerns about racial injustice following the 25 May killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis, which led to massive protests in major cities of the US. Views of the administration of President Donald J. Trump have also deteriorated further, with a median of only 16% expressing confidence in him in the 13 countries surveyed (Wike et al. 2020).
Attitudes and public opinion aside, the pandemic is the latest in a series of mutual grievances between the two sides of the Atlantic over defence spending, trade, lack of consultation and much more. National responses to the pandemic brought about more grievances and tension.
In the face of medical supply shortages, both the United States and Europe turned inward. Washington ordered the 3M company to halt its export of N95 masks and to reroute its overseas production to the United States as part of a broader effort to meet domestic demand. The
European Union banned the export of face shields, gloves, masks, and protective garments for the same reason. (Donfried and Ischinger 2020, 1)
This transatlantic disarray opened a window of opportunity that Russia and China rushed to exploit. China, in particular, saw a chance to improve its image, which had been tarnished by its disastrous initial reaction of denial and cover up that had helped to spread the disease. It engaged in a massive public relations campaign, sending medical staff, gloves and masks to many European countries.
This article argues that, although COVID-19 has affected the transatlantic relationship negatively, US and European positions on several major issues had been diverging even before the pandemic. These include policy disagreements over Iraq, the Kyoto Protocol, the International Criminal Court, the Paris Climate Agreement, the nuclear deal with Iran, tariffs, digital taxation and the relocation of the US embassy in Israel to Jerusalem (Brattberg and Whineray 2020, 2). Trump’s unilateral withdrawal from the World Health Organization in the midst of a pandemic, and his refusal to join an international vaccine effort involving more than 170 nations has made things even worse. To restore the transatlantic relationship, Europe and the US should strengthen their cooperation on common challenges such as climate change, health security, China, terrorism and migration. Given that COVID-19 has highlighted the limitations of nationalist and unilateral policies in confronting global challenges, it may, in the end, provide the impetus for a rejuvenated transatlantic partnership and build a renewed sense of transatlantic solidarity.
The rest of the article is divided into four sections. The first provides a brief overview of transatlantic relations under the Trump administration. The second looks at how the transatlantic alliance oscillates between ‘strategic dependence’ and a future of ‘strategic autonomy’, even though the most sensible and mutually beneficial posture would be ‘strategic complementarity’. The third looks at the increasing strategic significance of China, and how US and European policies towards Beijing shape the transatlantic relationship. The fourth and final section concludes the article.
Transatlantic relations under Trump
The Trump administration has widened the rift between the two sides of the Atlantic. Trump’s offensive and divisive rhetoric has alienated Europeans. His comments on the EU being a ‘foe’ or ‘competitor’, Germany being ‘very bad’ and a ‘captive of Russia’, NATO being ‘obsolete’ and so many others have insulted European leaders and offended European public opinion. He is perceived as impulsive and unpredictable, making unilateral decisions such as the withdrawal of US forces from Syria or Germany without prior consultation with European Allies (Brattberg and Whineray 2020).
Europeans loathe Trump’s transactional approach to foreign policy with its emphasis on making gains in short-term deals rather than in managing long-term relationships. They have a hard time understanding his antagonising of America’s allies and dismantling of international institutions that were built under the leadership of the US and, for the most part, have served American interests well. His rhetoric and policies have sapped confidence in his leadership in general and his commitment to the transatlantic partnership in particular (Arvanitopoulos 2019).
His handling of the pandemic has further eroded trust in his leadership. The belief in Europe that the ‘adults in the room’, that is, the seasoned professionals that occupy key positions in the administration, would temper his erratic behaviour came crumbling down with the pandemic. Trump has shown total disrespect for science and scientists in his handling of the pandemic and thus has exacerbated the crisis.
Finally, the pandemic has highlighted the ‘spillover effect’ of Trumpism in Europe. Views of Trump are more positive among Europeans who have favourable views of right-wing populist parties. Consequently, positive ratings of America’s response to the pandemic are linked to support for right-wing populist parties and political ideology within several countries. ‘Those on the extreme right are more likely to think that the US has done a good job handling the outbreak’ (Wike et al. 2020).
The Trump Presidency and the evolution of American public opinion have created significant political uncertainty in Europe about the future of transatlantic relations. European policymakers are trying to understand and assess whether these recent developments reflect a permanent change and divergence between the two sides of the Atlantic or whether they represent temporary trends. Differences on policy issues, quarrels over ‘burden sharing’ and clashes in the personalities of the leaderships have often appeared along the trajectory of the transatlantic partnership. They have not, so far, managed to create a permanent and irreparable rift between the two sides of the Atlantic.
The US reaction to the pandemic, however, has reinforced the notion that the direction of the Trump administration reflects a structural change in US foreign policy and American public opinion. The first to express this concern was German Chancellor Angela Merkel with her statement on ‘taking our fate into our own hands’ during the first skirmishes with the Trump administration and Trump’s visit to Europe. Following Trump’s announcement of the US withdrawal from the Iran nuclear deal, Merkel came back with a stronger statement: ‘it is not the case that the United States of America will simply protect us. Instead, Europe must take its destiny in its own hands. That is our job for the future’ (Merkel 2018).
And so the concept of ‘strategic autonomy’ has become the focal point of European policy. EU member states have signed a new defence agreement for Permanent Structured Cooperation, a legally binding framework for the most willing and able member states to work on project-based joint capability development. In addition, they have established a joint European Defence Fund, for which the European Council proposed a €7.014 billion budget for 2021–7 in July. They have also created smaller EU Battlegroups to respond to and prevent crises (Nováky 2017).
The asymmetry in power between Europe and the US, the notion of the ‘uneven barbell’ in the defence area, created a European dependence on the US for its security during the Cold War which continues to persist. American pre-eminence was conceded by the Europeans in return for American nuclear protection. Both sides of the Atlantic benefited from this arrangement. The EU could not have sustained its pan-European dream without the American security guarantee, and the US could not have maintained a strong global reach without a powerful and self-sufficient Europe. European free-riding in defence was allowed because a united Western Europe was considered vital in the overarching American Cold War strategy.
