(THIS ARTICLE IS COURTESY OF THE BROOKINGS INSTITUTE)
Donald Trump ascended to the presidency challenging the basic precepts of America’s relationship with Europe: NATO, he proclaimed, was not only “obsolete,” but Washington should make its security commitment contingent upon alliance members paying “their fair share.” The European Union was not an ally but a competitor that had been “formed, partially, to beat the United States on trade.” Against the express wishes of every European government—including, at the time, Britain’s—Trump cheered along Brexit and conveyed ambivalence as to whether the European Union should continue to exist. While he derided German Chancellor Angela Merkel on the 2016 campaign trail, he had nothing but nice things to say about Russian President Vladimir Putin, leader of the continent’s primary security threat. And as for the liberal values Europe and the United States share—respect for human rights, a free press, religious and ethnic pluralism—Trump was indifferent if not outright hostile.
Over the past year and a half, Trump has taken many steps to rankle Europeans: He pulled out of the Paris climate agreement, recognized Jerusalem as Israel’s capital and threatened to impose tariffs on aluminum and steel. But it was the president’s decision to withdraw from the Iran nuclear deal that has led many to declare the transatlantic relationship dead. “RIP the Trans-Atlantic Alliance, 1945-2018,” wrote James Traub in Foreign Policy; “Time for Europe to Join the Resistance,” read the headline of a Der Spiegel editorial; writing for The Washington Post, former Swedish prime minister Carl Bildt branded Trump’s decision a “massive assault” on Europe; Donald Tusk, president of the European Council and a rock-solid transatlanticist, openly wondered, “with friends like that, who needs enemies?” And in a New York Times opinion piece titled “Europe Doesn’t Have to Be Trump’s Doormat,” two former Obama administration officials, barely concealing their sour grapes, floated the idea of European governments recalling their ambassadors from Washington and expelling American diplomats from their own capitals.
These eulogies for the transatlantic relationship are irresponsible and premature. Though Trump has certainly made America more unreliable, the United States and its European allies still share the same fundamental values and interests. Moreover, such sweeping declarations ignore the extent to which the European project owes its very existence to the beneficence, sacrifice and tutelage of the United States, and still relies upon Washington for its security.
Europeans can start to unwind the transatlantic alliance, but they do so at their peril.
Declaring the bond between America and Europe kaput exaggerates both the severity and suddenness of the current predicament. Europeans bemoaning, in the words of one German journalist, that in the White House there’s a “subversive on an extermination mission,” fail to appreciate just how little his election was about them. Nor was it attributable, in the main, to the unorthodox foreign policy views he expressed on the campaign trail, alarming as they were. Few Trump voters were animated by the failure of many NATO members to apportion 2 percent of GDP for national defense; cared about Britain leaving the European Union; or saw “getting along” with Russia as a top priority. What animated them were Trump’s hard-line views on immigration, promises to resist the changes wrought by globalization and willingness to flout the “politically correct” norms of both parties in establishment Washington.
Future historians may look back on Trump’s presidency as having marked a decisive, downward-turning point in America’s global leadership role. But it is far too soon to declare something so extensive and enduring as America’s seven-decade-long political, economic, strategic and military relationship with Europe dead just because of one man’s election.