"Defense" and "allies" were key themes in Sunday’s US presidential debate, but if Europeans hoped to hear more about strengthening transatlantic ties, they got up early for nothing.
Republican candidate Donald Trump’s main goal in the debate was to defend himself after his misogynist comments on videotape made many significant political allies run for cover. Discussing pressing global challenges wasn’t a priority for the Democratic candidate, former secretary of state Hillary Clinton, either.
"Europe" was mentioned once by Clinton, in an acknowledgement that the US is not "carrying anywhere near the load" that Europe and other countries are when it comes to sheltering Syrian war refugees. That’s one more time than the world’s largest military alliance, NATO, got named.
"It's really a shame that so many key international issues never made it into this debate," says Andrew Stroehlein of Human Rights Watch. "Take Yemen, for example, where Saudi-led bombing - with the support of Washington - has caused tremendous loss of civilian life, including at least 140 at a funeral on Saturday. Or think about Afghanistan: how is it possible the US and its allies have spent so much time, money and soldiers' lives in Afghanistan, and yet the country and the human rights abuses that go on there weren't even mentioned in the debate?"
Russia, Syria policy divides
There were a couple brief scuffles over Russia and Syria. Trump pushed back against accusations he’s cozy with Russian President Vladimir Putin, saying he didn’t "know Putin…I know nothing about Russia" but that he thinks it "would be great if we got along with Russia because we could fight ISIS together, as an example," alluding to Moscow’s military support for the Syrian government that has largely been aimed at opposition members rather than "Islamic State" militants.
Clinton did hit that topic hard, rejecting the notion the Kremlin is doing anything in Syria but propping up the government of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. She also echoed the US government’s Friday accusation that Moscow has been identified as being behind recent high-profile computer hacking attacks.
The two disagreed on how many — and how — Syrian refugees should be admitted into the US. While pleased the subject came up, Stroehlein found that exchange discouraging for its focus on "vetting" of asyum applicants. "Fears of refugees in the US have been dramatically overblown in the heat of the campaign, of course: of the 800,000 or so refugees the US has accepted since 9/11, none have been involved in domestic terrorism," he noted. "The next US president will need to move the country - and encourage its European partners to move as well - toward a more rational and compassionate approach to Syrian refugees, one based on facts, not fear."
Trump vague but volatile
But given the fact that Trump’s previous comments on the NATO alliance and European cooperation have largely denigrated the partnerships and sent waves of acrimony across the Atlantic, perhaps European governments are relieved to have taken a back seat in this show for the moment? Bruno Lete, a security and defense analyst in the German Marshall Fund’s Brussels office, doesn’t think avoiding the topic now now will help heal the "great mistrust" caused by Trump’s earlier denigration of the NATO alliance, including that his administration would decide on a case-by-case (financial) basis whether to not to honor NATO’s collective defense obligation, Article 5.
Lete says while Trump’s "NATO policy" is vague, certain strands are enough to rattle central and east European allies with "its volatility but also its perceived tolerance for Russia". A NATO diplomat who would only speak anonymously confirmed to DW that election rhetoric continues to jangle nerves at headquarters in Brussels. "I wouldn’t say there’s 'panic'," the diplomat said, “but there’s definitely 'anxiety' about the level of uncertainty" a Trump presidency would bring.
Clinton quiet on concerns
On the other hand, Lete says he’s disappointed Clinton didn’t raise these issues herself, as the more "Atlanticist" of the two candidates. "Basically what Europeans want to hear is that after the US elections, the United States will still be with you," Lete says. "Certainly we haven't heard it from Mr. Trump but the disappointing angle for Europeans is that we haven't really heard it strongly from Mrs. Clinton either to date."
Ironically, when asked about the videotape, Trump voluntarily tried to divert to foreign policy with a disjointed reponse he perhaps hoped would be reassuring. "Certainly, I am not proud of it," Trump acknowledged. “I am very embarrassed by it and I hate it, but it's locker room talk and it’s one of those things. I will knock the hell out of ISIS. We are going to defeat ISIS. ISIS happened a number of years ago in a vacuum that was left because of bad judgment. And I will tell you, I will take care of ISIS. We need to get on to much more important and bigger things."
There’s one more chance for European ties to be considered one of those "things" at the next debate October 19.