The eclipse of the Soviet threat after the collapse of the USSR and the rise of China have led the US to increasingly abdicate its responsibilities for Europe and ‘pivot to Asia’. Trump’s hostility to NATO and the EU has sent Europeans back to the drawing board. The European vision of ‘strategic autonomy’, on the other hand, has raised scepticism in the US. ‘US policymakers would prefer Europeans to spend more on military power within the confines of NATO, an idea that is based on the assumption that a more capable Europe would still follow the United States’ lead’ (Polyakova and Haddad 2020). It is unlikely, however, that Europe with a defence capability will blindly follow the US.
US policymakers face a dilemma: ‘do they prefer to maintain a weak and divided Europe that is aligned with their interests and dependent on US power? Or are they ready to deal with a more forceful and autonomous partner that will sometimes go against their favoured policies?’ (Polyakova and Haddad 2020). Aside from legitimate fears of unnecessary duplication with the NATO alliance, the Trump administration’s negative stance towards European defence cooperation is counterintuitive. Increased European spending on defence addresses the ‘burden sharing’ issue, and the strengthening of European forces benefits both NATO and the EU.
The strengthening of European defence should gently situate the transatlantic alliance, which oscillates between a condition of ‘strategic dependence’ and a future of ‘strategic autonomy’, in the sensible and mutually beneficial posture of ‘strategic complementarity’.
This outcome would be more easily facilitated by a new US administration. For many Europeans, Trump, with his ‘America first’ slogan and his antipathy towards the EU and NATO, has forfeited his ability to bring unity to the transatlantic partnership.
Pivot to Eurasia
There seems to be an additional reason for the growing psychological distancing between the US and Europe. Europeans are concerned that the eastern American establishment, which had traditionally been dominant in US policy formulation, is no longer in control. US foreign policy has shifted towards Asia, bringing to power people of political influence without a strong European orientation. This estrangement is not only due to high politics, but also to trends in demographics and public opinion. European immigration to the US is declining and, consequently, the role of Europeans in shaping the US political landscape is also declining (Ganesh 2020).
The lack of interest in Europe is a trend particularly evident in the falling interest in European studies at American universities. This declining interest in Europe has come about as a result of the fact that Europe is no longer the strategic theatre of geopolitics. The dissolution of the Soviet Union, its succession by a declining Russia and the rise of China have moved the geopolitical pendulum to Asia.
China poses a serious challenge to American and Western interests. It is not only challenging American geopolitical interests in South-East Asia, but with its grand geopolitical design of the ‘One Belt One Road Initiative’, it is trying to alter the balance of power in the Eurasian landmass. It also poses a challenge to the global economic system and the Western liberal order (Arvanitopoulos 2019).
The US ‘pivot to Asia’ preceded the Trump administration. It was a policy created under the Obama–Biden administration and will certainly not be reversed by a Biden Presidency. The truth of the matter is that since George W. Bush all presidents have followed a policy of disengagement from Europe that has differed only in scope and style.
Concern with Asia is not a new element of US foreign policy. There has always been a strong tradition of US involvement in Asia, dating all the way back to Andrew Jackson and Theodore Roosevelt. In 1906 Roosevelt was the first American president to be awarded the Nobel Peace Prize for his backchannel efforts to broker the Treaty of Portsmouth that ended the Russo-Japanese war. The US, a continental nation reaching
from the Atlantic to the Pacific, has always kept one eye to the west, like the Roman god Janus. The shift to the Pacific is here to stay. The Quad, the new security forum formed of the US, Japan, Australia and India, is a response to the rising challenge of China. ‘The call of Asia is too loud in Washington’ (Ganesh 2020).
The US–China feud under the Trump administration has mainly been about trade issues. His withdrawal from the Trans-Pacific Partnership Agreement was a result of his fixation on the idea that every transaction ought to be a zero-sum game, with a winner and a loser. Trump was eager to strike his own bilateral trade deal with China and sell it to his electorate in glowing terms. It was only after the COVID-19 pandemic hit the US that Trump’s rhetoric towards China became bellicose. Now that the ‘Chinese virus’ was threatening his presidency, the rhetoric of his administration shifted to pitting the ‘free world’ against a new ‘tyranny’. A Democratic administration is more likely to put values and human rights at the centre of its foreign policy towards China.
On the other hand, China’s increased economic and political footprint in Europe has led to growing concern among policymakers. The absence of a unified policy approach has given China increased leverage on a bilateral basis with EU member states. The size of Chinese investments has led some critics to suggest that Chinese money could replace Russian energy as a source of significant influence in Europe. In response to these concerns, the European Commission promoted, and the European Parliament adopted legislation requiring transparency and screening of Chinese investments, more controls over potential Chinese dumping, and more scrutiny of China’s offers to provide debt-based infrastructure financing and low-cost loans (Congressional Research Service 2019). In March 2019, the EU released a new EU–China Strategic Outlook, which stated that China is an economic competitor in the pursuit of technological leadership, and a systemic rival promoting alternative models of governance. This document requires all member states doing business with China to ensure compliance with EU law, rules and policies (European Commission and High Representative of the Union for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy 2019).
Europe will not strictly follow the US lead when it comes to defining its relationship with China. As Macron put it, ‘we have the right not to be outright enemies with our friends’ enemies’ (Economist 2019). When Europeans were asked in a poll, which side, if any, their country should take in a US–China conflict, their overwhelming answer was neither (Ganesh 2020). At the same time, there is a security concern in Europe with
respect to its technology base and its 5G networks. China’s role in connecting billions of sensitive information and communication technology systems in crucial sectors has become a concern not only in the US but in Europe as well.
If security concerns in Europe and the US are one aspect of a common approach regarding China, the other is the issue of values and democracy. It is the alternative political model that China presents, and more importantly, the revenue it offers to struggling governments that give weak democracies the capacity to pull away from the West. This dynamic is most apparent in Eastern Europe and the Balkans, where China has made major infrastructure investments (Kendall-Taylor and Shullman 2018). This became particularly evident during the pandemic crisis, when China engaged in a massive public relations campaign by airlifting medical equipment to win the hearts and minds of the citizens of these states.
The defence of the Western ideals of democracy, freedom and human rights; a free market economy; and the security of the West are better served by a common approach and a strong transatlantic partnership. The US may be pivoting to Asia, but China has been pivoting to Europe through a series of bilateral agreements with member states and heavy investments. The Belt and Road Initiative exceeds regional ambitions and is indicative of China’s global aspirations. America’s ‘pivot to Asia’ is a regional response to a global challenge that defies the geopolitical concept of Eurasia as an undivided space. To meet the challenge of China, the two pillars of the West, the US and Europe, need to form a unified response across Eurasia.
