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Europe Against the Ropes

MADRID – On November 8, as Donald Trump was sealing his shocking victory in the United States presidential election, a conference in Brussels commemorated the legacy of the late Václav Havel, the first post-communist president of Czechoslovakia (and later the Czech Republic). As the world enters the Trump era, that legacy could not be more important, especially for Europe.

It is hard to imagine two figures more different than Havel and Trump. The former was an artist and intellectual who fought his entire life for truth, working tirelessly to bring out the best in people and societies. The latter is a self-obsessed huckster who rose to power by playing on people’s basest emotions.

Havel’s values have much in common with those that drove, after World War II, the creation of the liberal world order, which has brought unprecedented peace and prosperity. Trump’s election, however, suggests that the US may no longer uphold those values, much less continue to fulfill its post-WWII role in maintaining international order.

The resulting strategic lacuna creates an opportunity – indeed, a desperate need – for some other global actor to take up the mantle of leadership. The European Union – which, more than any other global actor, has internalized and operationalized the ideals and principles that undergird the liberal world order – should be the one to do it. The problem is that, for now at least, the EU does not look like it can.