For nearly four years, leaders and officials in allied nations across Europe have looked at the United States under President Donald Trump in shock and horror as he insulted European Union leaders and eroded the transatlantic relationship with his “America first” agenda, damaging the US image in the process.
They were dismayed after he reportedly called German Chancellor Angela Merkel “stupid” and former UK prime minister Theresa May “a fool.” They were aghast when he called the EU a “foe” and astonished when he said “nobody treats us much worse than the European Union.” When Trump said NATO was “obsolete,” alarm bells sounded from Brussels to the Baltics.
For most European leaders, more concerning than Trump’s words were his actions, such as withdrawing the US from the Paris climate accord and the World Health Organization and — just this week — blocking the pick to lead the World Trade Organization.
After all that, one would think nothing more would come as shock.
Yet, in interviews with BuzzFeed News, four European diplomats and government officials said they are in utter disbelief over the chaos caused by Trump surrounding the US presidential election.
One official, a foreign policy adviser to an EU president, likened this year’s US election to some of the wilder elections on their continent’s fringes — but with significantly bigger and possibly scarier consequences.
“It’s Eastern Europe plus that small nuclear suitcase that Trump has,” said the official, who agreed to be interviewed on the condition of anonymity to speak freely on sensitive matters.
In Ukraine, where past presidential elections have been tainted by massive fraud and poisonings and colored by bizarre livestreamed drug screenings and debates in sports stadiums, an official inside President Volodymyr Zelensky’s administration described the US election as “crazy” and “totally toxic.”
All officials who spoke to BuzzFeed News cited the political and racial animus that some people believe has brought the US to the brink of civil war as a major cause for concern. The officials also said they and their European colleagues are stunned by Trump’s antidemocratic rhetoric and his attempts to undermine the legitimacy of the vote by claiming it will be rigged. Moreover, they said they are unnerved by a sitting US president — the so-called leader of the free world — signaling that he won’t accept the election’s results if he loses.
While none of the officials went so far as to express their support for former vice president Joe Biden, four suggested and one stated explicitly that a victory for the Democratic challenger would be Europe’s preferred outcome.
Things wouldn’t go back to normal necessarily or immediately, but with Biden as the victor, said the adviser to an EU president, “there would be an adult in the room that you can talk to, and when he promises something there’s a good level of expectation that he’s going to deliver…which just hasn’t been the case in the last four years.”
The election comes at a moment when the US seems angrier and more divided than ever, and as a deadly pandemic surges. As Americans vote by mail or go to the polls in person on Election Day, they will be casting arguably the most consequential vote of their lifetimes. And the consequences of their actions are likely to be felt far behind the borders of the US.
Speaking to BuzzFeed News from Vilnius, Lithuanian Foreign Minister Linas Linkevicius said the political unrest in the US “looks very unusual.”
“We’re not used to this sight. We hope and expect the United States will solve this, not only for the sake of the US, but for others,” he said.
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Linkevicius said the EU has depended on the US to be a leader on international issues. The US’s absence as a result of Trump’s “America first” policy, he said, has been felt during moments of crisis when Washington, DC, would usually step up and lead the international response.
He pointed to the ongoing political crisis in Belarus as an example. While the US has applied sanctions to several Belarusian officials and condemned violence by authorities against peaceful protesters, the Trump administration has played only a minor role.
“We expect a stronger role of those big-power countries, especially the US,” Linkevicius said.
He said his counterparts in other EU nations felt similarly, as well as those on the periphery of the 27-nation bloc.
In Ukraine, for instance, the administration official said the US’s presence and influence has been significantly weakened since Trump abruptly ordered Secretary of State Mike Pompeo to recall former ambassador Marie Yovanovitch in May 2019 after false rumors that she was bad-mouthing him. The US special envoy to Ukraine, Kurt Volker, resigned in September last year as the Democrats’ impeachment inquiry moved into high gear. Neither representative has been replaced yet.
The official, who declined to speak on the record because they were not authorized to talk with a reporter, said Kyiv would like to see those roles filled — but not if it meant dragging the country back into the maw of US politics, which is what happened during Trump’s impeachment.
Ukraine’s wariness stems from that saga and more recently from the controversial efforts of Trump’s personal lawyer Rudy Giuliani, who has repeatedly pushed unfounded claims about Biden and his son Hunter in the country. Trump, who has called the country “corrupt” and “full of terrible people,” himself pushed the unfounded accusations against the Bidens in the last presidential debate, much to the dismay of Kyiv.
The Ukrainian official said their country will be pleased when the US election is finally over. Until it is, they made one request: “We don’t want anything to do with your fucked-up election. Keep us out of it, please.”