All the Bad Instincts

Interview with a former U.S. Ambassador to the European Union by Julia Jabłońska

22 April 2020

Three years of Donald Trump presidency have not been easy on Europe nor on Transatlantic relations, with the outbreak of the COVID-19 pandemic having exacerbated the EU-US partnership. Trump’s bad instincts, which we saw on a first term, would be multiplied several times in the second term, says Anthony L. Gardner.


Anthony L. Gardner is a former US Ambassador to the EU under President Barack Obama and has recently published a book entitled Stars with Stripes: The Essential Partnership between the European Union and the United States. It came out just before the outbreak of the COVID-19 pandemic.


Visegrad Insight: If you could add the very last chapter to this book about the impact of the pandemic on the EU-US relations, what would you say? Will the pandemic strengthen economic nationalism and protectionism or, on the contrary, it will compel more cooperation?

Anthony L. Gardner

Anthony L. Gardner: We stand before the fork in the road. Some indeed are calling for a nationalist response: closing borders, dismantling supply chains, seizing the opportunity to pass legislation – in case of Hungary – to give more power to the executive. I think that is the wrong way to go. It is a temptation at this moment of crisis, and I think it would be counterproductive and indeed dangerous.

A pandemic is, by its nature, a global threat and a global threat can only be dealt with, in my view, with global solutions. Global solutions need partners, allies and multilateral organisations. Some of them, like the World Health Organisation, certainly have their flaws, but they are necessary. Bill Gates himself has said this. There is no way we are going to deal with this crisis over the long term without working together. That has many facets. There is the health facet, where we will have to ensure that developing countries have the technical means and the training to deal with the outbreak, but there is also the financial aspect. The G20 announced the debt relief for instance, which is part of the solution, but it is not enough.

In other words, the idea that we can solve this by turning inwards is totally fallacious. And I would also include trade. We need more than ever free trade and the benefits of free trade. And I think we can convince the general public that free trade brings benefits of higher growth and better-paying jobs.

The problem is that the President of the United States is not convinced of that. Three years of Donald Trump presidency have not been easy on Europe nor on the transatlantic relations. What the next term of Trump at the White House could mean for the EU-US relations, also in the context of the post-pandemic world?

You are right. The last three years have been difficult for the world, for Europe, for me personally and that is why I joined the Joe Biden campaign from day one. I am cautiously optimistic that the Democrats can win this election in November and it is of fundamental importance, of existential importance even, that that happens. And I say, „existential importance” because Donald Trump in a second term would have absolutely no limits in terms of what he would be prepared to do. After all, he would not be facing a third term as, by law, he could not seek a third term.

So, all the bad instincts that we saw during the first term would be multiplied several times in the second term. For example, the attack on the world trading system, the attack on multilateral institutions, the attack on the European Union. And what we have seen already is a clear attempt to divide and undermine the EU in a way which is bizarre and counterproductive even from the US point of view.

So much is at stake and I have not even mentioned climate change. It does not need mentioning that if we lose another 4 years, we are going to face an extremely serious situation, by all experts’ accounts. In my view, if we have a Biden administration, we have a chance still, based on what some experts are saying, of recovering some lost ground and repairing some of the damage that Donald Trump has caused.

At the same time, you suggest in your book that if it was not for Donald Trump the EU wouldn’t have tried to be more assertive in promoting its interests, wouldn’t be inclined to do more on its own, to engage in initiatives that eventually led to more cooperation or – as in areas like defence and security – to more strategic autonomy from the US. You say that a more „geopolitical” EU – which is a term used by the European Commission President Ursula Von der Leyen – might be actually the legacy of Donald Trump. If we look at this from that perspective, maybe Donald Trump was not that bad for the EU after all?

Yes, you are right. Every crisis is an opportunity. As bad as the Donald Trump presidency has been, it is also an opportunity if the EU chooses to exploit it and consider it as such. I agree that the EU should be more geopolitical. I approve many of the specific initiatives that the EU is pursuing in public procurement, foreign direct investments, in competition. All that makes perfect sense particularly with regard to combatting the Chinese behaviour.

