Trump in Europe: Reinforcing His Predecessors’ Errors

by Robert E. Hunter

A single swallow does not a summer make; neither does one trip by a US president to Europe redefine transatlantic relations. One can be excused from drawing the opposite conclusion from media reporting of President Donald Trump’s meetings in Brussels, Rome, and Sicily, relating respectively to NATO, the European Union, meetings with the Pope and Italian leaders, and a Group of Seven (G-7) summit.

People with experience in these matters must try sorting out the important from the ephemeral. That’s not easy, given the continuing media focus in the United States on all-things-Trump, especially all-negative-things-Trump, which he has in major part brought upon himself by his own behavior and policy pronouncements. Thus, if we are to believe only what we read and see here in the United States, the president’s recent trip to Europe was all about the following:

  • Pope Francis’ not smiling during the photo-op with President Trump and his family, along with extensive media dissection of the dress code followed by First Lady Melania Trump for the papal audience (she got it right);
  • Trump’s shouldering the Montenegrin prime minister aside prior to the “family photo” at NATO (clearly bad manners);
  • A prolonged and white-knuckled handshake between Trump and the new French president, Emmanuel Macron, plus the latter’s supposedly deliberate swerving away from Trump at a gathering of leaders at NATO to greet European leaders;
  • Follow-up comments by Macron regarding the now-famous handshake: ”It’s not the alpha and the omega of politics, but a moment of truth.” This was compounded by Macron’s comments, in the same interview with Le Journal du Dimanche, comparing Trump with the presidents of Russia and Turkey for acting according to a “power-struggle logic” (message to Élysée Palace: Trump’s public comments don’t make our president look good, either).

The Concerns of Germany

Most of this could be put down to the tittle-tattle that now substitutes for analysis of Trump at home and abroad, if it were not so serious. The point was made by German Chancellor Angela Markel, easily the most seasoned, grown-up, and successful of Western leaders, at a beer-hall political campaign rally: “The era in which we could fully rely on others is over to some extent…That’s what I experienced over the past several days. We Europeans truly have to take our fate into our own hands—naturally in friendship with the United States of America, in friendship with Great Britain, as good neighbors with whoever, also with Russia and other countries”.

Merkel is not wrong to be concerned about the pyramiding failures of thoughtful and committed American leadership in the world according to Trump. In the most critical area, his ambivalence about climate change—even as of this writing he has not decided whether to pull the United States out of the December 2015 UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (the Paris Agreement), a half-hearted but indispensable step in dealing with the most consequential matter facing humankind. She can also be miffed over Trump’s complaints about the German-American trade balance (although Merkel’s austerity policies are partly to blame for slowing Europe’s economic growth, including Germany’s).. And Trump’s continued unwillingness to make a full-throated commitment to NATO, the European Union, and transatlantic relations in general, despite his gestures in this direction, must be worrisome not just to Merkel but to people everywhere who have come to rely on the US being in the forefront of doing what’s right.

Perhaps continental Europe, led by Germany in primary partnership with France, will need to rely more on its own devices in shaping its broad political and economic environments, including security. But the alternative to a central US military role is a pipe dream, particularly when dealing with Russia. Despite Trump’s not formally endorsing the NATO Treaty’s Article 5—an attack on one ally is an attack at all—there is no valid reason to believe he is walking away from it. (In fact, the NATO ceremony where Trump spoke was held in part precisely to mark the importance of Article 5.) Despite the absence of the words, US deeds show that at least the security commitment to Europe remains firm.

European longing, especially in Central Europe, for vigorous, unquestioned US engagement is reflected in one particular aspect of Merkel’s comments about self-reliance: a reawakening of concern in some of the countries that suffered in World Wars I and II that “here comes Germany again.” Indeed, Germany has reemerged as the most significant European economic power, reinforced by Britain’s purblind decision to leave the European Union. But this ghost of a Germany out-of-control was well-and-truly laid to rest not just by Germany’s post-World War II domestic transformation but also by the web of relationships built up since then and further elaborated following its unification in 1991.

The Fate of NATO

Much attention has been paid to President Trump’s lecturing the NATO allies in Brussels about the poor performance of 23 of the alliance’s 28 members in meeting the NATO goal of spending 2 percent of gross domestic product (GDP) on defense. This shortfall was underscored by the challenges posed by Russia’s 2014 seizure of Crimea, its continued aggression (both direct and indirect) in other parts of Ukraine, and its pressure on other countries in Europe.

Trump, however, did not invent the NATO spending goal, nor was he the first US president to wag an admonitory finger at recalcitrant allies. The 2 percent goal was a product of the Obama administration and more precisely of Secretary of Defense Robert Gates just before he left office in 2011. Notably, however, it measures inputs (defense spending) rather than outputs (what the spending buys). It doesn’t take into consideration other requirements, notably in the economic realm, for example bolstering the Ukrainian economy against Russian inroads. (Here, the West has fallen short, while Ukraine itself has failed to make needed reforms.)