Since 1985, the world has faced a number of pandemic crises, from Aids, SARS and Ebola, to H1N1 and COVID-19. Despite the nationalisation of the immediate response to the current crisis, citizens and policymakers on both sides of the Atlantic increasingly realise that an effective response to the problem requires more, rather than less, cooperation. Europe and the US need to work together to tackle this and future pandemics. This cooperation must be based ‘on an agreed transatlantic pandemic strategy that defines what constitutes a pandemic, explains protocols for early containment and mitigation, and details how to manage the outbreak collectively if it spreads globally’ (Donfried and Ischinger 2020).
The US and Europe should work together to reform and strengthen the World Health Organization so that it can provide ‘an early warning commitment not only by national governments but also by regional health authorities, research labs, and companies to report outbreaks of epidemic diseases’ (Donfried and Ischinger 2020). Pandemics, however, are just one of the many global challenges that require enhanced cooperation between the two sides of the Atlantic. Climate change is becoming the defining issue of the twenty-first century, and one that no single country can tackle on its own (Haass 2020b, 192). Terrorism, cybersecurity and the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction are some of the other global challenges that we face today that require a strong transatlantic partnership.
Migration and refugee issues are becoming a serious problem in world affairs. Whether people leave their countries for economic reasons, to avoid conflicts and civil wars or, increasingly, because of climate change, the numbers are rising. Currently, there are some 250 million migrants in the world (Haass 2020b, 123). This is another global problem that requires increased cooperation. This holds especially true for the EU and the US, since they have the capacity to address the causes and conditions that lead to migration and it is in both their interests to do this.
The COVID-19 crisis has highlighted the limitations of nationalist and unilateral policies in confronting global challenges. The pandemic and the numerous other global challenges we face may, in the end, provide the impetus for a rejuvenated transatlantic partnership and ‘build a renewed sense of transatlantic solidarity that can last through this emergency and beyond’ (Donfried and Ischinger 2020).
Arvanitopoulos, C. (2019). The renewal of vows: A new transatlantic chapter for Europe and America. The Wilfried Martens Centre for European Studies. Brussels.
Brattberg, E., & Whineray, D. (2020). How Europe views transatlantic relations ahead of the 2020 U.S. election. Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. 20 February.
Congressional Research Service. (2019). The European Union and China. 1 April. https://fas.org/sgp/crs/row/IF10252.pdf. Accessed 22 October 2020.
Donfried, K., & Ischinger, W. (2020). The pandemic and the toll of transatlantic discord. Foreign Affairs, 18 April.
Economist. (2019). Emmanuel Macron in his own words (English): the French president’s interview with The Economist. 7 November. https://www.economist.com/europe/2019/11/07/emmanuel-macron-in-his-own-words-english. Accessed 22 October 2020.
European Commission & High Representative of the Union for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy. (2019). EU–China – A strategic outlook. Joint Communication, JOIN (2019) 5 final, 12 March. https://ec.europa.eu/commission/sites/beta-political/files/communication-eu-chinaa-strategic-outlook.pdf. Accessed 22 October 2020.
Ganesh, J. (2020). Why America no longer looks to Europe. Financial Times, 9 October.
Haass, R. (2020a). The pandemic will accelerate history rather than reshape it. Foreign Affairs, 7 April.
Haass, R. (2020b). The world: A brief introduction. New York: Penguin Press.
Kendall-Taylor, A., & Shullman, D. (2018). How Russia and China undermine democracy. Can the West counter the threat? Foreign Affairs, 2 October. https://www.foreignaffairs.com/articles/china/2018-10-02/how-russia-and-china-undermine-democracy. Accessed 22 October 2020.
Merkel, A. (2018). Speech at the ceremony awarding the International Charlemagne Prize to French President Emmanuel Macron. Aachen, 10 May. https://www.bundesregierung.de/breg-en/chancellor/speech-by-federal-chancellor-dr-angela-merkel-at-the-ceremony-awarding-
the-international-charlemagne-prize-to-french-president-emmanuel-macron-in-aachenon-10-may-2018-1008554. Accessed 22 October 2020.
Nováky, N. (2017). In brief: Permanent Structured Cooperation: Engines ignited but not yet liftoff. Wilfried Martens Centre for European Studies. 14 November.
Nováky, N. (2018). In brief: New American scepticism on EU defence cooperation. Wilfried Martens Centre for European Studies. March.
Polyakova, A., & Haddad, B. (2019). Europe alone: What comes after the Transatlantic Alliance. Foreign Affairs, July/August.
Wike, R., Fetterolf, J., & Mordecai, M. (2020). U.S. image plummets internationally as most say country has handled coronavirus badly. Ratings for Trump remain poor. Pewresearch.org, 15 September. https://www.pewresearch.org/global/2020/09/15/us-image-plummets-internationally-as-most-say-country-has-handled-coronavirus-badly/. Accessed 22 October 2020.
George Floyd’s killing brought back the demons of racial discrimination and injustice in America. Demons that even Barack Obama, the first African American to hold the highest office in the land, was not able to exorcise, writes Constantine Arvanitopoulos.
The image and symbolism of an African American man asphyxiated by the knee of a white policeman on his neck, while he lay handcuffed and harmless on the street, was bound to ignite a fire. The inflammatory rhetoric of President Trump, the “divider-in-chief”, added fuel to the fire. President Trump’s heavy-handed law and order approach and his orchestrated photo-op, with Bible in hand in front of the church across Lafayette park, revealed his priorities: stirring up his base in view of the November election, rather than uniting the country.
It is not the first time that incidents of racial injustice and inequality have sparked protests in America. Repeated acts of physical and psychological brutality against African Americans over the years have revealed the depth of the structural racism that persists in America today. The magnitude and spontaneity of the current outburst, with its mostly peaceful and very inclusive demonstrations, is indicative of generational exhaustion with this systemic injustice. The breadth of social unrest is only reminiscent of 1968.
In 1968, the protests began as an expression of anger against the killing of Martin Luther King Jr. and the oppression of African Americans. They encompassed the lack of economic and educational opportunities and opposition to the Vietnam war. Today, demonstrations take place against the backdrop of widened inequalities.
