Europe, but particularly France and Germany -- the two motor nations of the continent -- are holding their collective breath for the outcome of Tuesday's American presidential election. They recognize that the future of the trans-Atlantic relationship, the very nature of the Atlantic alliance, which has preserved the peace in Europe for three-quarters of a century, hangs in the balance.
However, there is a dawning recognition in both nations that some elements of a decades-long trans-Atlantic partnership may be all but irrevocably lost -- regardless of who wins in America next month.
There is considerable uncertainty both in Paris and Berlin as to just how much the United States can be trusted any more. "Donald Trump has not fallen down from the sky out of nowhere," Jana Puglierin, head of the German office of the European Council on Foreign Relations (ECFR) told me in a Zoom conversation from Berlin. "He has not taken half of the American population hostage and kind of brainwashed them. So there is a reason why he is there, and the reason remains even after he leaves."
Still, Germans, and especially the French, may be forgiven for being somewhat distracted at this moment. Even more immediate and frightening for Europe than the US elections is the sudden resurgence of coronavirus infection for which the United States has been of little help and certainly no model for containment.
With France counting more than 270,000 new cases in the last week, President Emmanuel Macron told the French people in a nationwide address Wednesday evening that a second nationwide lockdown was coming Friday for a nation already approaching paralysis. Germany, too, headed for a second partial shutdown.
The elections across the Atlantic, of course, can hardly be ignored. Yet at the heart of all feelings among French and Germans today is the increasingly intransigent belief that the will of the American electorate is so unpredictable, their choice of a leader so self-centered and dependent on forces spiraling out of control, that Europe may be unable to count on a solid and dependable United States over the long term.
The ECFR found, in a continent-wide survey, that even if Joe Biden were elected, voters in France and Germany believe Europe should "maintain good relations with the US, [but] prepare for disengagement." Should Trump win, however, voters in Belgium, Sweden, Austria and Croatia also believe preparation for disengagement would be necessary.
In France, most commentators, as well as officials within the Macron government, have become persuaded that even a Biden victory "would not mean a return to old times, often wrongly mythologized," as Le Monde's diplomatic commentator Piotr Smolar put it recently.
Macron, who sees himself as the rightful heir to the mantle of European leadership that German Chancellor Angela Merkel will be relinquishing when she retires next year, has already begun campaigning for the creation of a European defense force that could make Europe less dependent on the American military, even if Biden reverses Trump's announced plan to begin withdrawing thousands of US troops from bases in Germany.
The French are still hoping for a more realistic military perspective from a Biden victory. Like Trump, Biden has pledged an end to America's involvement in "forever wars," particularly in the Middle East.
Yet Biden has pledged to leave residual forces in some key countries, particularly Iraq, to maintain stability and prevent the rise of terrorist groups that could be threats to American interests. "I think we need special ops capacity to coordinate with our allies," Biden told Stars and Stripes last month.
Of course, not every European initiative opposed by Trump has been embraced by Biden unequivocally. The contentious Nord Stream 2 pipeline, designed to bring cheap Russian natural gas to Germany and that German Chancellor Angela Merkel has long believed is a critical building block for future German prosperity, has been vigorously opposed by Trump. But equally, as it happens, by Biden who described it four years ago as "a bad deal" for Europe that would lock in "a greater dependence on Russia." Biden's views, though unchanged, are likely to be somewhat more nuanced than Trump's escalating threats of retaliation if the pipeline project were to continue. These have been described as "blackmail" by Manuela Schwesig, premier of the German state where the pipeline would terminate.
Still, French and Germans are in many respects equally desperate for the return of Americans on a host of different levels. Leaders of both nations want the United States to rejoin the Paris Climate Accord and the Iran nuclear agreement (JCPOA), as well as the World Health Organization and assume a joint role in the battle against Covid-19 and the development of vaccines and treatments. That in turn could lead to relief for millions of unemployed in the service sectors of both countries who hope for the return of American tourists and their desperately needed dollars.
But above all, French and Germans want a restoration of a degree of consistency in trans-Atlantic relations -- an end to rule by tweets and the feeling that they are constantly perceived as somehow second class citizens. What they most fear, however, is a second Trump administration with a president utterly unchained and unhinged. Though few are prepared to spell out just what that might look like, for fear it could come to pass.