Europe Has No Clue How to Handle an American Bully

Germany, France, and the U.K. all tried sucking up to Trump. They ended up helping kill the Iran deal.

British Prime Minister Theresa May, German Chancellor Angela Merkel and French President Emmanuel Macron following a meeting on the sidelines of the European Union leaders summit in Brussels, on March 22, 2018. (LUDOVIC MARIN/AFP/Getty Images)
British Prime Minister Theresa May, German Chancellor Angela Merkel and French President Emmanuel Macron following a meeting on the sidelines of the European Union leaders summit in Brussels, on March 22, 2018. (LUDOVIC MARIN/AFP/Getty Images)

If the United States tears up the Iran nuclear deal — the multilateral agreement that is currently making it impossible for Iran to acquire nuclear weapons — it will be more than just a typical Trumpian blunder or evidence of the continued influence of the hard-line wing of the Israel lobby and its Saudi and Gulf Arab counterparts. It will also be another sign of Europe’s strategic irrelevance, and its leaders’ collective inability to either stand up to the United States or alter its thinking on an issue of paramount importance.

Let’s review the basics. The Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (as the Iran nuclear deal is formally known) is a multilateral agreement between Iran, the United States, Russia, China, France, Great Britain, Germany, and the European Union. It required Iran to severely reduce its enrichment capability and its stockpiles of enriched uranium, thereby rendering it incapable of producing a nuclear weapon. It also placed other restrictions on its nuclear infrastructure and established an unparalleled level of international inspections. Taken together, these measures ensure that Iran cannot get a bomb in secret or “break out” and obtain a bomb quickly. In exchange for these concessions, the other signatories agreed to lift international sanctions on Iran and allow it to gradually reintegrate itself into the international community.

The European states, Russia, and China all strongly support the agreement. Is this because they are naive? No, it’s because they understand that all the alternatives are worse, and that engaging with Iran is more likely to reduce the power of hardliners there than ostracizing it. Letting the nuclear deal collapse makes it more likely that Iran will eventually decide to sprint for the bomb, and more so when it sees the newfound respect that North Korean leader Kim Jong Un obtained once his country had developed a genuine nuclear and missile capacity of its own. To prevent Iran from imitating the North Korean example, the United States would have to launch yet another preventive war in the Middle East, with incalculable consequences for a region that has been convulsed by war since the ill-fated invasion of Iraq in 2003.

Since the agreement was signed, both the International Atomic Energy Agency and the U.S. government have repeatedly acknowledged that Iran is complying with its terms. Ironically, as Peter Beinart points out, it is the United States that may already be violating the agreement, by repeatedly seeking to deny Iran any of the economic benefits it was promised. And U.S. President Donald Trump continues to denounce the deal, without explaining what is wrong with it or how he will improve it. Instead, he or his top advisors have repeatedly hinted that he’ll tear the whole thing up on May 12.

Enter the Europeans. In response to Trump’s threats to leave the agreement, three key European leaders — French President Emmanuel Macron, German Chancellor Angela Merkel, and British Prime Minister Theresa May — have gone to great lengths to persuade Trump to do the right thing. Macron came to the White House in his self-appointed role as Trump’s new best friend, Merkel followed up with a short visit a few days later, and May reportedly reached out to Trump by telephone. In an attempt to mend her own strained relationship with the White House, May even agreed that Trump could visit London this summer, despite his previous insults against her and London Mayor Sadiq Khan, and his unpopularity among the British population.

But instead of getting tough with Trump and warning him that Europe would both stick to the deal and defy any subsequent U.S. effort to impose secondary sanctions on them, all three leaders chose to mollify and flatter Trump instead. Macron tried to persuade Trump to let him “mediate” some sort of a new deal between the various parties, only to say at the end of his visit that he believed Trump would nix the deal for “domestic reasons.” Next up was Merkel, who held a three-hour meeting with Trump and then told reporters that the current nuclear agreement was “not sufficient.” May reportedly then conferred with Macron and Merkel after their trips to Washington, and the three leaders sought to present a united front that was crafted to support the deal without alienating Trump.

The practical result of all this sucking up was disastrous. The top European powers had effectively caved in to the Trump administration’s view that the Iran deal is inadequate and has to be either replaced or supplemented by additional agreements.