This tale of two cities, the hard truth that not everyone is sharing the splendour and the glory of the “shining city on a hill”, has become a stain on the canvas of American politics. Neoliberal economic policies, along with globalisation and the technological revolution, have widened inequalities. African Americans and other non-privileged social groups have been disproportionally affected by the pandemic and the ensuing unemployment of 40 million Americans. To top it all off, the triple crisis of the pandemic, the recession, and racial injustice have revealed a divided society and a polarised political system.
These divisions are deepened by a President that is constantly looking to erect walls rather than trying to unite the country. President Trump haserected walls everywhere from Mexico to the White House. Even the People’s House has now become walled off from the people.
The situation in the US could not have gone unnoticed by the rest of the world. JFK used to say that a country is as strong abroad as it is at home. Trump’s response to the triple crisis has raised doubts about America’s competence, diminishing the superpower’s standing in the world.
America’s failure to lead in this global pandemic crisis has created a power vacuum exploited mainly by China. China initially responded to the crisis through cover-up and denial. It then managed to contain the virus through Draconian policy measures. Now, it is exploiting the absence of American leadership by engaging in a public relations campaign in Europe and elsewhere. It not only sent medical equipment but has now committed to sharing the vaccine against the virus as an international public good.
The pandemic crisis has revealed the deep scars in transatlantic relations. Both sides of the Atlantic turned inward to face all aspects of the crisis, from medical shortages, to travel bans, to the vaccine. At the same time, the crisis was a stark reminder of the fact that global challenges, such as a pandemic or climate change, require cooperative responses. Transatlantic solidarity in the face of such challenges is a one-way street. It will need to wait for the next tenant of the White House.
Racial injustice has also previously had an impact on America’s image abroad. As Secretary of State, Dean Rusk said in 1963, «I am speaking of the problem of discrimination…Our voice is mute, our friends are embarrassed, our enemies are gleeful». The recent incidents have undermined the moral voice of a pluralistic and democratic America, a champion of human rights and tolerance. Trump’s crude nativism and rhetoric of dominance in the streets of America have sparked demonstrations in Europe and elsewhere.
The image of a weakened America, distracted and introverted, is bound to whet the appetite of revisionist authoritarian powers. From Iran, to China, to Russia, to Turkey, all the world’s autocrats have exploited the militarised over-reaction of the Trump administration and the absence of American leadership.
America has shown remarkable powers of resilience and renewal in its history. It has proved capable of adaptation and change. It came out of the Great Depression with a reinvigorated democracy and economy and emerged victorious in WWII to construct a lasting peaceful international liberal order. This time around, however, will take much more than an election. Trump’s successor will face a Herculean task in restoring America at home and abroad.
Thucydides, in his Peloponnesian war, narrates how, in 430 B.C. – the first year of the war – a deadly plague devastated the city-state of Athens. It killed one third of its population leaving a deep scar on its society and its democracy.
Today, a deadly pandemic is threatening the world and the unity of Europe. Struggling to recover from the Eurozone crisis of 2009 and the refugee-migration crisis of 2015, Europe is now overwhelmed by a pandemic crisis of almost biblical proportions; disasters come in triads, says an old Greek saying.
As countries are scrambling to deal with the immediate requirements of a colossal health emergency, an even greater threat looms on the horizon. Economists are warning us of the threat of an economic depression greater than that of 1929.
Both aspects of the crisis require a concerted and comprehensive pan-European response. If the response to the health crisis is the prologue, however, the future looks ominous.
Italy’s cry for help remained unanswered for weeks from the European Union member states, dealing a blow to European solidarity. We will always be haunted by the images of the military lorries carrying the dead of the city of Bergamo. The pandemic has led to the renationalization of the decision-making process, the return of national sovereignty and national borders. This is due to the lack of a European Health Agency and the fact that invoking state of emergency measures has remained a prerogative of the member states. Even in the American federal system, local governors are leading the fight. The federal government, however, even under the erratic leadership of Donald Trump, has also come to the rescue.
It is to the detriment of Europe that instead of a show of solidarity and a concerted and comprehensive European response, we see member states looking to China for health aid and equipment.
The Chinese state, after an initial phase of denial and cover-up that has worsened the spread of the virus across the planet, ultimately resorted to Draconian measures to contain the virus. Now, the regime has engaged in a public relations campaign to absolve itself of its grave responsibilities. Adding health aid to its Belt and Road Initiative, it is trying to exploit the absence of European solidarity to increase its influence in the south of Europe. It is also trying to project its efficacy in contrast to the slow and ineffective western democracies.
If European solidarity crumbled under the health emergency, the upcoming economic Armageddon will be the real test for Europe. The first signs are alarming. Germany, which has rightly criticized the Trump administration for a very narrow conception of the national interest and the dismantling of the liberal order, is doing exactly the same. As America is sacrificing the liberal multilateral order on the altar of America First, Germany is sacrificing European unity and solidarity on the altar of German fiscal responsibility and Germany First.
We often conceptualize the European experiment as a winding road full of turns, steep curves, and detours. A process of muddling through trial, error, and adjustment. This pandemic, however, is a defining moment for the “European polis” because it threatens to infect the European “body politic” irreparably. In political philosophy’s great tradition, the analogy between disease and civil disorder was proposed to encourage rulers to show foresight (Machiavelli) and reason (Hobbes) to prevent fatal disorder, as Susan Sontag had shown in her brilliant 1973 essay.
The challenge now for the European leadership is to act decisively, collectively, and expediently to prevent the recession from turning into a prolonged depression. The tragic loss of life should mobilize European leadership to take action to avert loss of livelihood that will affect European societies and democracies. As Mario Draghi, the man that kept Europe alive during the Eurozone crisis, wrote echoing Keynes: unforeseen circumstances require a change of mindset. Keynes had also stated that, “when the facts change, I change my mind.” This is a war and wars are financed by public debt. Otherwise, the cost of inaction will be devastating. And, this time, those in Europe that do not listen to reason and adapt to change will have no one to blame but themselves.
