Europe Needs to Push Back Against Trump

Disastrous and erratic policies demand a stronger response.

Chancellor of Germany Angela Merkel and US President Donald Trump stand onstage during the annual NATO heads of government summit on December 4, 2019 in Watford, England.
Chancellor of Germany Angela Merkel and US President Donald Trump stand onstage during the annual NATO heads of government summit on December 4, 2019 in Watford, England. Steve Parsons-WPA Pool/Getty Images

In the last three years, the Trump administration has fractured the United States’ relationship with its European partners. The most recent manifestation of this was the sudden decision to remove 9,500 U.S. troops from Germany by September, a move that sent shockwaves through NATO.

But this is just one of many instances in which the United States has shown disregard for the wishes and concerns of European partners. Despite international pushback, Washington withdrew from the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty in 2019 and this May announced its intentions to withdraw from the Open Skies Treaty.

After the bombshell revelations from former National Security Advisor John Bolton’s book, European fears of American abandonment seem more probable than ever. This includes the possibility of being trapped by the often quixotic foreign-policy decisions emanating from Washington. For example, the abrupt decision last fall to remove U.S. Special Forces from northern Syria both disheartened Kurdish forces and also caught Europe off guard. In light of this, trans-Atlantic partners are walking on eggshells with the Trump administration. But this excessive caution has serious negative consequences, as reluctance to push the United States to uphold the structures that are the backbone of European security could ultimately undermine its position and weaken the trans-Atlantic alliance. Europe should leverage American domestic support for the alliance by working with congressional leaders to secure long-term cooperation.

NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg’s response to the U.S. withdrawal from yet another confidence-building treaty has been paltry. In May, in response to the U.S. announcement of its intentions to pull out from the Open Skies Treaty, he stated that NATO allies “will continue to uphold, support, and further strengthen arms control, disarmament, and non-proliferation … taking into account the prevailing security environment.” But NATO can’t do this without its largest contributor. Some European states, including France, Germany, and Belgium, have released a statement announcing their “regret” at the U.S. decision and reiterating that they have no intention to leave the treaty. Even Russia does not appear to be abandoning the treaty, leaving the United States as the outlier. But without one of the two largest countries in the treaty, will it still have staying power?

As for reports of the Trump administration cutting troop levels in Germany to 25,000 personnel, German officials were initially in quiet denial. When asked directly about these developments during the German Marshall Fund’s Brussels Forum early last month, German Defense Minister Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer said there was no “official confirmation” of this and it was only reported by “one media outlet”—the Wall Street Journal. However, the report from this “one media outlet” was enough to rouse House Armed Services Committee Republicans to issue a letter warning against the pullout. Rumor gave way to confirmation as current White House National Security Advisor Robert O’Brien published an op-ed attempting to justify the Trump administration’s decision by using Germany’s lack of defense spending as an excuse. “It is time … for all European nations to contribute their fair share in defending their homelands,” he wrote. Perhaps countries like Germany would do so if they weren’t also providing the resources for the United States to defend its own homeland.

While open revolt against the American abandonment of arms control is not the answer, trans-Atlantic partners should play a more active role in putting pressure on the United States to remain a party to agreements like the INF Treaty. The agreements were made with European security in mind, and Europe will be the first victim if Russia is released from the legal fetters imposed by the INF Treaty. Europeans should use American domestic support to talk President Donald Trump down from his threats to leave the alliance. Despite appearances, there is bipartisan support for NATO in Congress. Last year, Stoltenberg’s address on Capitol Hill to commemorate the 70th anniversary of the alliance received positive feedback. Even average Americans agree that NATO is indispensable to U.S. global security. Though Europeans are usually hesitant when it comes to interfering in domestic politics, using Trump’s vulnerabilities at home could help provide the alliance with resilience it needs to withstand a possible second term of his presidency.

There are some allies such as Poland’s President Andrzej Duda who are embracing the Trump administration to advance their own short-term domestic interests, while undermining the long-term cohesion of NATO. But as a whole, Europeans should fear abandonment by the United States more than receiving a verbal backlash from the Trump administration—especially as it moves into what may be its final months. As for Open Skies, many have pointed out that European NATO states’ capacity to track Russian military movements in the region would be diminished. The four multinational NATO battalion groups deployed to the Baltics and Poland as part of NATO’s Enhanced Forward Presence would also suffer should they not be able to mobilize quickly in case of a Russian military incursion. This erosion of information-sharing and confidence-building exposes the vulnerabilities in NATO and, in turn, benefits Russia’s strategic interests.

Europe is not the exclusive beneficiary of strong trans-Atlantic ties—which is precisely why the Europeans have more leverage than they might suppose. American military bases in Germany are vital for drone communications, host both U.S. Africa Command and U.S. European Command, and contain military hospitals that have saved many hundreds of U.S. troops wounded during the recent conflicts in the Middle East.

If the United States is serious about great-power competition being the top national security threat, it cannot forget the alliances that made it the great power it is today. The 2018 National Defense Strategy supports reinforcing the trans-Atlantic NATO alliance to “deter Russian adventurism.” To not uphold these principles is antithetical to American strategic goals and will further diminish the little remaining goodwill the United States has globally. It is important that Europe recognize that an overwhelming number of Americans, including those in Congress, still support the alliance. Taking advantage of that could impact whether or not Trump does the unthinkable and leaves NATO to fend for itself.

It is true that wealthy NATO members like Germany have consistently failed to uphold their defense spending obligations. But fear of hypocrisy should not lead Berlin to shrink back from holding Washington accountable to its commitments as well. A recent report from the Berlin-based think tank Global Public Policy Institute reveals that younger Germans increasingly want their country to engage with and take on more responsibility in the international system. The American Institute for Contemporary German Studies has recently put forth recommendations for strengthening the relationship by establishing dialogue between House and Senate committees on foreign affairs and their German Bundestag counterparts. German Chancellor Angela Merkel has already taken a firm stance against Trump by refusing to attend a G-7 meeting that would include Russian President Vladimir Putin.

Germany should leverage its unique position in the alliance to remind the Trump administration that without its support, the United States will not be able to project power in such parts of the world as Africa and the Middle East.

However, waiting until November and the possibility of a new U.S. president will not be enough. Europeans cannot mince words while the damage of the Trump administration continues to accumulate, perhaps even leading to an irreversible rift in the trans-Atlantic alliance. If European states are serious about preserving the alliance, they must put diplomatic pressure on the United States before it’s too late. Alliance contributions should not only be measured in terms of the percentage of GDP dedicated to defense spending but must also include diplomatic efforts to keep the alliance relevant and, ultimately, alive.

Meghan McGee is a recent graduate from Georgetown's Security Studies Program, where she focused on transatlantic security and communications.

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