German Chancellor Angela Merkel, French President Emmanuel Macron, and US President Donald Trump at the plenary session of the G20 summit in Hamburg, Germany, 7 July 2017. Photo Credit: John Macdougall/AFP/Getty Images
By: Simon Machalek, Columnist
The transatlantic relationship, from which both the United States and the European Union (EU) have benefitted tremendously over the last 70 years, has been damaged to an unprecedented degree. President Trump has alienated European allies and has seriously harmed the partnership by calling the EU a “foe,”[i] by swiftly withdrawing from the Iran nuclear deal and preventing the deal to work even without US participation,[ii] and by repeatedly questioning the core clause of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO). It will take years of hard work to repair it, which will be one of the most significant legacies of Trump’s presidency.
The current US approach to Europe is founded on Trump’s America First policy, which seeks to promote American national interests above all. The policy views the world as a zero-sum game in which the U.S. is too distracted by spending too much time and resources in areas where others should take responsibility. Trump views the EU as a parasitic entity that drains US defense resources and burdens US interests. But such a view misses the deeper reality, as the transatlantic partnership and the pursuit for European integration has been the bedrock of US security, promoting stability and safety not only for Europe, but also for the U.S. The collaboration has achieved remarkable and unparalleled success in spreading mutual values, such as the rule of law and democracy, in strengthening economic ties and generating enormous profits, and in deterring adversaries from attacking the alliance.
Although the relationship has never been perfect it has always endured, particularly because it is founded on mutual trust and confidence. That has changed over the last years, resulting in a severe crisis in which both sides increasingly question and scrutinize each other. The ties have been so severely damaged that the crisis will not end with Trump’s presidency, but will instead continue going forward. America’s image in Europe, especially among key allies like Germany and France, remains alarmingly negative, with no signs of improvement on the horizon.[iii] Such a scenario is extremely dangerous, as it emboldens the West’s adversaries, inviting them to exploit the damaged relationship by enacting their revisionist and aggressive policies.
While Trump’s administration correctly criticizes European states for being overly dependent on American protection and not investing enough in their militaries, it does so in a way that questions the entire partnership. For example, when asked why the U.S. should defend Montenegro, a NATO member, from an attack and comply with NATO’s Article Five common defense clause, Trump responded saying Montenegro’s people are very aggressive and US involvement there could trigger another world war.[iv] Trump demonstrated discomfort with the fundamental underpinnings of the alliance through these remarks. Such statements instill confusion and make European states doubt whether the U.S. is serious about its commitment to the alliance. This greatly undermines trust and confidence between all partners and makes further cooperation more difficult. Trump should continue to press member states to increase their military budgets, as they are required to get to the 2% military spending GDP threshold by 2025, but should do so in a more restrained manner that does not compromise the entire project.
Additionally, Trump has resisted to stand up for European integrity and democracy by demonstrating support for anti-democratic leaders, such as Viktor Orban in Hungary, Jarosław Kaczynski in Poland, or Giuseppe Conte in Italy. His support for illiberal and increasingly authoritarian leaders, who like him employ populist tactics and impede features of liberal democracy and civil society, challenges the underlying values of the transatlantic partnership. Trump has also repeatedly verbally attacked German Chancellor Angela Merkel, and has frequently mocked French President Emmanuel Macron.[v] This erratic behavior leaves a profound impact on how European leaders committed to the transatlantic alliance and the values that define it view the U.S., and how they perceive Washington’s actions and future commitment.
Most important, the Trump administration does not seriously consult its European counterparts when addressing momentous foreign policy choices. The administration rapidly walked away from the Iran nuclear deal and made it extremely difficult for the deal to exist without American participation by imposing sanctions on European entities willing to continue trade with Tehran. Recently, the Trump administration announced US’ withdrawal from the Intermediate-range Nuclear Forces (INF) treaty, despite heavy pushback from European leaders.[vi] Due to its proximity to Russia, such decisions have a significant impact on European security. The U.S. should consult more deliberately with all EU member states when making these key decisions. Multilateral consultation is especially needed when it is not clear whether the U.S. has a coherent strategy for handling these relationships in the future outside of such landmark agreements.
In an increasingly hostile international environment where authoritarianism in Europe is on the rise, where populist leaders defiantly combat liberal values, and where an increasingly aggressive and powerful Russia challenges established norms and seeks to instill disunity, an unwavering transatlantic partnership is needed perhaps more than ever. Both sides must restore lost confidence and re-establish mutual trust. Although reforms of the partnership should take place as the relationship and global dynamics change, its very existence should not be questioned under any circumstances. If both sides of the Atlantic fail to find ways to trust each other and instead resort to abandoning their partnerships, instability and conflict will follow.
[iii] Kristen Bialik, “How The World Views The U.S. And Its President In 9 Charts,” Pew Research Center, 9 October 2018, http://www.pewresearch.org/fact-tank/2018/10/09/how-the-world-views-the-u-s-and-its-president-in-9-charts/.
[iv] Guardian Staff and Agencies, “Very Aggressive: Trump Suggest Montenegro Could Cause World War Three,” The Guardian, 19 July 2018, https://www.theguardian.com/us-news/2018/jul/19/very-aggressive-trump-suggests-montenegro-could-cause-world-war-three.
[v] Caitlyn Oprysko, “Trump Goes On The Attack Against Macron,” Politico, 13 November 2018, https://www.politico.com/story/2018/11/13/trump-macron-europe-defense-985305.
[vi] Julian Borger, “EU Warns Trump Of Nuclear Arms Race Risk After INF Withdrawal Move,” The Guardian, 23 October 2018, https://www.theguardian.com/world/2018/oct/22/eu-us-nuclear-arms-race-inf-treaty-bolton-moscow.