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In Praise of a Transatlantic Divorce

Trump’s trip wasn’t a “home run,” but it’s not bad for Europe to start taking more responsibility for itself.

US President Donald Trump (front row C) reacts as he stands by (front row from L) Portuguese Prime Minister Antonio Costa, Greek Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras, Hungary's Prime Minister Viktor Orban, Britain's Prime Minister Theresa May, (back row from L Romanian President Klaus Werner Iohannis, Slovakia's President Andrej Kiska and Iceland's Prime Minister Bjarni Benediktsson, during a family picture during the NATO (North Atlantic Treaty Organization) summit at the NATO headquarters, in Brussels, on May 25, 2017. / AFP PHOTO / Mandel NGAN        (Photo credit should read MANDEL NGAN/AFP/Getty Images)
US President Donald Trump (front row C) reacts as he stands by (front row from L) Portuguese Prime Minister Antonio Costa, Greek Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras, Hungary's Prime Minister Viktor Orban, Britain's Prime Minister Theresa May, (back row from L Romanian President Klaus Werner Iohannis, Slovakia's President Andrej Kiska and Iceland's Prime Minister Bjarni Benediktsson, during a family picture during the NATO (North Atlantic Treaty Organization) summit at the NATO headquarters, in Brussels, on May 25, 2017. / AFP PHOTO / Mandel NGAN (Photo credit should read MANDEL NGAN/AFP/Getty Images)

The foreign-policy establishment is in a dither this week over Donald Trump’s recent truculent, bumbling, and boorish conduct in Europe. Their concerns hit a new high when German Chancellor Angela Merkel gave a speech back home declaring “the times in which we could rely fully on others” are “somewhat over” and suggesting Europe “really take our fate into our own hands.”

The reaction back in the United States was swift and bordered on hysterical. The Atlantic’s David Frum declared Trump’s trip a “catastrophe,” and Joe Scarborough said it had done more damage than any presidential meeting since Nikita Khrushchev bullied John F. Kennedy at their meeting in Vienna in 1961. Richard Haass at the Council on Foreign Relations tweeted that Merkel’s reaction was a “watershed” that the United States had sought to avoid since World War II. Vali Nasr of Johns Hopkins University lamented that Trump had managed “in less than 3 months … to undo 7 decades of Transatlantic relations.” Needless to say, most of these commentators see this as a dramatic setback for the United States and a sign that the post-World War II order is headed for the dustbin of history.

I’m no fan of Trump, whom I regard as having become the worst president in U.S. history after only four short but frantic months in office. He remains, in my view, a genuine long-term threat to America’s constitutional order. But the establishment’s somewhat apocalyptic reaction to the Trump trip strikes me as over the top and places too much blame on Trump himself. No matter how undiplomatic his behavior may have been, pinning it all on Trump ignores the larger factors at work.

For starters, consider how it would have sounded had Merkel said the exact opposite in her speech. What if she had declared, “We learned at the recent meetings that we can have total confidence in the United States to protect us in any and all circumstances, and therefore we Europeans do not need to take responsibility for our own fate”? That would have been a ridiculous thing for a European leader to say, and it reminds us that Europe “taking its fate into its own hands” is not by itself a bad idea at all. It depends, of course, on how Europeans choose to do that.

In fact, it would be highly desirable if Europe did take more responsibility for its own security. The EU has a population of more than 500 million and a combined economy of roughly $16 trillion. By contrast, the supposedly fearsome Russia of Vladimir Putin has a population of 144 million and a GDP that is less than $2 trillion. NATO’s European members spend more than four times more than Russia does on defense every year, and Russia’s long-term prospects are gloomy as its population shrinks and ages and as oil and gas become less and less important in the global economy. Russia can cause trouble of various kinds in nearby areas, but there is no chance that it could expand significantly (or effectively rule any territories it seized).

As I’ve noted before, the problem is not the amount of money that European countries devote to defense; the real problem is the way they spend it. A serious European effort to rationalize and streamline its defense preparations would be a very good thing. And if that’s what Merkel is proposing, amen.

