A Little Advice to Europe, From Your Best Friend
Trump’s America isn’t out to undo the European Union. It just wants to update the relationship.
With the election of President Donald Trump, a disturbing trend has manifested among America’s European allies. Worries have been voiced over U.S. commitment to the postwar international order and values promoted by the United States after World War II. In his recent trip to Munich and Brussels, Vice President Mike Pence recalled the memory of our soldiers who paid the ultimate price to guarantee the freedom of our European allies. Let’s be clear: Starting with the blood of those American troops, the United States has poured itself into ensuring a peaceful Europe.
However, it is important to remember what those brave young men died for. Democracy is messy and often disappoints. As Winston Churchill once observed, it is the worst form of government, except for all those others. Churchill himself was on the wrong end of electoral surprises — not least when he lost at the ballot box, months after defeating the fascist menace. While we cannot ascertain his view of Britain’s decision to leave the European Union — he is revered by Euroskeptics and hailed as an EU founding father by Europhiles — it is difficult to imagine him ignoring resounding public mandates.
The Brexit vote on June 23, 2016, represents such a mandate, although it is not the first democratic repudiation of internationalist projects. Once again, a look into our darkest moments can serve a didactic purpose: the freshly minted French Fifth Republic once abandoned NATO. Although it did not opt for a “hard Frexit” — unsigning the North Atlantic Treaty — it is important to underline that France did not re-establish full membership in the allied forces until as late as 2009, under President Nicolas Sarkozy. The organization nonetheless survived and thrived, defeated its ideological foe, and remains the cornerstone of the American-led world order, even if it needs to be re-engineered for the future as President Donald Trump now argues.
There are already signs that Brexit may have given Brussels a push so that it, too, can update itself, survive, and thrive. This month, European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker’s office published a vision of five directions toward which the EU can move, in order to emerge from its current impasse. In doing so, he effectively recognized the right of sovereign member states to decide which direction they will pursue. It is not for the United States to say how Europeans should vote in any election, but Juncker should be congratulated on this act of humility; let us hope he, and Brussels generally, will continue to recognize diversity of opinion among Europeans into the future.
Europeans would rightly be offended if America sought to interfere with the exercise of democratic prerogatives by the citizens of the EU. It thus behooves us to address the alarmism to which some European figures are still resorting in the wake of the U.S. elections. Comparisons to dark historical figures are far too common. Hillary Clinton greatly erred in comparing President Vladimir Putin’s actions in Ukraine with those of Adolf Hitler in the Sudetenland. We ought to remember that the Soviets lost nearly 30 million of their own citizens — two-thirds of whom were civilians — in their war with the Third Reich. So, too, did prominent European politicians evoke the specter of fascism with respect to the U.S. election. Such allusions — once taboo — are a great disservice to the victims of the Holocaust, Guernica, and other fascist atrocities. Scoring cheap political points by insulting the president of the United States or his representatives is no way to show a commitment to a “Europe whole and free.” Just as it was an American president who coined this phrase, it was the American security guarantee that enabled European unity and freedom after the Cold War.
I consider myself a friend of Europe and a strong believer in liberal democratic ideals that unify the West. Those who spent the years after the fall of the Berlin Wall spreading democratic values across the former Soviet Union can always count on my admiration and respect. And yet political figures denounce me, believing that now is “Europe’s last chance.” We clearly have more in common than they admit. It would be wise to focus on what brings us together.
Yes, the Trump administration has its own political priorities: the American people. President Ronald Reagan — another Republican accused of insufficient commitment to Europeans — famously won the Cold War by outspending the Soviets in the arms race. Part of this victory, of course, grew out of his call for a strong commitment on the part of our allies to NATO. Reagan issued an early appeal for increased defense spending from our European allies, yet since the end of the Cold War, that commitment has flagged. President Barack Obama called some of our allies “free-riders,” to widespread bipartisan criticism. Even so, Vice President Pence said it best when he said the patience of the American people is finite.
There are always excuses in Brussels: the post-9/11 world led to controversial out-of-area operations; the bugbear of modern Europe — the eurozone crisis — has taken up time and political capital. And yet in 2016 Germany posted a 6 billion euro budget surplus. It is difficult to see that figure and accept the gradualism with which NATO’s 2 percent target is being complied. During the financial crisis, the EU used its powers to decide spending priorities. I’m sure the great minds of the European institutions can find creative ways to direct those powers toward our common objectives. America should welcome recent commitments by European allies to increase spending, but it must insist on results. Europe is rich and should shoulder its fair share of the burden for its own defense.
It remains to be said that some notions need updating. The burden sharing evidenced during the Libyan intervention was disastrous. President Obama set out to “lead from behind” and ended up purveying the bulk of hardware, as well as the vital logistical functions: in-air refueling, submarine-launched missiles, and other mighty pieces of American muscle. Devoid of American political commitment to the mission, it was a failure. Malta and Italy bore the brunt of the costs for this failure, but the EU as a whole paid in political legitimacy during ensuing bickering over refugees. Syria offered a redux: Once again, Europe was the main Western stakeholder, and its failure to address the crisis fostered infighting among member states while millions of refugees streamed into neighboring countries and then into Europe itself. This was a problem tailor-made for Brussels to step up and solve. As it stands, Europe cannot fulfill its security responsibilities to its own citizenry. The question of defense spending is only the beginning.
President Trump won on a platform of noninterventionism. Coming on the heels of 15 years of war, this should come as no surprise. The Founding Fathers of the American Revolution did not believe in foreign entanglements. Indeed, every successful revolution tempers its resolve to enlighten the rest of the world, preferring to consolidate gains at home. President George Washington once said, “Let us raise a standard to which the wise and honest can repair; the rest is in the hands of God.” The EU has expanded very quickly but hasn’t been raising a standard toward which its own citizens can always cast admiration. In a different context, President George W. Bush once spoke of the “soft bigotry of low expectations.” By expressing high expectations for European leadership in Europe’s own backyard, Trump shows himself a true friend of Europe.
When the Soviets became tired of Leninist vanguards and permanent revolution, they invented the concept of “socialism in one country.” President Trump has something similar: His platform is “freedom in one country.” America is and always has been committed to defending democracy where it exists, especially in Europe, but today it has renounced the liberal-interventionist, neoconservative notion of spreading democracy throughout the world. The United States again will raise a standard to which the wise and honest can repair.
Make no mistake, Europe: America under Trump is your best friend, your security shield, and your trading partner. But no longer is the United States an idle participant, a cash machine, or a quiet do-nothing partner. America has a new mission — greatness. This mission need not clash with Europe; indeed, it should revolve around a continued alliance and common Western values that have served us all so well.
Photo credit: Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images
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