Can the U.S.-Europe Alliance Survive Trump?
Europe and the United States have quarreled before. This time, it’s serious.
Fifteen years ago, it was the Iraq War that divided Europe and the United States. Five years ago, it was the awkward revelation that the U.S. had been eavesdropping on the German chancellor’s cellphone. The two powers, pillars of the postwar world order, don’t always see eye-to-eye on policies and practices.
But U.S. President Donald Trump’s decision to pull out of the Iran nuclear deal and his embrace of a protectionist approach to trade even with close allies have blown a hole in their trans-Atlantic alliance, a breach so big that it could jeopardize decades of stability and prosperity for the West and end up benefiting two other global powers: Russia and China.
The White House initiatives are at the heart of the rupture, but it goes beyond them. The two sides are clashing over basic principles, calling into question the shared values and approach to the world that have defined relations between Europe and Washington since the 1940s.
“During previous rifts, they parted company over means,” says Charles Kupchan, who oversaw European policy at the National Security Council in the Obama administration. “This is the first time they are parting company over ends.”
European leaders had been bracing for Trump since his days as a presidential candidate, when he questioned the value of the NATO alliance and railed against what he called European countries’ unfair trade. But throughout his first year in office, there was a sense of relief in European capitals that Trump’s action did not match his rhetoric.
That sense of normalcy was bolstered by reassuring messages from senior administration officials such as Vice President Mike Pence and Defense Secretary James Mattis, along with two now-former officials — Secretary of State Rex Tillerson and National Security Advisor H.R. McMaster.
But with Tillerson and McMaster gone, the administration’s posture has turned more aggressive. European allies working to fix the Iran nuclear deal say they were blindsided when Trump abruptly pulled out of the accord and reinstated sweeping economic sanctions on Tehran this month — all despite Iran’s undisputed compliance with the terms of the 2015 agreement.
“With friends like that who needs enemies,” European Council President Donald Tusk wrote about the United States in an unusually blunt tweet this week.
Julianne Smith, who worked as deputy national security advisor for former Vice President Joe Biden and is now a senior fellow at the Center for a New American Security, says European allies are feeling betrayed and angry.
“Some of them are already issuing last rites on the relationship,” she says.
On Thursday, the leaders of Great Britain, Germany, and France reiterated their firm commitment to the Iran deal and pledged to work with the remaining parties to try to keep it alive. That came a day after a European Union-wide summit sought ways to protect the deal even in the wake of the U.S. withdrawal.
Europe seems prepared to push back in more dramatic ways against what many leaders now see as a unilateral U.S. effort to railroad the rest of the world diplomatically.
European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker said Brussels will on Friday begin activating so-called blocking statutes to shield European companies from the reach of U.S. economic sanctions if they do business with Iran.
The statutes were drawn up in the 1990s in response to previous U.S. sanctions on Cuba and other countries, but they have never been used. Juncker also said that the European Investment Bank, the EU’s lending arm, will be available to keep financing European investment in Iran.
Trump is threatening Europe’s foreign-policy sovereignty, said former Swedish Prime Minister and Foreign Minister Carl Bildt at a conference on Friday.
Europe is particularly incensed, because even as Trump administration officials criticized it for complying with the existing Iran accord, Trump is reportedly offering to give a pass to a Chinese telecoms firm that for years illegally flouted Iran sanctions to do business with Tehran.
“The Iran deal is the straw that broke the camel’s back,” Kupchan says.
“Unlike the Paris climate agreement, where Europe just said, ‘We’ll stay in,’ this is a case where upholding the Iran deal actually sets Europe against the United States,” he says.
The blowup over Iran comes just as Europe and the United States face a possible trade war within weeks. That’s a remarkable about-face less than two years after Washington and Brussels were deep in talks on an ambitious free-trade agreement that now lies moribund.
The president and other administration officials have repeatedly taken aim at European trade practices and threatened to slap tariffs on a wide variety of European products. This spring, the Trump administration levied hefty tariffs on exports of steel and aluminum from a bevy of countries, including several NATO allies.
