U.S. Allies Are Learning that Trump’s America Is Not the ‘Indispensable Nation’
Grappling with an unpredictable White House, foreign partners in Europe and Asia are weighing contingency plans and bracing for the worst.
On Saturday night, President Donald Trump dined at his new D.C. hotel with the governor of Florida, Rick Scott, his daughter Ivanka, her husband and powerful senior White House advisor Jared Kushner, and Nigel Farage, the nemesis of the European Union. A few tables away, alone with his wife, sat Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, the man nominally charged with charting America’s relations with the rest of the world.
Photos of the president dining with a smiling Farage, the former UKIP leader who has railed against the EU for years, and who led the populist campaign to pull Britain out of Europe, only served to reinforce growing doubts about America’s stance toward the European Union and much of the international order forged by U.S. leadership in the years after World War II.
Now, U.S. allies are resigning themselves to the likelihood that Trump’s administration will remain unpredictable and often incoherent, if not downright hostile, in its foreign policy. And they are beginning to draw up contingency plans to protect their interests on trade and security, as they adapt to a world where strong American leadership is no longer assured.
“It’s dawning on people now that what you see is what you get,” said one European diplomat, “and that the uncertainty is not going away.”
Trump has of course alarmed transatlantic allies by sending mixed messages about the value of the NATO alliance, both on the campaign trail and once in office. But a much bigger concern for European governments is the White House’s apparent desire to reverse more than seven decades of U.S. policy of fostering a strong and united Europe as a bastion of democracy and free trade in order to bolster U.S. security.
The president of the European Commission, former Polish Prime Minister Donald Tusk, voiced what many senior officials will only say in private when he issued a dire warning in a recent letter to European leaders. Tusk said that Washington is “seeming to put into question” 70 years of American policy, placing the United States alongside Russia, China and terrorism as a source of instability for Europe.
The White House has actively fueled those worries, chiefly through Trump’s chief strategist, economic nationalist and anti-globalist Steven Bannon. This month he reportedly told Peter Wittig, Germany’s ambassador to Washington, that the EU is a flawed and weak institution, a week before Vice President Mike Pence was dispatched to Germany to express America’s “steadfast” commitment to the EU. Last week, Bannon in a speech before conservative activists in Washington touted what he calls “economic nationalism,” and said the administration wanted bilateral trade deals with other countries. But in Europe, the EU as a whole would have to negotiate any new trade deals.
Wittig declined to comment on the details of his conversation with Bannon, but said he rejects any attempts to divide the EU or belittle it as a purely economic trading bloc.
“The EU is not just an economic club, but it’s a political project,” he said. “It has brought us unprecedented security and stability [and] as far as Germany is concerned, we will certainly fight for a coherent and resilient European Union.”
The Trump administration’s tack is precisely the approach long favored by Moscow, which prefers the leverage that comes with dealing with European nations individually rather than collectively. Russian President Vladimir Putin has sought to divide the EU — and NATO — by fostering divisions within the Western bloc. Hungary and the Czech Republic — both members of the EU and NATO — have moved closer to Moscow in recent years, while Russia continues to support extremist, anti-EU parties in countries like France and Germany.
Trade, as much or more than security, has become the nascent administration’s cudgel to attack Europe. Trump’s top trade adviser, Peter Navarro, accused Berlin in January of manipulating foreign exchange markets, and Trump has talked of slapping all imports, including potentially those from Europe, with punitive tariffs.
Berlin, however, views free trade as a pillar of its prosperity and the global economy. Robust trade with countries around the world turned Germany into Europe’s economic engine. And German officials are clearly dismayed about the Trump administration’s threats to slap tariffs on German car manufacturers if they establish plants in Mexico instead of the United States and subsequently seek to export automobiles to the U.S. market.
Wittig suggested such a tariff could violate World Trade Organization rules, raising the possibility of retaliation. “WTO conformity is very important,” he said.
The Trump administration, however, appears serious about taking a hard line on trade, including possibly bypassing the WTO rules that Washington helped create. Officials have asked the U.S. Trade Representative’s office to prepare a list of legal measures that would allow the United States to impose sanctions unilaterally without having to go through WTO trade dispute procedures, the Financial Times reported Monday.
