Professors Weigh in on International Views of the 2016 Election

Just over one week after Donald Trump became president-elect of the United States, six university professors, each representing a different foreign country, convened at UC Irvine last Thursday, Nov. 17 to address the international community’s reactions to the election.

Panelists included UCI history professors Ian Coller and David Fedman, UCI European studies professor Kai Evers and UCI Classics professor Andromache Karanika. University of Connecticut history professor and Fulbright scholar Alexis Dudden and International Studies professor John Delury from Yonsei University also joined the conversation from Seoul via Skype. Each first briefly discussed their representative country’s view of the election.

Professor Karanika, who represented Greece, noted “the recent anxiety [in Greece] for the uncharted waters we are getting into” with regard to U.S. foreign policy.

“There is increasing concern that we’re looking into a world where these leaders, and I’m talking of course of [Vladimir] Putin, [Recep Tayyip] Erdoğan… are coming more and more together and anti-Muslim rhetoric is not something that is going to be part of this discussion but rather [it will be] business, possibly profit … So there is an increasing anxiety about a foreign policy of the US being driven …  not by principles, but rather by opportunity.”

Professor Coller, representing France, discussed the response of French presidential candidate Marine Le Pen, the president of the National Front party. Le Pen herself has already reached out to congratulate Trump on his victory.

“She responded by declaring that Trump’s election was, as the fall of the Berlin Wall was the end of the 20th century, Trump’s election was the beginning, the true birth of the 21st century,” said Coller.

Professor Evers spoke for Germany and called attention to a collective anxiety among the German public who he said were “caught off-guard” and “confused.”

Evers highlighted three general reactions of the German public to the U.S. election. Some believe Trump is a fascist while others try to take an optimistic approach. The rest think there will be some kind of impeachment process. In regards to the German government, Evers said that Chancellor Angela Merkel’s response was “highly unusual.” Instead of privately calling the President-elect as is typically done, Merkel held a press conference where she stated, “Germany and America are connected by values of democracy, freedom and respect for the law and the dignity of man independent of origin, skin color, religion, gender, sexual orientation or political views … I offer the next president of the United States close cooperation on the basis of these values.”

“This has never been done by a German chancellor,” stressed Evers. Furthermore, Nov. 9, the day of the election results is a very significant date in German history.

“That was the date that the German emperor abdicated, acknowledging the defeat of World War I, that is the date when Hitler did the first failed Putsch to rise to power, it is the date of a systematic anti-Semitic programs in 1938, and, most importantly for Angela Merkel, it is the date of the fall of the wall. Angela Merkel grew up in East Germany. She could only become a politician after the fall of the wall on Nov. 9, 1989, and now she’s welcoming, exactly 27 years later on Nov. 9, an American president who promises to build a wall.”

Professor Fedman discussed Japan’s response to the election. He began by noting the meeting between Donald Trump and Japanese Prime Minister Shinzō Abe that occurred only hours before Thursday’s panel.

“It’s truly extraordinary for a Japanese prime minister to sit down face to face with a president-elect,” said Fedman. He also said that it’s ironic to see Shinzō Abe “call for the preservation of a rules-based liberal order in the Asian pacific and to speak to another head of state about tamping down his nationalist rhetoric and his outmoded worldview. This is coming from a prime minister who himself has been rather outspoken in calling for a more aggressive Japanese foreign policy.”

Fedman speculated that Prime Minister Abe was most likely trying to determine if any of Trump’s campaign rhetoric would become government policy. Trump’s casual mentioning of Japan developing a nuclear weapons program is unsettling to many given the country’s history with atomic bombs and their general pacifist stance on foreign affairs. Even so, Abe has already developed a strong relationship with Vladimir Putin and Fedman noted that the U.S. might benefit from doing the same.

“Warming ties between the US and Russia could also lead to easier cooperation between Russia and Japan which could lead to regional stability in a new way,” said Fedman, but he also recognizes that things are shaky. Relations with Japan are also dependent on who Trump appoints as head of Asian Pacific affairs. At present, the Japanese public does not have a favorable view of the United States.

“Donald Trump’s victory came as a complete shock to Japanese policy makers and the public at large,” said Fedman, “and polling also suggests that there is a prevailing sense that the United States is in decline.”

For South Korea, Professor Dudden affirmed that a majority of the population was shocked by the outcome, but it’s not a main concern because the South Koreans have issues with their own president who is being pressured to resign. Nevertheless there is still concern about relations between the two countries. South Korea had expected a smooth transition with Hillary Clinton as president and the results completely threw them off, according to Dudden.

“You could say, well what’s going to be the course of South Korean policy?” said Dudden. “Nobody knows.”

North Korea had a very different reaction, as Professor Delury explained. Because North Korean media is state-controlled, mention of Trump is largely absent. Additionally, any action the North Korean government decides to take will be up to their leader, Kim Jong-un.

“Here’s the scary part,” said Delury. “What Donald Trump says about Kim Jong-un in the weeks and months to come could have a major impact on the North Korean nuclear issue. They are sensitive about language toward their leader and it will shape the discussion in Pyongyang of how they’re going to play the United States and what are the different paths that it could take.”

The panel ended with a discussion of Europe’s own problems and how they might be affected. Europe is currently facing a staggering youth unemployment problem. In Greece and in many places in France, 50 percent of the youth population are without jobs.

“I believe that unless Europe is able to deal with unemployment,” said Coller, “then there is a very, very great danger of a massive shift to the right because support for the extreme right is not coming from older people unlike in this country, it is coming from young people who look at a life that they feel is completely wasted.”

“I worry about a more global coming together of fascism,” said Karanika.

With Brexit and the American election, Evers emphasized the need for European countries to come together.

“The one things European governments seem to agree with Trump [on] is that the European government have paid too little in military expenses,” said Evers, “but we probably can’t rely on the United States anymore [for help] and Europe needs to come together on a military level much more than before.”