Shadow Government

Trump’s Performance in Helsinki Shouldn’t Have Come as a Surprise

U.S. allies in Europe are resigned to a trans-Atlantic relationship that keeps getting worse.

German Chancellor Angela Merkel and U.S. President Donald Trump speak to the press after a bilateral meeting on the sidelines of the NATO summit in Brussels on July 11. (Brendan Smialowski/AFP/Getty Images)
German Chancellor Angela Merkel and U.S. President Donald Trump speak to the press after a bilateral meeting on the sidelines of the NATO summit in Brussels on July 11. (Brendan Smialowski/AFP/Getty Images)

BERLIN—Perhaps the biggest surprise of President Donald Trump’s wrecking-ball trip to Europe and its chaotic aftermath is that we are surprised at all.

The Trump we’ve watched over the past week—from his cynical lies and gratuitous insults, to his preening and contradictions, and of course, the ugly spectacle of his unconditional respect for and abiding trust in Russian President Vladimir Putin—is nothing new. Many predicted the trip would be a train wreck for trans-Atlantic relations, and it was.

Yet after speaking with numerous German officials and policy thinkers here, what’s happened still seems to be a turning point: Europeans (and many Americans) have finally concluded that since Trump will never change—it will be the political rally version of Trump from now on—matters will get worse before they get better, especially as the pressure builds around him.

The only positive thing anyone can say about Trump’s European performance is the absence of a negative—he didn’t, as many feared, sabotage the substantive accomplishments of the NATO summit as he did at the G-7 meeting, or call for lifting sanctions against Russia, recognize Moscow’s illegal annexation of Crimea, or cut a bad deal on Syria (of course, we may eventually learn more about what he and Putin agreed to behind closed doors). Unlike trade, where Trump has implemented policies to divide the United States from Europe, he has so far left the policy agenda of trans-Atlantic security and Russia largely unscathed—perhaps due the that fact that while he has senior advisors who support and reinforce his trade approach, on issues like NATO and Russia he is more isolated.

But Europeans are now grappling with the reality that more is coming. They now see the problem not as Trump being indifferent to alliance relationships, but that he is intent on destroying them. German leaders are resigned to the fact that car tariffs will come this fall—a point reportedly Trump made clear to German Chancellor Angela Merkel when they met last week in Brussels, stressing he had to get it done before the midterm elections—as well as retaliation for moving forward with the Nord Stream 2 gas pipeline. And they’ve learned not to dismiss Trump’s threats about how he might respond to their inability to spend 2 percent of GDP on defense, whether that turns out to be downsizing or withdrawing U.S. bases in Germany—which the Defense Department will resist—or following through on his vague threat to go his own way from NATO.

The question is what to do. Most German policy elites are frustrated that Germany is not spending more on defense, not because of any desire to make Trump happy but due to their own commitments and foreign-policy ambitions (and they explain that while Trump’s single-minded focus has elevated the issue in the public debate, it has also made it more politically difficult to make any progress). Yet due to Germany’s own political drama—with a weak coalition government presided over by a chancellor who many see as out of gas, a bitter debate over migration, and the fractious rise of their own populist, far-right politics—there is little bandwidth for more assertive German leadership.

Moreover, while Germans have given up on Trump, they haven’t yet given up on the United States. The last time I was in Berlin for an extended period was 2002, when the debate over the Iraq War was heating up and Europeans were apoplectic about then-President George W. Bush. At that time, the debate seemed angrier, edgier, and more anti-American. Now, while Germans are obsessed with (and pretty much despise) Trump, there seems to be less anger and more despair and resignation.

Why the difference? Perhaps it’s because they accurately understand the current crisis to be more profound than differences over foreign policy; it is about the future of U.S. democracy and the global order itself. Or more optimistically, they still can see a United States led by someone like previous President Barack Obama, whose speech on Tuesday in South Africa represents a very different view of the world and the United States’ role in it, offering a perspective that—at least according to the popular vote—better represents a majority of Americans. So, they still hold out hope.

Therefore, expect an approach characterized less by muscle than by mitigation—U.S. allies in Europe will push back where necessary, but mostly seek to hunker down and stave off the worst of Trump to contain the damage. They can do so by limiting the opportunities for further Trump disruption (such as by leaving NATO’s work to ministers and omitting leader summits for awhile—and one wonders whether British Prime Minister Theresa May still thinks inviting Trump to visit was such a smart move) and continuing to set an example for an alternative global leadership on issues such as climate change and trade.

Yet even in light of such prudent steps, the trans-Atlantic relationship will only get choppier in the coming months, with the congressional midterm elections as another inflection point.

Two outcomes are possible: Either the Republicans will hold both houses of Congress, and we’ll see an even more emboldened and cockier Trump (if one can imagine that), with the Europeans even more dejected and resigned to a permanent breach, or the Democrats will win back the House of Representatives, and with that power work to pursue different policies on issues such as Iran, climate change, and Russia, which will reassure Europeans. But Trump would use this as a cudgel. It’s easy to envision the early morning Trump tweet: “Want to talk about treason and collusion? The Democrat traitors are colluding with European foes to undermine America!”

So, as the situation worsens, let’s stop being surprised.

[To read the full transcript of the Trump-Putin press conference in Helsinki on Monday—including the bit that the White House edited out from its transcript—click here.]

Derek Chollet served in the Obama administration for six years in senior positions at the White House, State Department, and Pentagon, most recently as the U.S. assistant secretary of defense for international security affairs. He is currently the executive vice president at the German Marshall Fund of the United States. Chollet is a co-editor of Shadow Government.

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