A European official said pursuing a unilateral approach to trade carried serious risks. “Trump and his aides are acting like it’s the 1950s or 60s. But U.S. economic power is not what it was. I think they’re in for a surprise.”
To be sure, German officials stress that U.S. presidential transitions are time-consuming, and while other European countries may see incoherence as a permanent feature of the Trump administration, Berlin expects Washington’s message will eventually take form.
The Germans and others, meanwhile, are clinging to reassuring messages delivered by some Trump administration officials. Vice President Pence underscored the U.S. commitment to NATO at a security conference in Munich on Feb. 18, just as Defense Secretary James Mattis has tried to convey the same message to American allies in Asia.
“We received a clear message from Vice President Mike Pence,” EU ambassador to the U.S. David O’Sullivan told Foreign Policy. “He told us President Donald Trump had specifically asked him to go to Brussels to express the strong commitment of the United States to continued cooperation and partnership with the European Union. I don’t think you can get much clearer than that.”
An EU official also pointed to a Trump interview with Reuters published on Friday where the president flippantly seemed to reaffirm longstanding U.S. policy. “The EU, I’m totally in favor of it,” said the president, who cheered Brexit and urged more countries to leave the European Union. “If they’re happy, I’m in favor of it.”
Europe, though, is hedging its bets, especially after a proposed trade deal between the United States and the EU, the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership, unraveled last year.
EU officials are now looking to Asia, since in one of his first acts in office, Trump withdrew the U.S. from the Trans-Pacific Partnership, a vast 12-nation trade deal. The jilted partners and the EU now see an opportunity for new trade arrangements — without the U.S. in the equation — and are already in talks.
Within Asia, the Trump administration has also rattled allies already unnerved by an aggressive China. Trump has repeatedly bashed China over trade, accusing Beijing of taking advantage of the United States, even while attacking longtime ally Japan over trade issues. But the president pulled back from a threat to abandon Washington’s “One China” policy, and so far the White House has sidestepped conflict in the contested South China Sea.
The administration’s mixed messages have fueled anxiety about whether Washington has a strategy for Asia, and what it might be. China, meanwhile, is forging ahead with its own Asian free trade deal, the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership, which excludes Washington, and deepening ties with many in the region, from Sri Lanka to the Philippines.
“It’s clearly wishful thinking that there was a deeper game, a strategy at work. That’s just not the case,” said Gregory Poling of Center for Strategic and International Studies. Governments are recognizing that “what we’re going to get is uncertainty and you just have to live with that.”
Even Australia, which has fought alongside the United States in every conflict since World War II, Trump’s election is seen by some as a sign that Canberra can no longer count on the United States for economic engagement or security in the Asia-Pacific.
In Canberra, the implications of a Trump presidency cast a long shadow as officials and policy analysts draft their foreign policy strategy in a new white paper. China has long been an economic siren for Australia, sucking up giant quantities of mineral exports, while the United States has for decades been Australia’s defense shield.
“The simple fact is that throughout Asia, the balance has been always to look to the U.S. for security and to China for economic benefits,” said Kerry Brown, a former British diplomat and now professor of Chinese Studies at King’s College in London.
But those calculations are now in flux, especially for Australia’s leaders.
“They will have to grapple with Trump as a major variable that imparts a great deal of uncertainty into their own foreign policy,” said Mira Rapp-Hooper of the Center for a New American Security. Canberra may have to contemplate the possibility that “the United States may be a less predictable alliance partner in coming years that it has been in the past,” she said.
Trump’s presidency could accelerate a trend already underway in Canberra to carve out a more active role in Asia, while pulling back from the country’s traditionally unwavering support for Washington’s military adventures in other parts of the world. If concerns build in Australia over the trajectory of the Trump administration, Canberra probably will look to deepen defense ties with partners in the region, particularly Singapore, experts said.
If the U.S. backs away, said Brown, “Australia will be one of the key players who will have to make sure that there is no security void for China to fill, or, if such a void starts to open up then Australia is there with others before the Chinese get there,” he said.
FP reporter David Francis contributed to this article
Photo credit: OLIVIER DOULIER/Pool/Getty Images