- Working Paper
Greece’s economic crisis is a by-product of a deeper institutional, political and societal crisis. The crisis brought about a bailout programme conditional on fiscal and structural reform, as set forth in three successive memoranda of understanding between Greece and its creditors. The
domestic political class accepted these memoranda, albeit reluctantly. After the initial response with its populist overtones and the subsequent long and tortuous process of adjustment, the country now seems close to a consensus on a minimum reform agenda. However, Greece needs
a change of paradigm: a shift away from deep-rooted attitudes that have impaired the country’s tremendous potential, to a culture of reform and growth. Its political leadership has to come up with a plan, one embraced by the people, that will push the country out of the current catastrophic interlude and lead it into a new virtuous cycle.
Populism, Public administration reform, Modernisation, Financial crisis, Europe
In 1974 Prime Minister Konstantinos Karamanlis launched the most ambitious modernisation programme in modern Greek history. The peaceful restoration of democracy and Greece’s entry in 1981 into what was then the European Community ushered in a virtuous cycle that brought about political stability, institutional reforms and economic growth. Through an impeccable and orderly transition, Karamanlis established and subsequently consolidated the country’s modern democratic institutions. The monarchy was abolished through a free and well-organised referendum, and Greece adopted a modern and democratic constitution. Membership of NATO and the European Community guaranteed
security, political stability and economic growth. At long last the country was leaving behind a history of poverty and political turbulence.
However, four decades later, Greece was hit by the worst crisis of its post–Second World War history. The Greek state went bankrupt for the fifth time since its creation in the nineteenth century. What went wrong? What precipitated this modern Greek tragedy that has cost the country one-quarter of its gross domestic product (GDP), high unemployment rates especially among young people, a new wave of emigration, a brain drain,
and societal and political malaise? The debate on the causes of the crisis has revolved around numbers, economic indicators and indexes. Furthermore, a heated debate on the bailout programmes1 has divided Greek society. However, Greece’s economic crisis is a by-product of a deeper institutional, political and societal crisis.
Karamanlis’s successors failed to complete the ambitious reform project he had started in 1974. The political system regressed to the clientelistic and populist politics of the past and to an economic model of parasitic consumerism. The country lived beyond its means, slipping into a model of ‘borrowed prosperity’. The 2008 international financial crisis exposed and exacerbated Greece’s structural deficiencies. The international financial markets questioned Greece’s ability to service its foreign debt, and interest rates skyrocketed. Greece was forced to officially request assistance from its partners in the EU and the IMF. The result was a bailout programme with severe fiscal adjustment terms imposed by its lenders. The country’s standard of living was painfully brought back down from the inflated levels that excessive borrowing had enabled to the level of the true production potential of the Greek economy. Instead of being self-critical, the political elite and society at large looked for scapegoats: someone else was to blame for all our problems. In the past it had been Uncle Sam. Now it was Wolfgang Schäuble, Germany’s Finance Minister in 2009–17. This led to a sharp increase in Euroscepticism.
The populist politics of the 1980s
The first signs of the Greek debt crisis were already visible in the early 1980s. When Karamanlis’s successor Andreas Papandreou took over the premiership in 1981, he opted to discontinue the ambitious reform project started in 1974. Instead, he adopted a populist approach to government, which turned the state bureaucracy and public administration into the spoils of party politics. He put off much-needed structural reforms in critical sectors such as education, healthcare and social security. The Greek state and households resorted to massive borrowing to sustain a consumerist model which was beyond their actual means.
Under Papandreou’s leadership, the 1980s brought about the restoration of old party politics. The political system that emerged after the military junta (1967–74) was bipolar, with two contending parties: New Democracy (Nea Dimokratia) on the centre–right and the Pan-Hellenic Socialist Movement (Panellinio Sosialistiko Kinima, PASOK) on the centre–left. These parties were spin-offs of two pre-junta parties: the National Radical Union (Ethniki Rizospastiki Enosis) and the Centre Union (Enosis Kentrou). What made the old and new party systems similar was that both retained the cult of leadership surrounding their charismatic founders and the system of patronage that has characterisedthe Greek state since its creation. Furthermore, the transition to democracy did not eliminate the patriarchal structure of Greek society and the clientelistic nature of the political system (Kondylis 1995, 11–47). PASOK, founded by Papandreou, not only perpetuated this patron–client system but further developed it, adapting it to mass politics and mass democracy. Votes were traded for favours, jobs and benefits. Instead of becoming an
agent for economic growth and institutional reform, the civil service and public administration functioned for the benefit of the clientelistic networks of the governing parties. In essence the state bureaucracy and the public administration became the facilitators of this patron–client system. The party that won the elections would make control of the state bureaucracy its first priority.
In the hands of the governing party, the state bureaucracy and public administration became the employer of party clients. Hiring was done on the basis of party affiliation rather than merit. General directors were replaced by secretary generals, who were party apparatchiks. The sweeping turnover of secretary generals after each election and the transfer of responsibility for policy formulation and implementation to reluctant employees led to bureaucratic inertia and institutional discontinuity. The total lack of evaluation and the absence of incentives and sanctions further impaired the effectiveness and efficiency of the public administration.
This malaise was aggravated by the adoption of the Single Payroll in 1984 and the Single Rating System in 1986. Pay and promotion were totally decoupled from performance, and positions from responsibilities (Iordanoglou 2013, 24–5; see also Kalyvas 2015, 203–4). The public administration did not operate on the basis of rational organisational rules that recognised merit and efforts made in the service of public interest. Inevitably, it became a vehicle for the promotion of corporate and party interests and a breeding ground for corruption and opaqueness.
In education the populist fervour of the socialists had equally disastrous results. Every notion of evaluation and excellence was exorcised. Evaluation was abolished from the school system and school standards were lowered. A mentality characterised by a levelling egalitarianism and catering to the lowest common denominator was grafted onto the education system. In higher education party affiliation and the participation of students in the election of university administrative bodies brought about a culture of corruption. The student movement was depoliticised and turned into a guild.
Overall, PASOK’s populism in the 1980s proved to be disastrous. It corrupted Greek society’s system of values and led to moral relativism and cynicism. Traditional values such as family, religion, law and order, meritocracy and evaluation were marginalised and replaced by a hedonistic materialism and an unbridled consumerism that relied on the influx of cheap European money. The dependence of citizens’ professional careers on party membership corrupted the ethos of society and the quality of our democratic system. The clientelistic character of politics contaminated parties with a statist and populist attitude. Parties and politicians became the all-powerful donors, and the individual interests of client- citizens were satisfied through loopholes in the law, amendments and favours. With the establishment of mass democracy, clientelism was transferred from the level of the citizens to the level of interest groups. And in the era of the citizen-consumer, it took the form of
satisfying consumer demands and safeguarding the level of consumption, even though this was beyond the country’s productive potential. Material benefits were provided to interest groups in exchange for their political support. The osmosis between interest groups and
parties reached the point where ‘parties eventually became captives of their executives’ particular interests in every area’ (Μavrogordatos 2005, 238–9, author’s translation).
