What Would a Less Europhobic Trump Look Like—if He Wins?

Transatlantic relations are at a low point. But there are reasons why even Trump might want to mend them.

U.S. President Donald Trump kisses German Chancellor Angela Merkel at the annual G7 summit in Biarritz, France, on Aug. 25, 2019.
U.S. President Donald Trump kisses German Chancellor Angela Merkel at the annual G7 summit in Biarritz, France, on Aug. 25, 2019. Andrew Parsons - Pool/Getty Images

We all know that transatlantic relations are at a low point. U.S. President Donald Trump has started a trade war with the European Union, ordered the drawdown of U.S. troops from Germany, and abandoned the Iran nuclear agreement jointly negotiated with France, Germany, and the UK. He plans to exit the Paris Climate Agreement on the day after the Nov. 3 election. Little wonder, then, that only one in three Europeans holds a favorable view of the United States.

But this downward spiral in relations is familiar, offering important lessons for a potential reversal. In 2005, in the wake of the Iraq War, transatlantic relations were also in deep decline. To reverse course, the George W. Bush administration launched a charm offensive. Bush made his first trip to Brussels to reopen a dialogue. European public opinion did not recover until the Obama years, but official U.S.-European ties began to mend.

Earlier this year, I asked a former high-ranking Bush administration official—who played a direct role in rejuvenating relations in 2005—what Trump could do to repair ties with Europe if he is reelected. The official gave me a big smile before he burst out laughing. To this veteran diplomat, it was a fool’s errand.

But if Trump does win, the challenges facing the United States are too great, the need for allies in solving these challenges too obvious, and the time until the next crisis hits too short not to find some way to cooperate with Europe. Collaboration would obviously be easier for a Biden administration, but that will be up to American voters to decide. If the voters give us lemons, history will judge us harshly if we do not at least try to make lemonade.
If the voters give us lemons, history will judge us harshly if we do not at least try to make lemonade.

So, laughter aside, what would a less Euro-phobic Trump administration look like? The most immediate and promising area for transatlantic cooperation—potentially even under Trump—is on China. More than 70 percent of Americans and Europeans hold an unfavorable view of China, which would provide some popular support for cooperation. The United States and most European countries are already giving closer scrutiny to Chinese investment. As both the United States and Europe seek new investment during the pandemic-induced recession, this scrutiny should be coordinated so that Beijing does not play one side off against the other. Many U.S. and European China experts are also calling for greater scrutiny of Chinese ties with Western universities and think tanks. The European Union’s External Action Service—the bloc’s relatively powerless foreign office—and the U.S. State Department have already agreed, in principle, to have a regular dialogue about China. This could be given more political clout by having it chaired by the U.S. vice-president and an EU vice-president, and by including, depending on the topic to be discussed, ministers of defense, finance, and commerce from key European countries and the United States.

A key irritant in U.S.-European relations during the first Trump administration has been trade. But here, too, there are areas of potential collaboration for a second Trump administration. Europeans agree with Americans that the World Trade Organization’s mechanism for settling trade disputes needs reform and are awaiting concrete proposals by Washington. To curtail unfair subsidies, especially by China, the United States has already reached a preliminary agreement with the EU and Japan that should be finalized. Both Europe and the United States want greater diversity and resiliency in their supply chains in the wake of disruptions experienced during the initial Covid-19 outbreak, particularly in medical supplies. Why not strike a bilateral trade agreement that eliminates tariffs and trade barriers on medical goods, thereby creating transatlantic supply chains that are not dependent on China?

Willie Sutton, the famous American bank robber, supposedly once said that he robbed banks because that’s where the money is. On both sides of the Atlantic, cash-strapped governments will have to begin to tax the digital economy—because that’s where the money is. Negotiations over acceptable taxation of digital services are already under way and scheduled to wrap up in mid-2021. Neither the Trump administration nor the American public has much love for the big digital-services companies whose gargantuan profits go largely untaxed. Striking a deal with Europe on a minimal digital tax to avoid unilateral moves by various European capitals would not only avoid an otherwise likely trade war, but also provide the Trump administration with much-needed revenue.
Whoever is the next president, the challenges facing both Americans and Europeans will not change.

Another area where the United States and its European NATO allies have a common interest is arms control. The Trump administration has reportedly reached a tentative agreement with the Russian government to extend the New Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty, due to expire in February 2021, by one year. If this extension is achieved, the time should be used to hammer out a longer deal to limit the number of nuclear warheads and strengthen the inspection regime. And Washington should enlist European governments to encourage Moscow to participate in further arms-control talks covering non-strategic nuclear weapons and nuclear-capable missiles that threaten Europe most directly.

Similarly, the United States and Europe have a strong joint interest in updating the Wassenaar Arrangement, a multilateral agreement that controls arms exports and restricts the sale of dual-use technologies. Building on recent reforms of U.S. law governing these exports, the existing agreement needs to be brought up to date by including various newer technologies already being used in military applications such as robotics, 3D printing, quantum computing, and advanced surveillance technology.

Finally, there is growing concern on both sides of the Atlantic about climate change. A majority of Americans believe it poses a direct threat to the United States and nine-in-ten Europeans agree that it is a serious problem. Despite the Trump administration’s efforts to gut U.S. policies aiming to slow global warming, hundreds of U.S. and European cities and other subnational entities are already cooperating on climate action. This could continue and even expand during a second Trump term, whether supported from the top or not.

Whoever is the next president, the challenges facing both Americans and Europeans will not change. The last four years have taught us that transatlantic cooperation on these shared concerns would not be easy in a potential second Trump term. But both sides have no choice but to try. In the words of Benjamin Franklin: “If we don’t hang together, we will certainly hang separately.”

Bruce Stokes is the executive director of the German Marshall Fund’s Transatlantic Task Force: Together or Alone? Choices and Strategies for Transatlantic Relations for 2021 and Beyond. Twitter: @bruceestokes

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