This is not the first time that European leaders unhappy with the direction of US leadership have threatened to strike out on their own.
President George W. Bush’s post-9/11 “with us or against us” ultimatum – and above all his war in Iraq – caused a deep transatlantic rift and elicited calls in Europe for standing up more forcefully to oppose actions Europeans did not support.
But the Western partnership held, as Europeans ultimately reaffirmed the value of American leadership of the global order that the two sides of the Atlantic had built together.
During his European trip last week, President Trump’s “America First” orientation and unflagging pursuit of an interests-based foreign policy were on full display. The performance has kindled a renewed fervor for an independent Europe – one that, this time, some former and current officials and experts say, could endure and prompt profound changes in transatlantic relations.
Among those changes could be a Europe that develops its own contractual approach to foreign policy, as well as altered patterns of trade and military cooperation credited with underpinning decades of American prosperity.
If that happens, even if robust business ties keep the US and Europe from drifting too far apart, historians likely will look back at this president’s inaugural overseas trip as the watershed moment that set such change in motion.
Soon after commencing the European leg of a trip that began in the Middle East, Mr. Trump publicly dressed down America’s European allies for not paying their “fair share” of NATO alliance defense costs. Soon after, he castigated a “very bad” Germany for selling too many cars in the United States and maintaining a trade surplus with the US – warning he intended to even the score.
Next he refused to join Europeans in reconfirming an international commitment to tackling climate change – signaling a willingness to abandon the kinds of common causes that have cemented transatlantic relations and furthered a US-led international order for more than seven decades.
A more independent Europe
Indeed, reports Wednesday that Trump has decided to withdraw from the 2015 Paris climate accords would further cement the growing European consensus that US and European values are diverging – and that the US is pulling back from its global leadership role.
Trump’s applecart-upsetting comments during his first European visit as president sent shockwaves through the transatlantic community, with some observers like Ivo Daalder, the former US ambassador to NATO, calling the moment a turning point.
But for many European leaders, the business-mogul-turned-president’s unvarnished words in Europe merely confirmed what they have sensed for months was coming in the wake of his election: a transactional relationship propelled more by each sides’ interests than by American leadership and common values.
The result of such a shift in relations is likely to be a more independent Europe, very likely led by a robust Germany increasingly unencumbered by the restraints of World War II memories, some experts say. Increasingly Europe would look elsewhere for trade relations and like-minded partners for pursuing common goals, they add. A European defense, long envisioned by Europe powerhouses Germany and France, could be closer on the horizon.
“In the past when the United States led the international system forward, the world and certainly Europe moved forward with it, and if it paused, so usually did Europe,” says Heather Conley, director of the Center for Strategic and International Studies’ Europe program in Washington. “But the world has changed, and now no one is going to stop for the United States, not on trade, not on addressing other challenges like climate change,” she adds. “That’s the big difference.”
An opening for Russia?
Some worry that the shift in transatlantic relations could even open the door to a more influential Russian presence inside Europe, particularly in southern European countries that do not harbor the same suspicions of Russia as their neighbors farther east.
Others lament that a US turning away from its traditional leadership role would not simply result in a more multipolar world, but would undermine the pillars on which American security and prosperity were built over the past 70 years.
“Why did the United States organize the alliance system and the international trading system, the global order that prevails today?” says Ms. Conley. “It was very much a self-interested policy – one that protected the United States and assured American prosperity.”
Europe’s response to Trump’s test drive of a nationalist shift in US foreign policy came loud and clear from German Chancellor Angela Merkel, who concluded after three days with the new US president (at NATO and at a G7 summit in Sicily) that Germans and Europeans more broadly will have to “really take our fate into our own hands” and defend their own interests.
“The times in which we could rely fully on others – they are somewhat over,” Ms. Merkel said. “We have to know that we must fight for our future on our own, for our destiny as Europeans,” she said, adding, “This is what I experienced in the last few days.”
Indeed Merkel had made her position clear directly to NATO leaders (including Trump) assembled in Brussels last week, when she signaled her differences with the new president’s direction by stating that it is the building and nurturing of “open societies” that would deliver security and stability, not “the building of walls.”
Message in a handshake
And Merkel was not alone among European leaders in suggesting that the result of Trump’s narrowing of US foreign policy to national interests could be a Europe standing more freely on its own two feet.
France’s new president, Emmanuel Macron, made it clear in interviews following his Brussels one-on-one with Trump that his you-won’t-get-the-better-of-me handshake with the US president – the handshake viewed ’round the world – was indeed meant to send a message.
“My handshake with him – it wasn’t innocent,” Mr. Macron told the French daily Journal du Dimanche. “It’s not the be-all and end-all of a policy, but it was a moment of truth.”
The White House painted the reactions in Europe as exactly the kind of response Trump is looking for – a Europe that takes responsibility for more of its own affairs – and costs. Spokesman Sean Spicer said Merkel’s comments about no longer relying on others showed that the president’s demand for fairer “burden-sharing” was taking hold.
But European officials have been signaling for months that a more transactional and interests-based foreign policy under Trump would prompt the same from Europe.
After meeting in February with Trump administration officials – including Secretary of State Rex Tillerson and White House adviser Jared Kushner, the president’s son-in-law – Federica Mogherini, the European Union’s foreign policy chief, said her meetings had convinced her that the EU would pursue a “more pragmatic and transactional relationship” with the US.
The EU would continue to work with the US on as many issues as possible, she said, “but we will do it on the basis of our values and interests.”
A 'Europe first' response?
The EU is likely to pursue new and deeper trade ties with parts of the world it sees an inward-turning US neglecting – Southeast Asia, for example, which is looking for new trade partners after Trump abandoned the TPP trade deal. And some experts see Europe pressing ahead on a European defense with renewed vigor, especially if Germany’s Merkel wins a new term in September elections.
“In a multipolar world, American and European interests will coincide a lot less consistently,” says Sven Biscop, director of the Egmont Institute at Belgium’s Royal Institute for International Relations. With the US pursuing an “America First” policy, the response on the opposite side of the Atlantic must be “Europe First,” he says, with the aim of building a European defense whose hands are not tied but rather will be able to pursue Europe’s interests independently.
“That is going to lead to more interconnectivity” of European forces, more pooled defense investment “to deliver much more effectiveness,” Mr. Biscop says, pointing to German-French initiatives aimed at building a European army.
At the same time, some analysts say that the US and Europe are unlikely to drift too far apart in an “interests rule” shift, given that the US and the European Union remain each other’s best customers, together commanding about one-third of global trade and accounting for around 45 percent of the global economy.
The danger some see is that, if the two powers at the foundation of a West-inspired international order pull back from principles to a transactional relationship, other forces with other values are going to fill the void.
“The world moves in and fills any vacuum, but it doesn’t always fill them in ways that we would envision or that are in our interest,” says Conley. “We’re going to find that the West is weaker and leaving behind new vacuums if the United States withdraws and Europe goes it alone.”