USA Foreign Policy

Trump's big foreign policy shift: looser ties with Europe

New thinking

In a weekend interview that shocked European leaders, the president-elect expressed indifference to EU disintegration and reiterated campaign rhetoric that NATO was 'obsolete.' 

A NATO flag flies at the alliance's headquarters in Brussels in 2014. President-elect Trump has reiterated his campaign rhetoric that the alliance is obsolete.
Yves Herman/Reuters/File
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Donald Trump is entering the White House intent on jostling the pillars of American foreign policy, from relations with China and Mexico to US leadership of postwar international institutions.

But perhaps the most significant looming upheaval is a shift away from US support for European integration and a tempering of America’s leadership role in Europe’s defense and security.

The latest sign that Mr. Trump plans to blaze a new path for US-Europe relations came in a weekend interview he gave the Times of London and Germany’s Bild in which he expressed indifference to prospects for the European Union.

Predicting further disintegration of the EU following Britain’s vote last summer to leave the 28-nation union, Trump said, “I don’t think it matters much for the United States.” Moreover, he repeated his campaign assessment that NATO is “obsolete” and criticized Alliance members that don’t pay their share of Europe’s defense costs.

Both US leadership of NATO and support for Europe’s political and economic integration have been pillars of US transatlantic policy since World War II. President Obama over his tenure expressed mounting frustration with what he called Europe’s “free riders” that fail to meet their defense obligations, but he stuck with the conventional internationalist vision of Democrats and Republicans alike that an integrated Europe under the NATO umbrella is good for US security and prosperity.

But European leaders’ immediate shock and dismay in response to Trump’s latest signs of euroskepticism say more about Europe than the US, some regional analysts say.

“If the Europeans are shocked and horrified at what Trump’s saying, all it tells me is that they are terrible analysts who simply refuse to see what’ going on,” says John Hulsman, a transatlantic affairs expert who heads his own global risk consulting firm in Germany. “The European elites for whom Europe is a religion thought that Trump the president would adopt the faith and drop the heretical views of Trump the candidate,” he adds, “so it’s a shock to them that he means what he says.”

Germany astonished

EU foreign ministers gathering in Brussels Monday had little good to say about Trump’s comments, with German Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier summing up the reaction among his colleagues and in European capitals as one of “astonishment.”

The one outlier was Britain’s Boris Johnson, who called Trump’s comments “very good news.” The foreign secretary noted that the incoming US president, who supported “Brexit” (Britan’s exit from the EU), said in the interview that he understands people’s desire to assert national identity – and that he intends to quickly negotiate a new free-trade accord with Britain following its EU divorce.

EU leaders are accustomed to US presidents who back Europe’s integration as good not just for Europe but for the US as well. Mr. Obama made a point of visiting Britain before the Brexit vote last summer to argue against the ultimately successful measure.

This year European leaders face a tough electoral calendar with potentially devastating results for the European project in France, Germany, the Netherlands, and possibly Italy. They worry an anti-Europe cheerleader in Washington could whip up the nationalist, anti-integration wave, Another concern is that Trump could foster better relations with Russia at Europe's expense.

Senior Trump aides including Steve Bannon, the conservative nationalist who will be a senior White House adviser, have worked with some of Europe’s top anti-EU and anti-immigrant movements, including in France. France holds presidential elections in April, and a surprise victory by the far-right National Front would likely spell the EU’s doom, analysts say.

Moreover, the incoming Trump team has been pressing European officials for insight into anti-integration forces, according to some officials who have spoken up.

Anthony Gardner, the US ambassador to the EU, told reporters in Brussels Friday that he’d heard that the overriding interest of transition team officials contacting EU officials was “What country is about to leave next after the U.K.?”

Ambassador Gardner, who will be out of a job Friday, along with all of Obama’s political ambassadorial appointments, called it “lunacy” for the US to encourage the EU’s disintegration. “For us to be the cheerleaders of Brexit” and to encourage more Brexits on the road ahead “is the height of folly,” he said.

A more moderate cabinet?

Some Europeans – including some of the foreign ministers responding Monday to Trump’s weekend pronouncements – say they are counting on some of Trump’s cabinet appointments, some of whom offered more Euro-friendly views in confirmation testimony last week. Trump’s nominee for defense secretary, retired Gen. James Mattis, assured senators of his full commitment to the NATO Alliance, for example.

But others say Europeans are kidding themselves if they think they can rely on Trump’s appointments to carry the day on US Europe policy.

Mr. Hulsman says Europeans could demonstrate their commitment to transatlantic relations in the dawning “new era” by first making good on the commitment of all NATO members to spend 2 percent of national GDP on defense – a pledge only a few NATO members meet.

“Europeans are now suddenly clinging to General Mattis like he’s going to stave off reality for them, and he’s not,” Hulsman says. “The way to reconcile the Mattis-Trump positions is for Europe to step up and meet the 2 percent commitment, not to try to hide from it,” he adds.

Europeans have grown accustomed to “Wilsonian” American leaders who left unquestioned America’s leadership of the postwar internationalist system, Hulsman says, but he adds that now they must adjust – and quickly – to a “Jacksonian” and more nationalist US worldview promoted by Trump.

“The Europeans hold the solution to their transatlantic problem in their own hands,” Hulsman says. “If they do the right things – take actions like meeting the 2 percent NATO commitment or if the EU proves itself to be a viable partner of the US on key issues – then the doubts about NATO and the EU will go away. If they do the practical stuff,” he adds, “they’ll find the Americans even with a President Trump are ready to work with them, so it’s up to them.”

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