While Trump gave the EU a temporary exemption to try to reach a broader trade agreement, that deadline expires June 1, and there is no sign of a deal in sight. In fact, the Trump administration is reportedly pressuring Germany — the main target of Trump’s trade animus — to withdraw its support for a big Russian energy project if it hopes to secure a permanent exemption to the steel tariffs, even threatening sanctions on European firms that participate in the project.
Meanwhile, Europe is digging in its heels. On Thursday, French President Emmanuel Macron said no serious bilateral trade talks can take place at all until Washington gives Europe a permanent exemption to the steel tariffs. And Brussels is preparing its own steep, retaliatory tariffs on billions of dollars of iconic U.S. exports such as Levi’s jeans and Harley-Davidson motorcycles.
“If illegal tariffs are imposed on European goods against [World Trade Organization] rules, we fully reserve our right to do what is necessary to counteract that,” EU Ambassador to the United States David O’Sullivan tells Foreign Policy. More broadly, Brussels — and not Washington — is the one trying to ink new trade deals all over the world, he says.
“We’re the ones opening up our markets. We’re the ones who will be at the center of the largest free trade network the world has ever seen.”
With its fixation on quotas and trade deficits and a focus on old-school industries such as steel and autos, the Trump administration has a mentality that resembles the protectionist 1930s, European diplomats say.
“We don’t see how we can avoid to have a confrontation on trade with the Americans,” a European official says.
The trade fight isn’t just about steel or bourbon or BMWs, but rather the nature of the global economic architecture that the United States helped to build amid the ruins after World War II.
Even when Washington and Brussels went toe-to-toe on matters like government subsidies for Airbus and Boeing, the two biggest economic blocs in the world long made common cause to try to liberalize markets and boost global trade.
That included pushing back against China’s abusive trade practices — teaming up at the WTO, for example, to battle Chinese dumping of everything from steel to solar-power gear.
But now, the Trump administration is lumping Europe’s market economy in the same bucket as Chinese state capitalism, and subjecting both to the same angry rhetoric.
“Both China and Europe eloquently espouse free-trade rhetoric, but — in actual practice — are far more protectionist than the United States,” U.S. Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross said in a speech this week.
“Concessions made to China or Europe that might have been totally correct 50 years ago are simply no longer appropriate today,” he said.
The feuds, whether over business with Iran or tariff levels on imported steel, are weakening the bonds of a relationship that built and defended the international order for more than 70 years, according to Smith, the former Obama administration official.
She said former President Barack Obama learned once in office that a president’s first phone calls in a crisis are almost always to London, Paris, and Berlin. That held true even during the dark days after the U.S. invasion of Iraq. Despite the bitter feelings about the U.S. war, the discord did not spread to other issues or reflect a deeper philosophical divide, European diplomats and former U.S. officials say.
“This is worse and could get a hell of a lot worse,” Smith says.
If those longtime allies are deliberately cast aside, China and Russia will likely be the beneficiaries, former U.S. officials and Western diplomats say. Together, the United States and Europe made a formidable bloc, cemented by a common understanding of the values they sought to defend.
With Washington and Brussels at loggerheads, Moscow and Beijing will have an easier time upending the existing order. “Putin feels himself to be the temporary winner in this new situation,” Norbert Röttgen, chairman of the Bundestag’s foreign affairs committee, told the Financial Times. “He can’t quite believe his luck.”
And it’s not clear that the next U.S. president could undo the damage, Kupchan says. There are populist currents on both sides of the Atlantic working against what the alliance stood for: overcoming narrow nationalisms, promoting liberal democracy and human rights, and seeking greater economic integration as a guarantee of peace and prosperity.
“What will be left of the trans-Atlantic relationship? How much damage will it have suffered?” asks Kupchan.
“Will it be possible to put Humpty Dumpty back on the wall?”
Keith Johnson is Foreign Policy’s global geoeconomics correspondent. @KFJ_FP