The collusion between, on the one hand, citizens and interest groups that embraced the parasitic consumption model and, on the other, the political elites that promoted it to perpetuate their stay in power distorted the political system and led to an overall crisis. Moreover, the electoral system reproduced old party cleavages and systems of patronage, making it almost impossible for any politician to carry out the much-needed reforms for fear of being voted out of office. This fear undermined the reform project.
The missed opportunity of Economic and Monetary Union
Greece’s entry and integration into the European Economic Community, the EU and then the eurozone were opportunities to modernise and rationalise the country’s economic model. That is, they were opportunities to converge with the other European economies and adapt to the requirements of the competitive environment of the globalised economy. But instead of moving in this direction, the country channelled European funds into consumerism, and not into productive investments. Agricultural production is a typical example. As Maravegias (2010, 11, author’s translation) notes, ‘[t]he policy of the 1980s was a continuous increase in income subsidies without any provision to improve the
international competitiveness of the agricultural sector, thus avoiding the necessary structural and institutional changes (land use, regulation of succession law, definition of professional farmers, taxation of farm income, etc.).’
In the 1980s, years dubbed ‘the age of populism’, public debt tripled, rising from 28% of GDP in 1980 to 89% in 1990 (Kathimerini 2011). By 2003 it had climbed to 98% of GDP. In the 1980s, Greece had the largest increase in civil servants in its history. From 1981 to 1991 the public sector ballooned by 42% (Iordanoglu 2013, 121–34). Attempts at structural changes made in the 1990s failed to reform the public administration and improve the competitiveness of the Greek economy. The subsequent entry into the eurozone led to improvements in the economy and living standards, but, at the same time, to the relaxation of macroeconomic policy and to an increase in fiscal deficits (Alogoskoufis 2016).
Private consumption and public expenditure rose at breakneck speed.
Both were fuelled to a large extent by access to low-cost lending funds from domestic and international capital markets and the banking system. Beginning with the liberalisation of the financial system in 1994, consumer and mortgage loans to households increased rapidly. With the country’s accession to the Economic and Monetary Union (EMU) in 2001, access to international money and capital markets for the state, banks and businesses was almost unlimited. Nominal and real lending rates fell dramatically. The inflows of foreign capital facilitated an explosive increase in bank funding at an average annual rate of 20%—three times faster than the nominal GDP. Private investments, although increased in size and as a percentage of GDP, were to a considerable extent in residential construction and not productive activities. (Karamouzis and Anastasatos 2011, 3, author’s translation; see Kalyvas 2015, 215).
The standard of living improved significantly. In 2005 Greece ranked twenty-second in the quality-of-life index, above countries like Germany, Belgium and France (Economist Intelligence Unit 2005). But this prosperity had feet of clay. The excessive public and private borrowing and the waste of resources left the country over-indebted (Arvanitopoulos 2014, 15–37). As Alogoskoufis (2016, author’s translation) explains,
The increase in investments and the reduction of savings led in 1998 to large deficits in the current-account balance. The already high public debt continued to be replenished but for the most part was gradually converted into a foreign debt. The Greek banks extended their lending domestically, and to obtain liquidity, they made Greek state bonds they held from the past available abroad, contributing significantly to the conversion of public debt into foreign debt.
This model of state-owned entrepreneurship, mass public-sector employment, excessive borrowing (by the state and households) and super-consumerism supported and reproduced anachronistic structures of development and power. It displayed low receptiveness to the promotion of structural changes and the assimilation of technological innovations that would have helped increase productivity and improve the competitiveness of the economy. The country borrowed heavily and, eventually, sank into debt.
The budget deficits widened when the 2008 financial crisis erupted. Karamanlis, Prime Minister in the New Democracy government at the time, proposed a series of courageous measures to curb the public deficit and debt. He warned about the severity of the crisis and sought the consent of the major political parties to deal with it (Papathanasiou 2011). PASOK, on the other hand, refused to agree to a candidate for president of the
Republic and forced an early election. Running under the slogan ‘There is money’ and promising everything to everyone and benefits exceeding €15 billion, it won the elections. When it came to power, its delayed reaction in dealing with the crisis proved to be disastrous. The international financial markets questioned Greece’s ability to service the foreign debt and the spreads began to widen.
A series of mistakes by PASOK’s political leaders transformed a deficit problem into a borrowing problem. These mistakes worsened the country’s position and led it into a tailspin. Alogoskoufis has written that, due to ‘these domestic political mistakes and because of the European Central Bank’s failure to function as a lender of last resort for EU governments and commercial banks, Greece was faced with a sudden halt in borrowing from the international financial system, which led to it officially requesting assistance from its partners in the EU and the IMF’ (2016, author’s translation).
To face the crippling economic crisis, Greece’s government accepted a financial bailout programme that was conditional on an economic and financial adjustment programme and structural reforms. This was reflected in three successive memoranda of understanding between Greece and its international partners. The domestic political class accepted the conditions, albeit reluctantly. The imposition of long-needed reforms by Greece’s lenders resulted in the reform project losing popular support. Initially, most political parties took an anti-memoranda stance, reassuring their voters that it would soon be possible to return to business as usual. The apotheosis of populism and irresponsibility came when the Coalition of the Radical Left (Synaspismos Rizospastikis Aristeras, SYRIZA) opposition party and its leadership rose to power on a spree of promises that raised unrealistic expectations in the midst of Greece’s most severe crisis.
Eventually, Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras, leader of SYRIZA, developed a more pragmatic approach towards the memoranda of understanding. Unfortunately, Tsipras’s gradual transition to pragmatism came after the catastrophic first eight months and negotiations with the lenders that cost the country almost €80 billion in additional debt and resulted in a bank run and the imposition of capital controls. Greece’s recovering economy was derailed again and thrown back into recession. Everything that had been achieved by the New Democracy – PASOK coalition government between 2012 and 2015 was wasted. So were the immense sacrifices of the Greek people.
