If you’re in doubt about the ill health of the transatlantic alliance, consider that over the course of less than a week, EU foreign ministers refused to side with the United States against Iran over an attack on an oil tanker in the Persian Gulf, President Trump lambasted the head of the European Central Bank Mario Draghi on Twitter, and U.S. Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross threatened Europeans with tariffs on car imports.
Deeper drivers of this crisis predate the current administration. The world has changed drastically since 1945 and the center of economic and geopolitical power is shifting away from Europe. The United States has no choice but to adjust its foreign policy priorities accordingly. That is why, as many have noted, there will be no return to normalcy after Trump leaves office.
However, two elements of the current predicament are entirely avoidable: the president’s bluster and the administration’s lack of a coherent strategy on key geopolitical challenges such as North Korea, Iran, and China. Trump exasperates European leaders by routinely inserting himself into divisive European political conversations on topics such as immigration, Brexit, crime rates in London, defense spending, or Nigel Farage’s career prospects. And on subjects where the United States would be normally expected to lead, allies are often left wondering about the administration’s intentions.
The results are predictable. One, anti-American prejudices on the continent are on the rise. According to a poll from last year, 55 percent of Germans said they viewed the United States as a threat (56 percent said the same thing about Russia). On issues such as Nord Stream 2—a pipeline from Russia to Germany that has drawn controversy as tensions with Russia have heated up—the mere fact that the United States is against its construction only complicates the political case against it.
Two, the lack of an intelligible U.S. foreign policy makes it impossible for Europeans to stand united with America, even if they wanted to. The French, for example, are under no illusions about the character of Iran’s regime—last year, after all, the country’s intelligence ministry unsuccessfully attempted a terror attack in Paris. It seems a stretch to imagine that French intelligence would have arrived at a dramatically different assessment of last week’s incident than the British or the Americans. Yet, playing hardball with Tehran is perilous. Yes, it would risk jeopardizing the Iran deal that the Europeans elevated to the status of a religious dogma. More importantly, however, it would make Europeans liable for whatever haphazard steps Trump happens to take next. The same logic applies to Europe’s relationship with China. As Ian Bond, a former British diplomat put it, “if [the Europeans] exclude Huawei from their 5G networks, only for Trump to reverse course, they risk Chinese retaliation and commercial disadvantage.”
How about NATO and increases in defense spending? Doesn’t Trump deserve credit for ending European ‘free-riding’? Maybe, but whatever spending increases Europeans made have come at the cost of making America appear toxic. As a result, 72 percent of Germans now want their country’s foreign policy to be more independent of the United States.
The debate about Europe’s strategic autonomy is long overdue. But as of now, there is no way that it can play out without reducing U.S. influence on the continent, not to speak of arms sales—a point of particular salience for Trump. On Monday for example, Germany, Spain and France concluded an agreement to build a new generation of European fighter planes, the Future Combat Air System.
The administration made a disastrously wrong bet expecting Europe to become more “Trumpy.” The right-wing turn in the European election has not materialized to the degree that some expected and the future European Commission is bound to be as committed to the European project and as circumspect of the United States as any that could have been formed.
Trump’s Washington is thus stuck with a small number of like-minded populist governments in Europe: Poland, Hungary, the Czech Republic, and Italy. But their influence in Europe is limited—and they also tend to be fair-weather allies. A joint commitment to nationalism and anti-immigration rhetoric, after all, is hardly a guarantee of shared interests. Matteo Salvini’s Italy happily signed up to China’s Belt & Road initiative, an infrastructure project that would better facilitate trade between East Asia and Europe with highways, pipelines, and railroads. Orban’s Hungary acted against U.S. interests at numerous junctures and actively cultivates an image of a country that is open to engagement with Eastern autocracies. Poland might come the closest to the platonic ideal of a populist and earnestly pro-U.S. government. But that’s one country among the EU’s 28 (soon to be 27) members – and one that is holding an election in four months.
If Trump’s goal were to burn bridges and alienate America’s European friends, it is difficult to see how he could have improved upon the current situation. An unequivocal commitment to NATO and the transatlantic partnership was never an easy sell in Europe—not even in the best years of the alliance. Today, to call oneself an Atlanticist in Brussels, Paris, or Berlin makes one appear, in the best of cases, a hopeless eccentric. The administration needs to remember that even in a world of “America First” and of challenges far beyond the confines of the North Atlantic, the United States needs friends and allies. And unless it changes course, it will soon lose its best and most reliable ones.