Everyone in Europe Needs to Take a Deep, Calming Breath

We don't yet know how the president-elect will behave in office. Meanwhile, the present state of hysteria could make things worse.


“The sky is falling!” exclaimed Chicken Little, in the well-known folk tale, after an acorn fell on the poor fowl’s head, leading to mass hysteria over an imminent apocalypse or at least the End of the World as we know it.

To judge by reactions in Europe, President-elect Donald Trump’s victory last week is that acorn. Coming on the heels of the debt crisis, the Russian annexation of Crimea, the migration crisis, and Brexit, the U.S. election result has sent shivers through the continent, leading to a slew of stories about NATO falling apart, the pending Russian invasion of the Baltics, and the spread of anti-EU populism.

True, some of Trump’s campaign statements rightfully put Europeans on edge. True, the far-right populists in Europe have exulted. However, lest collective fear lead to paralysis and learned helplessness, where every successive shock is perceived to be beyond Europe’s control, we should all calm down. European leaders should avoid hyperbole and journalists clichés.

The domestic policy of any president, U.S. or otherwise, is his or her own concern, as long as democratic norms are followed. Europe therefore should — for now — concern itself only over U.S. foreign policy, in particular toward Europe.

Even when it comes to foreign policy, we need not concern ourselves overly much with pre-election statements. Recall that many thought that Bill “it’s the economy, stupid” Clinton would, in the wake of Cold Warriors Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush, focus U.S. policy inward; instead, Clinton turned out to be one of the more engaged foreign-policy presidents, intervening in Bosnia, in Serbia, and expanding the NATO alliance to include three members from the Warsaw Pact.

That said, two issues do stand out from Trump’s campaign: his statements on the U.S. commitment to NATO — the primary treaty upon which U.S.-European relations since 1949 have been anchored — and his relationship with Russia and its leader, Vladimir Putin.

On the first, we simply don’t know yet what the president-elect will do. As a candidate, Trump said U.S. support for NATO members would be contingent on allies having paid up; in the event of an attack on an ally, he would first look at whether that country had “fulfilled their obligations to us.” Then, in the first presidential debate, Trump said he was “all for NATO” — after listing his concerns about burden-sharing. President Barack Obama this week at a press conference put his own view of Trump’s views on U.S. foreign policy thus: “He expressed a great interest in maintaining our core strategic relationships, and so one of the messages I will be able to deliver is his commitment to NATO and the transatlantic alliance.” Amid these varied messages, we now await the president-elect’s own policy statements.

It also seems wise to await Trump’s appointments to senior foreign and security policy positions, before assessing whether the sky will fall. Some of the names already mooted for these posts — former National Security Advisor Stephen Hadley, for example, and former Governor Mitt Romney — are known for their strong transatlantic views; some served in George W. Bush’s administration, hardly known for its isolationism. These men may not be appointed; the point is that right now we don’t know.

What we do know, however, is that there is little new in what Trump said pre-election. The fact that most NATO members don’t spend the agreed-upon 2 percent of GDP on defense is a long-standing U.S. concern. In 2011, the first Obama administration’s secretary of defense, Robert Gates, on his way out the door harshly rebuked European allies for doing less than their share: “The blunt reality is that there will be dwindling appetite and patience in the U.S. Congress, and in the American body politic writ large, to expend increasingly precious funds on behalf of nations that are apparently unwilling to devote the necessary resources … to be serious and capable partners in their own defense.”

This was Obama’s own message at the 2014 NATO summit in Wales. The problem, in other words, is not with Trump. He merely gave the same message in somewhat more robust terms. While waiting for him to take office, Europe should finally take the point to heart. For a continent facing an aggressive, revanchist Russia, it will no longer do to allow the United States to shoulder the bulk of Europe’s own defense costs and have only four European countries — Estonia, Greece, Poland, and the U.K. — meet the alliance’s agreed-upon spending minimum.

However, Trump’s statements have, in effect, served as a sort of journalistic Rorschach test. A good amount of ink, for instance, has been used up on scare stories about the fate of the Baltics. But why look to Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania when a candidate says he will look at whether NATO countries pay their share? Estonia, as mentioned, is one of the very few that does. Latvia and Lithuania are committed to 2 percent by 2018. To instantly sound the alarm over the Baltic countries in response to Trump’s words reflects more about the worldview of various publications than the reality of what was said. 

It’s true that Trump has made admiring statements about Russian President Vladimir Putin on the campaign trail, and disquieting comments about the United States potentially recognizing Russia’s annexation of Crimea in Ukraine. The latter, in particular, is problematic. Russia’s annexation of Crimea threatened the foundations underpinning European security since World War II. The U.N. Charter, the Helsinki Final Act, and the Charter of Paris all forbid changing borders through the use of force or threat of the use of force. The United States has also maintained this position since the end of World War II. Should Trump now accept the Crimean annexation, it would mark a fundamental shift in Europe’s security relationship with the United States. The same would be true if Trump adopted a transactional approach with Putin — that is, making a deal with him that encompasses issues like Crimea, Ukraine, and Syria. For Europeans, deals are not made over the heads of those affected. The rules are paramount. Agreements matter.

But a premature post-Trump panic does not help on the Russia question. Up until now, the EU has managed to maintain a fragile united front on the issues of Ukraine, Crimea, and sanctions. Yet various parties — Greece and Italy for instance — have long felt tempted to break off and cut their own bilateral deals with Russia. A transactional approach toward Russia on the part of the United States would indeed undermine Europe’s united front — but so does the present atmosphere of hysteria, which puts even more pressure on those inclined to cut their own deals with Russia to be the first ones to do so. It is in this arena where the Chicken Littles could end up helping to achieve Putin’s goal — to fracture a relatively united and, hence, relatively strong Europe — even before Trump reveals his ultimate intentions.

Sadly, the one productive thing that Europe might do, while it is waiting to see what comes next, is the thing that seems most out of reach: to move toward even greater continental unity. The prospect of a Europe largely sidelined on questions of its own security ought to force it to put aside current differences in order to deal with serious concerns. But greater unity in Europe would need a good deal of political courage, particularly in the face of a populist upheaval that could overturn the current leaderships in a number of countries. It would require member states to move from entrenched positions on issues such as Greek debt, Italian spending, and the migrant crisis. It would require a more adult and flexible approach to Brexit, one that doesn’t seek to punish but comes at it with the goal of maintaining European strength. Could the above come about as a result of the shock of a pending Trump presidency? It would be wonderful if it did, but I can’t say I’m hopeful.

In short: Europe must wait. But it should wait as productively as possible, building up its capacity to defend itself — which it should have been doing all along — and pushing for strength in unity — which ought to have always been the goal. That is the way to prepare as best we can for facing the future, regardless of whether the Chicken Littles are right.

Photo credit: Marc Piasecki/Getty Images

Toomas Hendrik Ilves is the former president of Estonia.

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