On a positive note, New Democracy, now in opposition, elected a new leadership on a pro-reform agenda and not on the basis of anti-memoranda rhetoric. If successful in the next election, as the polls indicate, it will not have been elected under false premises. And today’s governing coalition, which is led by SYRIZA, will have great difficulty returning to its irresponsible past. For the first time since the crisis erupted, the major Greek parties will be in sync with the politics of pragmatism and reform. Following a period of populism and the subsequent long and tortuous process of adjustment, the country seems close to a minimum consensus on a sensible reform agenda.
Such a consensus is especially urgent at a time when rapid changes on a global scale are adding elements of uncertainty and risk to today’s reality. Globalisation has brought new levels of development and prosperity. At the same time, however, it has created new inequalities both between and within countries (Steger 2006). Together with international and domestic conflicts, these inequalities have been creating waves of migrants and refugees that are testing the cohesion of Western societies, including Greece’s, and giving rise to what Putnam (2000) called an overload of the sociopsychological system. Moreover, the revolution in new technologies has produced sweeping changes in production and in the everyday lives of citizens (Kennedy 1994). These changes are creating new layers of privileged and unprivileged citizens.
As with the challenges of the new era more generally, Greece’s problems cannot be addressed by the over-simplified ideologies of populism. Even a consensus on a minimum reform agenda will not suffice. The country needs a change of paradigm. Deeprooted attitudes that have impaired the country’s tremendous potential need to be replaced with a culture of reform and growth. Greece needs a new economic model that establishes the right balance between productivity and performance, on the one hand, and consumption and enjoyment, on the other. It needs an ambitious plan for the reconstruction of the productive sectors of the economy based on the country’s comparative advantages. Greece needs a new social contract between its society and its political leadership on a concerted plan of reform and change. The new plan needs to be embraced by Greece’s people, and it will have to make the current catastrophic interlude a thing of the past and lead to a new virtuous cycle.
Note: Greece has benefited from three economic adjustment programmes (or bailout packages or memoranda of understanding). They were signed in 2010, 2012 and 2015. The purpose of these programmes was to provide conditional financial assistance to Greece to prevent economic collapse.
Alogoskoufis, G. (2016). Ellada kai Evropaiki Enusi. Mia Taragmeni Economiki Sxesi [Greece and the EU: A turbulent economic relationship]. Ta Nea, 5–6 November.
Arvanitopoulos, C. (2014). Fileleftherismos [Liberalism]. 2nd ed. Athens: Quality Publications.
Economist Intelligence Unit. (2005). The Economist Intelligence Unit’s quality-of-life index. http://www.economist.com/media/pdf/QUALITY_OF_LIFE.pdf. Accessed 2 February 2018.
Iordanoglou, C. (2013). Kratos kai Omades Symferonton [State and interest groups]. Athens: Polis Publications.
Kalyvas, S. (2015). Thriamvi kai Katastrophes [Disasters and triumphs]. Athens: Papadopoulos Publishing.
Karamouzis, N., & Anastasatos, T. (2011). The development of the Greek economy: Sources, prospects and the role of investments and exports. Eurobank Research, Economy and Markets, 6(3), 3–9.
Kathimerini. (2011). The decade of the 80s: The age of populism. 26 June.
Kennedy, P. (1994). Preparing for the twenty-first century. New York: Vintage Books.
Kondylis, P. (1995). I Parakmi tou Astikou Politismou [The decline of bourgeois culture]. Athens: Themelio Publications.
Maravegias, N. (2010). Agrotiki Politiki, Epidotiseis horis domikes metarithmiseis [Agricultural policy: Subsidies without structural reforms]. In P. Panagiotopoulos & V. Vamvakas (eds.), Ellada sta 1980s: Kinoniko, Politico & Politismiko Lexiko [Greece in the 80s: Social, political and cultural dictionary] (pp. 10–13). Athens: The Passage Publishing.
Μavrogordatos, G. T. (2005). Omathes Piesis kai Dimokratia [Pressure groups and democracy]. 3rd ed. Athens: Patakis Publishers.
Papathanasiou, G. (2011). Me tin glossa ton arithmon: I Alithia gio tin Economia [With the language of numbers: The truth about the economy]. http://www.papathanassiou.gr/numbers. pdf. Accessed 2 February 2018.
Putnam, R. D. (2000). Bowling alone. New York: Simon and Schuster.
Steger, M. B. (2006). Pagosmiopiisi [Globalisation]. Athens: Greek Letters.
It has been a challenging year for the European Union. The hangover from Brexit, election fever in a number of European countries, terrorist attacks in European capitals, the perennial existentialist question of quo vadis Europe, and now the Catalan crisis.
After Macron’s victory in France, liberal democratic Europe breathed a sigh of relief. The outcome of the French presidential election and Merkel’s much anticipated victory would restore confidence in liberal democracy, and put the European project back on track. And to a large extent this has happened. It has not been a clean sheet, however.
Germany did not manage to escape the predicament of other European countries: the weakening of traditional democratic parties and the surge of nationalist populism and extremism. The western liberal order has survived for now but the party pillars of the political system have been weakened.
The centre-left, centre-right divide, for many decades, offered European societies a set of different ideological creeds, policy options, and solutions, within the framework of free market-based liberal democracy. Now, we are witnessing the erosion of this post WWII European political divide.
Structural changes such as globalization, the fiscal conformity in preparation for the monetary union, and the monetary union itself created a policy of convergence between parties. The main victims of this fusion were the centre left parties that travelled most of the political distance towards the centre.
The adoption of centre-right elements in economic policies and structural reforms gave them electoral victories in the short run but in the long run was a prologue of their demise. Mainly because it severed the ties with their party base and their traditional electorate. The financial crisis and the backlash against globalization further eroded the political centre.
Exacerbated economic inequalities, blamed on globalization and automation, have altered societal stratification, creating new haves and have-nots. New waves of immigration have created a demographic and cultural panic. Technological advances created a new divide in society between technologically literate and illiterate, and a new kind of technological unemployment.
Those that are left behind by change, frustrated and alienated, direct their anger towards mainstream politics. The centre-left parties may have become something of an endangered species, but the centre-right parties have come under pressure as well.