Nor does the 2 percent goal take account of military actions by European Union states, now 11 foreign engagements, which might otherwise require deployment of US forces. Germany has regularly argued that the 2% goal fails to give due regard to non-defense contributions that it and other allies make to common Western security. Indeed, in Berlin’s judgment, it would be far better to adopt a goal of, say, 3% of GDP, with a portion for military spending and the rest for non-military security-related activities, like economic investment and foreign aid. However, in US political debate raw numbers of money spent just for military purposes carry the day politically.  In any event, increased European defense spending, although useful for various contingencies, could never be sufficient to deal militarily with a determined Russian military onslaught, if Putin were so dumb as even to think about it. That depends on the US strategic commitment..

The Obama and Trump administrations’ emphasis on the 2 percent goal—which almost certainly will never be reached by NATO as a whole—also obscures something else: the diminishing American interest in Europe. That did not begin under Trump but under his two immediate predecessors, and it would probably have continued even if Hillary Clinton had been elected president, including her mimicking of Trump’s—and Senator Bernie Sanders’—skepticism about the projected Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership.

The Obama administration (like Trump’s) was also almost completely indifferent to Europe’s immigration crisis, the gravest threat to the European Union since its founding. Sympathetic words, yes; concrete acts, no. The US has its own immigration controversies, of course, and members of Congress say they are worried that letting in even a trickle of refugees from Syria and environs would open the floodgates to terrorists. Yet even Canada has brought in more Middle East refugees than has the United States.

The Shift in U.S. Foreign Policy

Further, both the George W. Bush and Barack Obama administrations shifted US attention significantly away from Europe toward the Middle East and Southwest Asia. Indeed, the United States continues to be preoccupied with security in the Middle East and Afghanistan—beyond Syria and the Islamic State, where all the transatlantic allies have a stake—to a degree that makes little sense to most European countries and consumes significant US attention and resources. Most European allies also wonder why, following the conclusion of the Iran nuclear deal, the United States has been unwilling to explore possibilities of drawing that country back into the international community. Trump has continued the narrow approach initiated by Obama, while also tilting U.S. policy even more in the direction of Saudi Arabia, other Sunni Arab states, and Israel, an approach that further drains US attention from transatlantic needs and could even mean increased risk of more Middle East conflict down the road.

The Obama administration also proposed a “rebalancing” of engagement—nicknamed the “pivot” – to Asia, which decreased emphasis on transatlantic ties. The Obama administration, including the president and Vice President Joe Biden, spoke eloquently about ties to Europe but didn’t sufficiently “walk the walk” to satisfy European leaders. Interest in NATO, in particular, plummeted. Although revived somewhat following Russian aggression in Ukraine, it never regained full purchase. The senior Pentagon civilian official dealing full-time with NATO was a deputy assistant secretary—four levels down from the secretary—while the ranks of people in Washington’s foreign policy think tank community interested in NATO (or in Europe, more generally) fell to the lowest level since before the start of the Cold War, and money for Europe-related research and promoting transatlantic ties dried up.

Meanwhile, as the German chancellor implied in her beer-hall speech, the United Kingdom is turning its back on Europe, regardless of what it has argued, post-Brexit. Indeed, Brexit must rank with anything Trump has been saying and doing as a blow to the future of Europe.

Merkel is thus right to champion greater self-reliance by the continental Europeans. Indeed, in today’s post-post-Cold War world, save for coping with whatever Putin has in mind, there is much to be said for a more robust and quasi-independent European Union, provided, of course, that it continues to be part of a broader community of similarly minded nations.

To be sure, the European allies can do more to share the burdens of Western security—either narrowly or broadly defined—as well as maintenance of the liberal international order (though European states are, relative to the size of their economies, doing as much or more than the United States to promote stewardship of the global commons. It is also true that President Trump, in word and deed, is making matters worse by fostering uncertainties about US steadfastness.

But it is also true that he represents less a clear break with the past than an acceleration of a secular shift in US engagement in and with Europe. Reversing that trend, in America’s national interest as well as that of allies and partners abroad, requires more than just pointing fingers at the person now in the White House.

Photo: Angela Merkel meets with Donald Trump, Jared Kushner, and Ivanka Trump (official White House photo by Shealah Craighead)

Robert E. Hunter

Robert E. Hunter served as US ambassador to NATO (1993-98) and on the National Security Council staff throughout the Carter administration, first as Director of West European Affairs and then as Director of Middle East Affairs. In the last-named role, he was the White House representative at the Autonomy Talks for the West Bank and Gaza and developer of the Carter Doctrine for the Persian Gulf. He was Senior Advisor to the RAND Corporation from 1998 to 2011, and Director of the Center for Transatlantic Security Studies at the National Defense University, 2011-2012. He served on the Pentagon’s Defense Policy Board and is a member of the American Academy of Diplomacy.


One Comment

  1. I think Trump’s nonchalance regarding NATO is a stupid as it is dangerous.

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