However, a second term for Donald Trump would be catastrophic. Yes, the EU should learn the lesson from the first term of Donald Trump, become less naive in many ways, learn better how to protect and project its interests around the world, but we certainly should not be hoping for the second term of Donald Trump in order for the EU to be stronger, because that will not happen.

During the Trump presidency, the EU has learnt that it cannot rely on the US the way it used to, but it was already during the Barack Obama presidency when Europe was no longer in the centre of American attention due to the famous pivot to Asia. Some experts were saying that America had turned its back on a crisis-stricken Europe. Do you agree that the Obama administration didn’t pay enough attention to Europe? 

No. I hear this often, but I did not see it and I do not believe that existed. The pivot to Asia is often quoted but usually misunderstood. The pivot means that Asia was not receiving enough attention, it does not mean that Europe received less attention or whether we should diminish our attention to Europe. It simply meant that Asia, for all the obvious reasons, including that it is the centre of the economic growth in the world, should receive even more attention. So it is a question of a relative balance.

Certainly, during my term of three years, the administration saw the value of Europe and the EU as a partner in many areas. The Paris Accord would not have happened, without the US and the EU together leading the response. It is as simple as that. The sanctions against Russia would not have happened if the EU and the US had not worked closely together. That was understood in Washington. And by the way, I saw how the US and the EU worked closely together and how the US welcomed the EU’s contribution to foreign aid, military systems. I saw how we worked together in energy security, a law enforcement cooperation, particularly after the Paris terrorist attacks.

The short answer to your questions is, no, I do not think that it is a fair conclusion. Having said that, every administration, regardless of the party, struggles sometimes to understand the EU. That is not surprising because many in Europe also do not understand the EU very well. I have always been fascinated by the EU, but it is not an easy organisation to understand or sometimes to deal with.

Do you think that Joe Biden understands the EU? In his recent article in Foreign Affairs „Why America Must Lead Again”, where he outlined his foreign policy plan, he hardly ever mentioned Europe…

Well, there is literally no one more experienced in the United States on Europe than Joe Biden. He was not only the Vice-President during Obama’s term and was directly leading the effort on many issues, not only foreign policy ones but issues that dealt with Europe. Before that, he was the chairman of a Senate Foreign Relations Committee. His career in the Senate goes back to when he was around 30 years old. He certainly has the knowledge and contacts that are unparalleled.

Secondly, I know his foreign policy team very well. These are people who understand Europe intimately and who have served in multiple administrations. So on that, I am absolutely not concerned. I am quite confident that the Biden administration would be pro-Europe and pro- EU.

The article that you mentioned, because of the space constraints, focused on the issues of values. I think it was the right focus because this administration has not chosen to pursue the agenda of anti-corruption and good governance transparency around the world. That is an important strand of American foreign policy. Not only under Obama but also Clinton and other presidents, Republican as well.

We should go back to underlying the importance of it for the entire world, including parts of the world that are vulnerable and unstable. I am thinking for example of the Balkans, where there is a competition for influence right now.

Some Democratic voters reproach Joe Biden that he wants to take the country back to the era before Donald Trump instead of taking the country forward. If Biden were to win the November election, how do you see the EU-US relations developing under his administration? Would he want to somehow go back to 2016 and pretend that Trump never happened, or maybe he would know how to gradually rebuild the relations and take them forward?

That is a great question. There is no doubt that we cannot just wind up the clock to 19 January 2017. I think the Biden campaign is well aware of that. Lessons will have to be learnt. Donald Trump became president for a host of reasons. Some of these reasons reflect legitimate concerns among a large number of American voters and are more widely shared in Europe and across the world. Those concerns will certainly have to be listened to.

But I can tell you that in the reflection papers that are being written that point is very well understood. On trade, for example, we cannot just wind up the clock and assume that we are going to start again with the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP). This is just not going to happen. I have my own views on where we should start with our transatlantic trade and it is certainly not TTIP 2.0. The same holds for other things.

