It seems Europe’s fears about Trump’s America are being realized. Just back from a month in France, it is quite clear to me that the U.S. government shutdown and the entire daisy chain of events that have unspooled this year had a strong impact on our allies abroad. American policy decisions, coupled with the increasingly impulsive actions of President Donald Trump, has led to an ever more powerful impetus simply to go it alone.
That may send thrills of joy running up the spine of Trump and his “America First” acolytes. But it brings little joy to global leaders who, at least dating back to the end of World War II, have grown accustomed to a world with few barriers, cemented by a quest for democracy and universal prosperity.
Europeans have come to appreciate and rely on traditional American values and interests — interests that have led quite directly to security and wealth.
Indeed, Europeans have come to appreciate and rely on traditional American values and interests — interests that have led quite directly to security and wealth. Sadly this process of uncoupling Europe’s political, military, diplomatic and economic systems from the U.S. — if it continues much longer — may prove irreversible. Are we at an historical turning point?
In so many ways, the United States risks going from the indispensable bulwark of the free world to an afterthought. Consider some of the areas where this is already happening — and where even greater challenges likely await in 2019.
France’s president, Emmanuel Macron, lit a torch under the tinder in November when, visiting a World War I battlefield at Verdun, he called for the creation of a “true European army,” warning that Europe must be able to “defend itself alone” against China and Russia, though not, as Trump erroneously suggested, the United States Macron was reacting to Trump’s decision to withdraw from a 1987 treaty with Russia that banned medium-range ground missiles from Europe.
More broadly, Macron’s comments reflected the deeper fear that Europeans may no longer be able to count on America should Russia, for instance, train its new hypersonic missile on a western capital. Such worries were only stoked by Trump’s vitriolic and decidedly ill-timed broadside against the whole idea of a European defense force. His statement, branding Macron’s comments “very insulting,” was issued just as Air Force One was landing in France to celebrate the centenary of Germany’s surrender ending World War I.
German Chancellor Angela Merkel quickly leaped to defend the concept of such a defense force.
Trump may have misinterpreted Macron’s comments, but he’s not wrong to be concerned. Imagine, European energy and resources increasingly diverted to a pan-European defense force. What motivation will there be for each nation to satisfy its pledge to commit two percent of its GDP to NATO by 2024 — a commitment that Donald Trump apparently sees as a mandate today.
Might this new European military, instead of purchasing arms from American manufacturers, simply expand its own arms industry, not only satisfying internal needs but serving as an increasingly viable competitor to American munitions-makers? How many jobs would that cost across the United States?Hundreds of thousands, to start.
Trump may have misinterpreted Macron’s comments, but he’s not wrong to be concerned. Imagine, European energy and resources increasingly diverted to a pan-European defense force.
So far as trade is concerned, there are still no real, viable negotiations between the United States and Europe regarding a new trade pact that was among his early pledges. All there have been is threats. Beginning with duties Trump imposed on steel and aluminum imports, this tariff dispute escalated when the U.S. president threatened to add duties on cars, sending European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker scurrying to Washington. New talks between Europe and the U.S. lasted, in a desultory fashion, until early December when Trump’s ambassador to the EU, Gordon Sondland, blasted the Europeans for being “out of touch” and stalling.
But what if Europeans start looking elsewhere? There are, after all, ongoing discussions between Europe and China. Moreover, China is already Europe’s second largest trading partner, though China is still only half the customer the U.S. is.
Trump’s apparent missteps haven’t helped, nor have his complaints to Angela Merkel about the number of German cars he sees on American highways — a classic example of Trump’s bluster clashing with the facts. The reality is that 800,000 German cars are made annually in factories from Chattanooga to Spartanburg to Tuscaloosa by some 50,000 American auto workers. This is compared with the 500,00 cars imported from Germany.
Above all, America is looking more and more like a bully in the schoolyard — one whose values run in distinctly different directions than those of much of the European continent.
When Trump tweeted his off-the-cuff decision to withdraw American troops from Syria, where they have been part of a western offensive against ISIS, the Europeans knew that his rationale was hogwash. British defence minister Tobias Ellwood, utterly rejected Trump’s claim, observing in a tweet, “It has morphed into other forms of extremism and the threat is very much alive.”
With the removal of American forces and with the Kurds under an existential attack from Turkey, ISIS no longer needs to fear American military might or even Kurdish courage and resolve.
“An ally must be dependable,” Emmanuel Macron promptly told a news conference. “To be allies is to fight shoulder to shoulder. It's the most important thing for a head of state and head of the military.”
And ISIS isn’t the only foe America seems to have become disinterested in fighting. The U.S. still insists it is no longer part of the COP21 environmental agreement; that it will punish Iran for a nuclear accord it continues to pledge to respect and that Europe continues to honor; that it cozied up to a North Korea evidence suggests is continuing to build toward a nuclear arsenal.
And at every turn, there is new evidence that “America First” is no longer just a campaign slogan. This was made abundantly clear, for example, by the administration’s new Africa policy, spelled out in December by National Security Advisor John Bolton. European security and political interests run diametrically opposed. “Every decision we make, every policy we pursue, and every dollar of aid we spend [in Africa] will further U.S. priorities,” Bolton proclaimed. “All U.S. aid on the continent will advance U.S. interests.”
Which brings us back to the fear of American reliability. Can America, and its voters, ever really be counted on? Has this 230-year-old system simply outgrown today’s realities?
With each successively more ill-conceived tweet, Trump manages to magnify the necessity of Europe banding together. Maybe EU countries will find new partners in China or elsewhere. More likely, 2019 will find these nations working together ever more resolutely to defend their interests and establish military, diplomatic and economic mechanisms that can function on their own. Sadly, in 2019 they may find they can no longer count on the United States as they have in the past.