Second, Donald Trump is a symptom of the larger crisis that has been brewing for NATO ever since the Cold War ended. Alliances are first and foremost a collective response to threats, and NATO’s primary rationale disappeared when the Soviet Union collapsed. Attempts to give NATO important new missions “out of area” did not go well, whether one looks at Libya or Kosovo or Afghanistan, and some of America’s other initiatives — most notably the invasion of Iraq — did considerable damage to transatlantic solidarity as well.

With hindsight, German Chancellor Gerhard Schröder and French President Jacques Chirac (and Putin!) were dead right to oppose the George W. Bush administration’s foolhardy invasion, while British Prime Minister Tony Blair was dead wrong to embrace it. After all, toppling Saddam Hussein made Iraq a focal point and recruiting zone for jihadi terrorism (something it had not been under Baathist rule) and eventually led to the emergence of the Islamic State. In a very real way, therefore, the war in Iraq made Europe less secure. It is more than a little ironic that the neoconservatives who conceived and sold the war in Iraq (and neither acknowledged nor atoned for their own errors), and who used to view America’s European allies with a certain contempt, are now among the loudest voices denouncing Trump and bemoaning the loss of transatlantic solidarity.

NATO also tried to sustain itself by expanding to the east, in hopes of creating an ever-growing “zone of peace.” It was a lovely and seductive idea, but as realists warned in the 1990s, the move ended up reducing European security by poisoning relations with Russia and eventually provoking an all-too-typical great-power reaction. Just as the United States has jealously protected its sphere of influence in the Western Hemisphere (and illegally interfered in other countries to do it), Russia lashed out to protect its own interests in the areas near its borders. The result has been greater European insecurity and new strains for an already troubled alliance.

Despite these centrifugal forces, NATO has persisted because Europeans liked having American protection and because U.S. leaders (and most of the foreign-policy establishment) liked running the show. But the underlying glue holding the alliance together was growing steadily weaker and especially as the United States got further bogged down in the Middle East (thanks, neocons!) and began shifting attention to Asia to address the more serious challenge of a rising China. Because there was no longer any danger of a European hegemon — the concern that inspired U.S. intervention in Europe in World War I, World War II, and throughout the Cold War — the U.S. commitment was becoming more fragile long before Trump became president.

Does that mean Trump’s recent trip was, as he proclaimed, a “home run”? Hardly. Instead of sowing doubt and rancor, Trump missed an opportunity to move transatlantic relations in a constructive direction. Instead of lecturing America’s allies on meeting an arbitrary defense spending target of 2 percent of GDP, he should have given his blessing for a sustained, long-term effort to harmonize defense efforts and create a genuine European defense force. He should have reaffirmed the U.S. commitment to Article V, making it clear that he was going to gradually reduce the U.S. military role as European capabilities ramped up while at the same time negotiating to preserve U.S. access to key facilities in Europe under certain circumstances. He should have proposed that NATO’s next supreme commander be European and reaffirmed the need for close intelligence coordination on terrorism and other common threats. He could have candidly acknowledged the areas where he is still learning the ropes, an appealing posture that would have won him plaudits from all. And he should have demonstrated his intelligence and sophisticated knowledge by publicly reaffirming the U.S. commitment to the Paris climate accord, instead of reaffirming doubts that he even understands the seriousness of this issue.

To do any of these things would have required a competent foreign-policy team in the White House and a president who understood the evolving strategic environment and America’s place within the global balance of power. Unfortunately, it is increasingly clear that the United States has neither at present.

And that’s why Trump’s trip was a serious disappointment, if not quite the end of the world his critics depict. So don’t panic — yet.

Photo credit: MANDEL NGAN/AFP/Getty Images

About the Author

Stephen M. Walt is the Robert and Renée Belfer professor of international relations at Harvard University.

Stephen M. Walt is the Robert and Renée Belfer professor of international relations at Harvard University.

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