The premise of your question is absolutely right, we are going to have to learn the lessons of the past. The world has moved on and we are going to live in the COVID world for a while, so that is going to be probably the biggest challenge. The United States will be looking with great interest and great concern about whether there is another re-emergence of a European financial crisis that affects some of its members in particular. So there will be a set of new challenges and new priorities.

There are certain issues – like the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, signed with Iran, from which Trump decided to withdraw – that cannot be simply undone.

That is right. That will be one of the challenges. Even on climate change, the situation is much worse so we are going to have to decide how to go back to the drawing board and set both tough and realistic objectives for the US, the EU and the world. At least we have a chance because Joe Biden is respected worldwide. I think the mere fact of his presence will give a chance to the world to come together. I really do not think that there is an alternative to American leadership, with all the faults that there may be and that have been with American leadership. There is just no alternative. I remain cautiously optimistic.

Joe Biden is seen as a moderate candidate, yet he promised to listen to Bernie Sanders voters. That might mean that he will lean left. How much of the Sanders agenda, Joe Biden will be willing to include in his own program in order to win Sanders voters? And how much it might affect his foreign policy?

Former Vice-President Joe Biden

In his response to Bernie Sanders endorsement Biden has said that Sanders not only successfully ran a campaign but also formed a very large movement, that inspired many people, including many young people. They will be listened to in terms of the platform of policies that the Democratic convention will draft.

That means, for example, making the United States a fairer place economically speaking. I think we face a challenge of reducing a growing income inequality. It does not mean that we have not been aware of this problem in the past. Obama spoke about it eloquently on many occasions.

Quite simply, we are going to have to do more and faster and that has a series of implications for how workers are treated, how our tax system functions. On trade, Sanders is very sceptical about free trade and I do not agree with him. On the other hand, I think that there are certain free trade agreements that we can and should sign that should and will include very high standards for labour, for the environment, for intellectual property protection. And there are certain trade agreements, like with Europe, so with regions of the world that share our high standards, that are doable.

And another strong reason for doing it and to convince Bernie Sanders supporters of doing it is that if the US and the EU do not set standards around the world together, other countries, particularly China, will do. And they have been doing it. And that has not benefited us.

You say that you are cautiously optimistic about Biden winning in November. How much does the pandemic and what will happen afterwards – mostly in the American economy – will affect the election result?

It is really hard to tell, obviously. We saw that Trump approval ratings have been going up partly as a result of the normal reaction of voters to support their government at the time of national crisis. That is perfectly understandable.

However, as the crisis has now hit more and more of the Republican voting states between the coasts, we are beginning to see more questioning about how this administration has reacted. I think that question is absolutely correct and necessary. The record will speak for itself. When the tapes are played and the tweets are reprinted, it will be absolutely, patently clear that this president first ignored it, then tried to shift the attention and shift the blame and lost a significant amount of time that could have been used to prepare.

He is now clearly trying to say that China lied, which it did, but he will shift blame to others, including the WHO, when his administration and himself personally made many fundamental errors over several months. First, by saying that it was a hoax, by saying that the Democrats were trying to change the course of the election, then by saying that the United States would easily deal with the problem. Fox News repeated this on many occasions. He only very late admitted that this was a pandemic and we need to respond.

The record will speak for itself. Many deaths could have been avoided by a different set of policies. So I think it will have an impact on the election. Having said that, it is really hard to tell, because if we do not have a Democratic convention and if we do not have in-person voting on election day, it is really tough to know what impact it will have on the voting patterns.

I think that some voters will ask themselves on voting day: at a time of a global and national crisis, who do you trust? Donald Trump, who has been a serial liar or Joe Biden who has the experience and personal qualities to be president. I think many people will conclude that you cannot risk having the second term of Donald Trump.


Editor’s note:

On 23 April, Anthony Gardner held a transatlantic Visegrad Insight Breakfast discussion with our editorial team and invited participants. Watch it below:


This article is part of the #DemocraCE project. Julia Jabłońska is the author’s pseudonym.


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