Imagine how harrowing it is to be a European leader these days.

To the east, a horrific dictator is trying to reassemble the Soviet empire, launching missile strikes on schools, apartment blocks and hospitals, littering Ukrainian villages with murdered civilians and cutting off energy supplies to the West. To the north, Britain, the European Union’s most important military power, stands alone, weakened and aloof. To the south, desperate migrants from Africa and the Middle East are drowning by the thousands trying to get into Europe, where their presence has fueled the rise of far-right parties from Italy to Sweden.

And across the ocean to the west, the great superpower that did so much to liberate, rebuild and defend western Europe after World War II has, having barely survived a coup attempt less than two years ago, been teetering on the edge of a collapse into autocracy and civil war. The leader of the coup isn’t behind bars but running for the presidency.

With authoritarianism on the rise, can the EU’s member states count on the U.S. to remain their primary economic, military and political partner, the rock upon which what was once called the Western Alliance of democratic nations was sustained?

That was the question on nearly everyone’s lips when I was in Brussels the week before last to help explain the U.S. political scene and the ramifications of our midterm elections to our worried trans-Atlantic partners.

As a guest of the German Marshall Fund of the United States – the Washington-based organization that fosters relations between our continents – and the Foundation for European Progressive Studies, a Brussels think tank, over two days I conversed with dozens of European diplomats, members of parliament, security experts and North America analysts from across the 27-member union.


Most everyone wanted to know if Donald Trump – who announced his presidential run the day I arrived – could win his party’s nomination; if the anti-democratic fever had finally broken within the American electorate; and if they should still be preparing for a world in which the U.S. might no longer have their backs. And they wanted to know how a nation long thought of as the “leader of the free world” had gotten to a point where these were the key questions.

In recent years, while figures like Donald Trump, Tucker Carlson, now-Senator J.D. Vance of Ohio and Republican House leader Kevin McCarthy were disparaging Ukraine and making purring sounds at Moscow, EU leaders have been debating whether they should be shifting to “strategic autonomy,” the ability to act as a more truly independent power in military, diplomatic, energy and supply chain realms. Brexit, the Russian invasion of Ukraine and a perceived turn against free trade in our country (which they feel has continued under President Biden) have pushed that conversation to the forefront.

The stakes are so great that European diplomats follow our politics intensively. European Parliament members from Scandinavia and the Low Countries engaged in nuanced debate over whether Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer would make a better running mate than Vice President Kamala Harris or if Florida Gov. Rick DeSantis could take Trump in a primary. They knew about the softening of Tejano support for Democrats in Texas’ lower Rio Grande Valley and about the recent dysfunction plaguing the New York Democratic establishment. I expect few members of Congress could name the current leader of Belgium or Sweden or any of their political parties. Then again, their constituents’ fate is not bound to political developments in those countries.

I was in the European capital because, in addition to my role as a reporter at the Press Herald and Maine Sunday Telegram, I write and speak on the Balkanized nature of the United States, the forces that have held it together as a federation and those that have been weakening it. I started my journalism career in Eastern Europe and the Balkans during the collapse of communism and the messy transition that followed, experiences that informed my books on Maine’s people, the regional cultures of North America and the fraught 19th and 20th century struggle to create a shared story of United States nationhood.

My post-midterm message was that our country remains in crisis, one misstep away from a collapse of constitutional order and, with it, the federation itself. But that this month I’m more optimistic that we’ll pull through in the end, that the American experiment in self-government and the pursuit of human freedom and equality won’t perish from the Earth.

In many places, democracy really was on the ballot in the midterm elections, with election deniers, including those for secretary of state positions that oversee elections themselves, seeking high office. In Arizona, gubernatorial candidate Kari Lake spread lies about the 2020 election and promised to ignore federal gun and immigration laws if elected. In Pennsylvania, would-be governor Doug Mastriano backed the QAnon conspiracy and asserted there is no separation between church and state. All of them lost, some by wide margins.


Rep. Lauren Boebert, a far-right firebrand and QAnon enthusiast suspected of assisting the Jan. 6 insurrectionists, won reelection by just 0.1 percent in a solidly Republican district. By contrast, moderate, pro-democracy Republicans like Vermont Gov. Phil Scott and New Hampshire Gov. Chris Sununu coasted to reelection in “blue” New England by double digit margins.

The country may be pulling back from the brink, I argued in Brussels, as more and more citizens of all political persuasions realize the Republic could fall and just what that would mean for themselves, their children, their community and the world. The outcome remains uncertain, however, with the man who helped foment a violent insurrection less than two years ago more likely to be on the presidential ballot two years hence than in prison.

Europe, I said, would be ill advised not to develop contingency plans for a world where they, not us, might be the leaders of the free world.

Let’s all hope it doesn’t come to that.

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