In theory, there would be nothing wrong with talking to Iran about any current activities that the United States or its allies find objectionable. If the United States were still strongly committed to the agreement and fulfilling its own obligations to it, nothing would stop it from pressuring Iran over other issues, or trying to get them to agree to additional, separate agreements that left the current deal intact and dealt with these other matters. Indeed, one reason it would be nice to have formal diplomatic relations with Tehran and to expand U.S. economic ties with them is that this would give the United States a ready channel for communicating its views, greater insight into their thinking and their politics, and maybe a bit more leverage over the Iranian economy. But here’s a pro tip: Don’t expect Tehran to simply keel over and do whatever you demand of them. A future agreement addressing other issues (e.g., ballistic missiles, regional activities) will have to have something in it for Iran. And don’t forget that Iran may have some issues it wants to raise with the United States. Assuming that some future negotiation will be a one-sided affair where the United States makes demands and Iran simply complies is silly.

Of course, longtime opponents of the deal have floated the idea of “fixing” the agreement as a ploy to destroy it completely. They’ve been hoping that either Trump will tear it up, or that Iran will refuse to revise the deal (which it has the right to do), thereby opening up the path to war. Or maybe they’re hoping Tehran will tire of the whole charade and abandon the deal itself. But by embracing the Trump administration’s claim that the deal is flawed and needs to be “supplemented,” the European leaders attempting to work with the president have unwittingly aligned themselves with the agreement’s opponents. In a misguided attempt to win over Trump to save the deal, they have in fact become Trump’s enablers.

Why are the Europeans acting this way?

One reason is that they were worried Trump would not exempt them from the steel and aluminum tariffs he announced two months ago. Slapping tariffs on these countries makes no economic sense and risks a destructive global trade war, but Trump has done equally dumb things before (such as jettisoning the Trans-Pacific Partnership). From the European perspective, defying Trump over Iran just made it more likely that he would lash out and take steps that will hurt people on both sides of the Atlantic.

A more profound reason is that these leaders suspect Trump has no real affection for NATO, the Atlantic community, or any of the other shibboleths of the foreign-policy establishment. He has said a few nice things about NATO since becoming president and has even affirmed his commitment to Article 5 on several occasions, but nobody really thinks he means it. If you are Merkel, Macron, or May, however, and your country has grown comfortable relying on the U.S. security umbrella, appeasing Washington comes naturally no matter who is in the White House.

Indeed, the European response to Trump shows how successfully the United States has tamed and subordinated the former great powers that once dominated world politics. After 70-plus years of letting Uncle Sam run the show, European leaders can barely think in strategic terms, let alone act in a tough-minded fashion when they are dealing with the United States. It doesn’t help that Germany, the world’s fourth largest economy, is in a state of self-inflicted disarmament and incapable of influencing events beyond the eurozone itself.

Europe once boasted leaders with real stature — such as Winston Churchill, Charles de Gaulle, Konrad Adenauer, and even Margaret Thatcher. By comparison, recent European leaders have mostly been smaller-than-life figures such as David Cameron and François Hollande. Merkel has been an exception, but her clout has diminished sharply in the past year and she is in any case nearing the end of her political career. To her credit, the European Union’s high representative for foreign affairs, Federica Mogherini, has been steadfast and eloquent in defending the Iran nuclear deal, but she speaks from a position with little or no real power. When Europe’s leaders cannot summon the will to stand up to a tin-pot autocrat like Viktor Orban, expecting them to show some spine when dealing with Trump is a bridge too far.

To be clear: I’m not for one minute suggesting that Europe’s leaders are worse than America’s. The United States is, after all, the country that elected George W. Bush twice and Donald Trump once (so far). Nonetheless, Europe’s near-supine deference to Washington is not healthy, because it just encourages and enables America’s worst instincts. Caving into a bully may spare you some pain in the short term, but it reinforces the bully’s belief that threats and bluster invariably succeed. Do these people seriously think Donald Trump will appreciate what they are doing and reward them in the future? Have they been paying attention?

If the Iran deal eventually dies, in short, Macron, May, and Merkel will need to reflect on their contribution to its demise. Trump will deserve most of the blame, of course, but the Europeans’ misguided efforts to appease Trump in the hope of saving the deal will have played a role as well.

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

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