The EU and NATO and Trump — Oh My!

Donald Trump’s trans-Atlantic policy is a contradiction in terms.

German Chancellor Angela Merkel and French President Emmanuel Macron listen to Donald Trump on May 26, 2017 in Sicily. (MANDEL NGAN/AFP/Getty Images)
German Chancellor Angela Merkel and French President Emmanuel Macron listen to Donald Trump on May 26, 2017 in Sicily. (MANDEL NGAN/AFP/Getty Images)

It is no secret that U.S. President Donald Trump has an instinctive animus against the European Union and NATO. He supported the Brexit vote in the United Kingdom, reportedly advised French President Emmanuel Macron that his country should leave the union too, and last week falsely claimed that the EU was created “to take advantage of the United States.” (This last statement raises an obvious question: Does Trump know any history at all? The answer appears to be no.) He has long complained that NATO’s European members aren’t paying enough for defense and has offered only tepid support for the mutual defense clause that is at the heart of the NATO treaty.

So, it’s not surprising that both Europeans and Americans are now looking ahead to the NATO summit in July with a certain foreboding. Coming on the heels of Trump’s petulant tantrums during and after the G-7 summit in June, and taking place just before he is scheduled to meet one-on-one with Russian President Vladimir Putin, the summit could turn out to be the diplomatic equivalent of a 29-car pileup.

Unfortunately, Trump’s evident distaste for these institutions mostly reveals his own ignorance and lack of strategic acumen. Why? Because there is a connection between U.S. interests, its commitment to NATO, and the strength of the EU. Although a good case can be made for gradually reducing the U.S. role in Europe and letting Europeans handle their own defense, moving in that direction actually makes the EU more rather than less important, because it plays an important role in keeping Europe peaceful and prosperous. If Trump wants to do less for NATO, in short, he should be embracing the EU instead of denigrating it.

The U.S. interest in Europe is fairly straightforward. In addition to their mutually beneficial trade and investment relations, the United States has long sought to preserve an overall balance of power in Europe. Washington did not want any single country to dominate Europe, or unify it under its leadership, because a regional hegemon of this sort would be a peer competitor and might eventually try to establish a substantial security role in the Western Hemisphere and force Americans to worry more about defending their own shores. The United States intervened in World War I and World War II to prevent Germany from establishing hegemony in Europe, and it kept more than 200,000 troops in Europe during the Cold War to keep the Soviet Union from attempting the same thing.

There is no potential hegemon in Europe today, however — neither Germany nor Russia has the population, economic strength, and military clout to take over the whole place — and thus there is no serious threat to the regional balance of power. Thus, the United States could (and should) reduce its military role and gradually turn European security back to the Europeans.

But the United States still has a continuing interest in peace in Europe, partly for economic reasons, but mostly so that Americans don’t have to spend much time worrying about that region and can focus on areas — most notably Asia — where the balance of power is more delicate and a potential regional hegemon, China, is apparent. For this reason, the U.S. role in Europe should be reduced gradually and in a cooperative spirit, so that NATO’s European members have time to adjust. Trump’s bull-in-a-china-shop approach to diplomacy is exactly the wrong way to proceed.

And that’s where the EU comes in. The European Union and its predecessors were not created to rip the United States off, as Trump claims, but rather to help Western Europe generate the economic strength needed to stand up to the Soviet Union and to make war between Europe’s separate states unlikely-to-unthinkable. Given that the United States still has an interest in a tranquil Europe, a strong EU would be even more valuable if the U.S. security role in Europe were to decline.

Moreover, from a U.S. perspective, the present level of integration in the EU is close to ideal. If the EU were a true “United States of Europe” with a single national capital, a federal system of government, and a fully integrated fiscal union, military forces, and diplomatic service, then it would in fact be a third pole in world politics and a potential peer competitor. Relations with the United States would be far more competitive, and the impact on world affairs would be profound.

But the EU is far short of becoming a single state and probably never will. Nationalism remains a powerful force in Europe, and there are vast differences between the various members. If anything, in fact, recent trends are running the other way. At present, therefore, the EU is just united enough to help stabilize the continent but not so unified as to be able to speak with a single voice and pose a serious challenge to U.S. interests.

For this reason, Trump’s simultaneous opposition to the EU and skepticism about NATO is both short-sighted and contradictory. He seems to think getting out of NATO would save the United States lots of money, though that wouldn’t be the case if the Pentagon just decided to spend it on other missions, and that helping destroy the EU would let the United States impose one-sided “deals” on its members. The latter step is unlikely; more important, unraveling the EU would accelerate the renationalization of European foreign policy and reignite security competition there, which would in turn force the United States to pay more attention to Europe than if Europe remained loosely unified and therefore mostly tranquil.

This brings us to the upcoming meeting with Putin. Unlike those who see the Russian president as the prince of darkness or Trump’s puppet master, I think 1) the West deserves an equal share of the blame for the deteriorating relationship, 2) it would be good if relations could be repaired, and 3) in the abstract, it makes good sense for Trump to talk directly to him to see if No. 2 can be achieved. If Trump were smart, however, and interested in a striking a good deal with Putin, he would want to show up in Helsinki later this month with a successful NATO summit and a united alliance behind him. This situation would give him maximum leverage and force Putin to match any U.S. offers with concessions of his own. By contrast, if Trump showed up with NATO in disarray, Putin would have already achieved a core strategic goal and would have little reason to do Trump any favors.

But as Mark Landler of the New York Times recently noted, Trump’s pattern of behavior thus far is the exact opposite. Instead of aggressively bargaining with foreign leaders, he simply offers autocrats unilateral concessions and get nothing but a photo-op in return. As befits an uncontrollable narcissist and former reality TV show host, Trump cares more about getting a big audience than getting good deals. He knows the world will be watching him in Helsinki — just as it was watching when he met with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un in Singapore — and he probably also knows that you get bigger ratings by meeting with ruthless but colorful dictators than with the polite, well-meaning, democratically elected, and often boring presidents or prime ministers of America’s longtime allies. The national interest is irrelevant; it’s the Nielsen ratings that count.

By Trump’s standards, in short, his meeting with Putin will be successful simply by occurring, even if the famously disciplined Russian leader picks Trump’s pocket just as nimbly as Kim did.

What can head off this looming train wreck, now that Trump is by most accounts less interested in expert advice and increasingly inclined to trust his own flawed instincts? I don’t know, but we do know that the president is very sensitive to criticism and hates to be made fun of. If I were trying to steer him in the right direction, I’d tell him I was worried that leaders like Kim, Xi Jinping, and Putin were starting to laugh at his diplomatic naiveté, and that the only way to stop their snickering would be to spend a few days acting like a statesman rather than a stooge.

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

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