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Can trans-Atlantic ties survive Trump?

Michael Knigge
March 22, 2018

From nationalism to NATO spending, the trans-Atlantic relationship under US President Donald Trump is worse than it has been in decades. But, note practitioners and scholars, it doesn't have to stay that way.

Trump, Merkel
Image: picture-alliance/dpa/M. Kappeler

No American president in recent memory has been as dismissive and at times as openly hostile towards Europe and the trans-Atlantic alliance as Donald Trump. Indeed, the first foreign politician to be received by President-elect Trump after his stunning election victory was Nigel Farage — the architect of Britain's exit from the EU. Once in office, Trump repeatedly lashed out against German automakers and the country's trade surplus with the US, reportedly stating that "the Germans are bad, very bad." He also called NATO members who he said do not pay their fare share freeloaders, pulled the US out of the Paris climate deal and has remained mum on rising illiberal tendencies in several European countries. 

Anthony Gardner, who as President Barack Obama's US ambassador to the EU from 2014 to 2017 was at the forefront of dealing with the fallout of the Snowden revelations that rocked US-European ties in 2013, argues that the trans-Atlantic fissures run deeper and are more fundamental under Trump than under any of his modern predecessors.  

Revisionist view

"The United States under this president has a revisionist view of history. Specifically it views the multilateral rules-based order as having undermined US interests. I think this is profoundly incorrect," he said. Gardner added that there has never been a sitting US president who has directly attacked Washington's closest allies, including Germany, and who has been so extremely critical of the EU.

UKIP MP Nigel Farage
Farage was the first foreign politican to congratulate Trump in personImage: picture-alliance/AP Photo/E. Vucci

Gary Schmitt, co-director of the American Enterprise Institute's Center for Security Studies, contends that trans-Atlantic relations haven't been as bad in decades as they are under Trump, probably not since the Suez Crisis. During the 1956/1957 Suez Crisis US President Dwight D. Eisenhower, in an effort to keep the Soviet Union from intervening, threatened Britain and France, who together with Israel had taken military control of the Suez Canal from Egypt, with economic sanctions if they continued their military campaign. They ultimately ended it.

Relations were also rocky during the so-called Euro missile crisis in the Reagan era in 1983, when millions of West Germans took to the street to protest the deployment of US cruise missiles in their country. And ties were also deeply strained after President George W. Bush's decision to invade Iraq in 2003, and a decade later when the Snowden disclosures revealed mass surveillance by the NSA under President Obama's tenure.

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Trump's anti-European sentiment recently culminated in his move to threaten Europeans with tariffs for what are widely viewed as purely protectionist reasons. But the crisis in the trans-Atlantic relationship is also compounded by the fact that many Europeans also deeply dislike the president and are seriously concerned about his policies, as was evidenced in a recent poll in which Germans said they were more worried about Trump than about Russian President Vladimir Putin.

While Europeans animosity toward the president is certainly understandable given Trump's behavior, it makes keeping the trans-Atlantic relationship functioning even more difficult, said the AEI's Schmitt, who was the executive director of the President's Foreign Intelligence Advisory Board under Reagan.

"I think that is quite significantly different where you have got two sides not as deeply committed," he said. "I think it is just qualitatively a different situation."

Undermined consensus

Schmitt noted that under previous presidents, including Obama, who initially was focused more on what was described as a 'pivot to Asia' than on Europe, and who was skeptical about America's traditional global leadership role, leaders and citizens on both sides of the Atlantic were still broadly in agreement that the trans-Atlantic relationship was worthwhile.

Under Trump that consensus has been deeply undermined in both Europe and the US.

Carnival float in Mainz showing Trump
Trump is deeply unpopular in many European countries Image: Reuters/R. Orlowski

"What I think is that the genie is out of the bottle in the sense of nationalism and people are articulating positions of nationalism and protectionism in the United States and now they have Trump who is their voice," said Michelle Egan, a trans-Atlantic relations scholar at American University.

Dangerous slogans

Trump's mainstreaming of slogans like "America First" and "Make America Great Again" is unsettling, agreed Gardner.  "I am the descendant of refugees from Italian fascism and a man, Benito Mussolini, who wanted to make Italy great again and he ended up destroying his country," said Gardner, the former US ambassador. "So I find those slogans to be empty and dangerous."

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Asked then to provide an outlook on the future of the trans-Atlantic relationship, whose either imminent or slow demise has been predicted repeatedly since the fall of the Berlin Wall, Gardner, Schmitt and Egan expressed little hope that things will improve dramatically under Trump.

Having said that, they pointed out that a possible drubbing of Republicans in the upcoming midterm elections could provide stronger Congressional checks on some of the president's more extreme ideas.

Still, for now, said the experts, Europeans should remind themselves that the trans-Atlantic relationship is greater than the Trump presidency and that for both Europe and US there is, like it or not, no equal substitute, not China, not Russia, to advance common global goals like free and fair trade.       

"The United States will be back. That's the message," promised Gardner. "We will be back. And we will continue, I think sooner rather than later, to pursue a bipartisan sensible foreign policy. And Europe just needs to wait for that to happen."