The disdain of politics as usual and political correctness has empowered populist leaders and parties from both ends of the political spectrum. From Beppe Grillo, Tsipras, Podemos, and Die Linke, to Trump, Farage, Le Pen, and Orban, all have run against status quo politics. They have tried to manipulate the anger and disappointment in government, the establishment, corruption and nepotism, stagnating salaries, and rising unemployment.
A new dividing line is being formed: on one side are the traditional political formations, and on the other side is an abrasive, anticonformist populism. A populist surge that is based on economic protectionism, an assertive nationalism, xenophobia, anti-immigration and anti-globalization policies.
The populists have also capitalised on the return of identity politics. When threatened, people tend to resort to fundamental values intrinsic to their identity. Germany managed, in the decades following WWII, to place the debate on identity within the European context. Now, AfD, breaking old taboos, brings back the debate to the national level, exploiting the uneasiness of part of the society from the presence of a million refugees on German soil.
The return of identity politics is interconnected with euroskepticism. The incomplete European project is at a critical juncture. The populist demagogues make a case against Europe as being unable to provide policy responses to the challenges of immigration, border security, homeland security, or economic inequalities.
They are questioning, in essence, the wisdom of transferring authority and sovereignty from the nation states to Brussels. The antiglobalization of the populist left feeds euroskepticsm, while the extreme right of AFD and Le Pen resort to xenophobia, protectionism, and nationalist extremism.
The new political landscape is a minefield for centre-right parties. Populism, extremism and especially right-wing extremism and nationalism have appealed to voters by distorting our ideological agenda. In an effort to repatriate those voters, centre-right parties might be tempted to veer to the right and trail extremism as it sets the agenda. That would be a political folly.
Before repatriating our voters we should repatriate our ideological agenda, reclaim it and project it forcefully. Centre-right parties have to stay the course, defend liberal values, respond to the challenges based on our own ideological arsenal. We can be patriotic without being nationalistic, we can defend freedom and human rights as well as law and order with equal conviction.
Open societies does not mean lawless societies and certainly not borderless states. We can defend the market economy while addressing inequalities. We can address the inequalities resulting from globalization and automation without becoming protectionist and isolated.
Compromising our values and principles will only present us with short term political gains, if it does. It will hurt, however, our fortunes in the long run, as the socialists have discovered.
From Immanuel Kant and William Penn to Aristide Briand, the idea of European Unity represents something of an age-old dream in Europe.
The early post WWII attempts at European unity, however, were the result of the destructive excesses of nationalism, and war. The motivation was to transcend the tradition of national antagonism, and create a network of economic interdependence that would virtually eliminate the possibility of renewed conflict among European states. So that Europe would not regress to a “dark continent” ever again.
Building a new economic and political structure in Europe, would subordinate national sovereignty to a wider European loyalty and decision-making process. The prospect of European unity also meant enhanced, and quicker economic recovery and eventual prosperity.
There was also the realization on the part of Western European powers that the scale of world politics had radically changed as a result of WWII. None of the great European powers alone would be able to reinstate their global position in the post war era. Only united they stood a chance of reestablishing their influence in world affairs.
European unity also became a major US foreign policy objective after the war. For one reason or another, the US found itself deeply involved in two European wars inside a generation. It became an accepted proposition that the US had a right and an interest to become involved in Europe’s postwar reconstruction. Support in Europe and the US for European unity rose dramatically with the beginning of the cold war.
The Berlin blockade and the communist takeover in Prague, with the backing of the Soviet Union, were a stark evidence of the Soviet threat to European security. In the emerging bipolar structure of the cold war, the strengthening of Western Europe became a vital interest of both western Europeans and Americans.
A further American motivation for unity was the German problem. European unity was seen as a way of addressing the German problem by anchoring Germany in the West. Germany’s economic potential could also be vital for west European recovery. It is no secret that this was a major American motive in proposing the Marshall plan in 1947 and associating W. Germany with it in 1948.
For skeptical members of Congress, European unity was seen as a major means of avoiding a situation of permanent European economic dependence upon the US.
For that reason the Marshall plan intended to rebuild European production capabilities to enable the Europeans to export sufficiently to support their import needs through their export earnings. The US position was that any new dollar aid would have to carry reliable guarantees of getting the Europeans off the US dole within a period of four years. For that reason the Marshall plan was based on a concerted regional basis unlike the earlier UNRRA bilateral aid approaches.
The US made it clear that continuation of Marshall aid funds would depend upon European cooperation and institutional creativity. In that sense the US encouraged the creation of OEEC as an organization, which would encourage West European unity. OEEC would get the questions of who gets what, settled by the Europeans themselves. Then the Europeans would present their agreed upon proposals to Washington for consideration.
OEEC was an intergovernmental organization without any pretension of supranationality or federalizing tendencies. It was an institution for the coordination of nationally determined economic recovery projects. It could not compel states to do anything.
OEEC did, however, contribute greatly to west European economic recovery, which was a precondition for European integration later represented by the ECSC and the EEC. Furthermore, OEEC through the European Payments Union (EPU) stimulated major European trade increases leading to the growth of European assets in the 50s, which was a precondition to allow European currencies to become convertible.
This, in turn, was a precondition for the integration that started with the treaty of Rome. OEEC was also successful in the import quota abolition. It also made an important contribution to the restructuring of the locus of European decision-making in the economic realm. It developed and consolidated a process of consultations among European governments with respect to economic plans and policies, which smoothed the way to the next level of economic cooperation in the context of the EEC.
The conditions of the post war era and the realities of the emerging cold war motivated and rallied a number of European statesmen around the dream of European unity. Exceptional figures such as Schuman, Adenauer, Spaak, Monet, Spinelli, and de Gasperi, seized the moment to promote the vision of a united Europe. They, rightly, came to be called the founding fathers of European unity.
To a large extent, however, the early impulses for European unity in the immediate post war era came from the so called “external federators”. The positive and decisive role of the United States, on the one hand, and the emerging challenges and threats posed by the Soviet Union and the cold war, on the other.
Europe at sixty is facing a similar set of challenges, and the reasons for the continuity of the European project remain as strong as ever. Europe can only united face the challenges of globalization, and cope effectively with its current polycrisis. Its unity remains vital for the West and US interests, even under the Trump administration. While, on the other hand, Putin’s assertive Russia makes unity imperative for its survival.