The Fears of Atlanticists

The arrival of Donald Trump on the world stage has thrown the proverbial cat amongst the liberal pigeons but liberal here includes most of the European centre-right.

The question of what happens next will be resolved when Trump is inaugurated on January 20th but that does not stop intense speculation, emotional outpourings from defeated liberal snowflakes and not a little panic that there is barely two months in which to educate this upstart in his duties (according to the prevailing view). Things will settle down but we can already hazard a guess at the lineaments of the new order.

First, Trump seems to mean what he said on the campaign trail not in the detail but in the general thrust. His chief strategist, Stephen Bannon, is classed as populist alt.right with no ties to the Republican Establishment. Trump's advisory circle contains family and friends as much as experienced politicians. His first meeting with an overseas interest was a convivial one with the outspoken British populist Nigel Farage and his team - nor is he rowing back on deportations or on dialogue with Russia. Although his positions may be modified by facts and events, this man is clearly a radical.

Second, while we would expect the defeated liberals to be in some disarray, the reasons for that defeat are now the subject of serious ideological disputes that threaten to hobble the centre-left for months and perhaps years. A fissure has opened up between those who think that recovery is simply a matter of more funds and better organisation along traditional lines and those who think that lessons must be learned and ideology adjusted to meet changed circumstances. It is a debate that is not restricted to the US. It started with Brexit in the UK and it may soon extend to Europe.

Third, conservatives are not really very happy with the win. They should be rejoicing at the ousting of their liberal rivals but conservative Republicans are wary of populists. The British Government is almost in panic mode at the perceived threat to its cherished NATO. It is embarrassed at the link forged with Trump by Nigel Farage. Centre-right European politicians, led by the highly intelligent Donald Tusk, are going through a self-questioning process of their own. What are they getting wrong? How can conservatives contain the new populism in order to defend the existing order?

Fourth, significant non-Western Governments are nervously observing a transitional period in which Western conservatives are trying to preserve a set of policies that are against their interest while the President-Elect has offered radical changes that are in their interest. Whether Damascus or Moscow, the need not to intervene while watching their enemies try to encircle and control Trump must be unnerving to say the least. Other Governments, notably the Chinese, need, like the British, to find a robust diplomatic language that helps to maintain the current global trading system.

Bringing all the elements feeding into this highly complex transitional period together, we find angry domestic liberals fuelling populist resentment just as conservatives are trying to moderate national populism in the interests of a global order in which they have a profound stake. It is not that anyone seriously expects Russia to cross the Vistula on November 21st but they do fear that the institutional structures that maintain the Atlanticist Project, the European Union and a raft of liberal free trade arrangements will be unravelled by a Trump-inspired populist project.