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What Trump’s Win Means for Eastern Europe

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By Sławomir Sierakowski

WARSAW – The rule of economic liberalism in the West is leading to the demise of political liberalism. A growing number of key countries are experiencing not elections, but plebiscites on liberal democracy – plebiscites decided by the votes of those who have lost out from liberal democracy. In the United States, Donald Trump’s election as president is a punishment to an establishment that disregarded the demands of the 2011 Occupy Wall Street protests.

The establishment’s next challenge will be to hold on in Italy, where a December 4 constitutional referendum could decide Italian Prime Minister Matteo Renzi’s fate. That vote will be a prelude to France’s presidential election in the spring, where a victory for the far-right National Front’s Marine Le Pen would almost certainly bring about the definitive collapse of the European Union, if not of the entire geopolitical West.

However those votes turn out, Brexit and Trump prove that liberal democracy has ceased to be the canon of Western politics. And that has far-reaching implications. How can “swing states” like Poland achieve liberal democracy now that the Western point of reference has disappeared? Eastern Europe has never benefited when political conditions in the West have deteriorated.

Trump is not just an ill-tempered child playing with nuclear matches; he is also dangerously ambitious, and his foreign-policy proposals could unravel crucial alliances and destabilize the international order. Of course, nobody – not even Trump himself – knows if he will keep his campaign promises. But that is precisely the point: unpredictable governments are bad for global geopolitics. For Poland and other Eastern European countries, whose independence and democracy are based on the current global status quo, this can be a matter of life or death.

Trump is not wrong about one thing: America cannot afford to promote democracy abroad. The US cannot police human rights or the progress of liberal democratic principles beyond its borders. If the money invested in all American foreign interventions had been redirected to promoting prosperity domestically, Trump’s candidacy never would have gained traction.

Instead, Americans have been bombarded for decades with reports about wage stagnation, declining household income, and growing inequality – all while hearing about the $3 trillion price tag for the war in Iraq. Trump is the establishment’s delayed comeuppance.

For Trump, there is no contradiction between isolationism and the promise to “Make America Great Again.” The US would be better served by speaking not in the name of global interests, only its own, and ceasing to push democracy around the world. It will share more influence with Russia and China, but come to the table as the strongest player, focused on its own prosperity. Does that not sound reasonable? Isolationism equals prosperity.

Even if this logic fails, and Trump does cause a recession, America can afford it, just as the UK can afford Brexit. The US will survive financial losses; indeed, it will be safe. It is no coincidence that nervous investors are flocking to the dollar, even though what has made them nervous is Trump’s election.

Geopolitically, the US and the UK are island countries armed with nuclear weapons. Their language is used worldwide. Whatever Trump does, the US will still be the largest producer of new technology, mass culture, and energy, and it will still have the most Nobel laureates, the world’s best universities, and the West’s most diverse society. If it stops poking its nose into foreign conflicts, it will still have friends around the world.

The biggest loser of the US election is the EU, which is internally conflicted and unable to address economic, demographic, and refugee crises. The result of Trump’s victory might be something resembling the Concert of Europe, which stabilized the continent between 1815 and World War I. But that system excluded many countries, one of which was Poland. As an incomplete, technocratic creation, the EU is an ideal target for populist attacks. It has so far failed to integrate sufficiently to prevent its own collapse, and its reaction to Brexit has been to procrastinate.

While wealthy Germany does not want to extend a helping hand to southern EU countries, newly sovereign post-communist countries are rejecting refugees and refusing to show solidarity with Western Europe. Meanwhile, the EU is just as wealthy as the US on the whole, and yet it has no army, and depends entirely on the US for its defense. Why, one wonders, did it take multiple transatlantic disasters for the EU to realize that it must attend to its own security?

Russian influence will mean the withdrawal of NATO from Eastern Europe. Western Europe may well be glad to withdraw as well, seizing an opportunity to jettison increasingly burdensome neighbors like Poland, which, despite being the largest recipient of EU funds, opposes further integration, has not adopted the euro, wants to burn coal, and quarrels with Germany, France, and EU governing institutions.

With Western influence waning, Eastern European countries will likely deepen their economic and diplomatic ties with Russia. In Estonia, the pro-Russian Center Party is about to enter the ruling coalition. And after the Baltics, it will be Eastern European countries’ turn. Those countries that have not already embraced Russian President Vladimir Putin will have no alternative but to do so.

Poland has nothing to gain from such an alliance. Poles consider their current borders sacred, not a curse, as in Hungary. Only a political idiot would bet on an alliance with revisionists like Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán. Sadly, as Trump’s election indicates all too clearly, illiberal idiocy is steadily replacing liberal democracy as the ruling doctrine of Western – and Polish – politics today.

Sławomir Sierakowski, founder of the Krytyka Polityczna movement, is Director of the Institute for Advanced Study in Warsaw.

Copyright: Project Syndicate, 2016.