How strong a Europe does US want? In Trump era, that's still the issue.

Why We Wrote This

In Trump's interactions with NATO allies, the blunt talk, often-poor chemistry, and awkward optics grab headlines. But the underlying dichotomy of US policy goals in Europe has a familiar ring.

Pablo Martinez Monsivais/AP
President Trump met with German Chancellor Angela Merkel during their bilateral meeting at the NATO summit in Brussels July 11.

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US presidents since the end of the cold war have wrestled with an increasingly independent Europe. At this week’s NATO summit, President Trump delivered a broadside at Germany over low defense spending and trade with Russia. It captured both his fixation on NATO military spending and his transactional diplomacy. But it also reflected a decades-old internal conflict in US relations with Europe. The United States encourages a stronger and more independent Europe but bristles when it stands more as an equal on its own two feet. Europe should spend more on security and increase its diplomatic heft, many Europe analysts say. But if it did so, they add, it would inevitably mean a Europe less dependent on the US. “The belligerent style of Donald Trump and the way he brings together security and trade issues may be new, but those things also reflect the eternal ambiguity of the US position towards Europe,” says Sven Biscop of the Egmont Royal Institute for International Relations. “If you want an ally to do more, you also have to accept that eventually [that ally] won’t be a docile one.”

After President Trump told NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg over a breakfast of eggs and fruit salad Wednesday that Germany is “captive to Russia” for buying Russian energy – even as it relies on the United States for its security from Russia – German Chancellor Angela Merkel offered a personal retort.

“I myself experienced a part of Germany that was controlled by the Soviet Union, and I am very happy today that we are united in freedom as the Federal Republic of Germany,” Ms. Merkel said as she arrived at NATO headquarters for this week’s summit. “We decide our own policies and make our own decisions.”

More pointed was German Foreign Minister Heiko Maas, who told reporters, “We are not prisoners, neither of Russia nor of the United States. We are one of the guarantors of the free world.”

Mr. Trump’s summit broadside at Germany over low defense spending and trade with Russia captured both the president’s fixation on NATO members’ military spending and his particular style of transactional diplomacy.

But it also reflected, if in a more blunt and harsh manner, a decades-old dichotomy in US relations with Europe – between wanting and encouraging a stronger and more independent Europe, and bristling at a Europe that stands more as an equal on its own two feet.

European countries should spend more on defense and security and develop the diplomatic heft to match their economic weight, many Europe analysts say. But if they did so, they add, it would inevitably mean a Europe less dependent on the US.

“The belligerent style of Donald Trump and the way he brings together security and trade issues may be new, but those things also reflect the eternal ambiguity of the US position towards Europe,” says Sven Biscop, director of the Europe in the World Program at the Egmont Royal Institute for International Relations in Brussels. “If you want an ally to do more, you also have to accept that eventually [that ally] won’t be a docile one.”

Presidents since the end of the cold war have wrestled with an increasingly independent Europe – whether over Europe’s rejection of the Iraq war, or as the European Union has developed as an economic power. But the US has also recognized the overall benefits of having stronger allies.

Trump’s Brussels tirade against Germany and its energy links to Russia suggests to some Europeans more of the same from the US – it wants Europe to be beholden to the US, many suspect.

Contradictions on Russia

And they see contradictions in US positions: Trump criticizes them for dealing with Russia – even as he is set to meet Russian President Vladimir Putin in Helsinki Monday, and on seemingly friendlier terms than those Trump set for his two days with European allies.

On Friday, meanwhile, that Trump-Putin summit was given a dramatic complication, when the US Justice Department announced new charges were being filed against 12 Russian intelligence officers accused of hacking Democratic Party emails. Among the charges were conspiracy against the US and attempts to break into state boards of election.

Mr. Putin has denied Russian government meddling in the 2016 elections. While Trump has spoken dismissively of the probe headed by former FBI Director Robert Mueller into the alleged meddling, he told reporters Friday that he planned to tell Putin to stay out of this fall's midterms.

Pablo Martinez Monsivais/AP
President Trump takes his seat as he attends the multilateral meeting of the North Atlantic Council, Wednesday, July 11, 2018 in Brussels.

“Europeans can’t help but see the inconsistency in criticizing Germany for doing business with Russia on the eve of Trump’s own meeting with Putin, where Europeans fear he will do exactly that – do business with Russia, without taking into account the European interest,” Mr. Biscop says.

Trump’s tone toward Europe shifted sharply by the time he departed Brussels Thursday for meetings in London Friday before a weekend of golf at one of his resorts in Scotland.

Trump's self-evaluation

In freewheeling form at Thursday’s press conference concluding the summit, Trump said that “because of me” a summit that he had predicted would be difficult ended up “a great success.” NATO members other than the US have committed to spending tens of billions more on defense since his election, he said. (Mr. Stoltenberg has assured Trump he is indeed the reason for much of the new spending, while many NATO allies say it was in fact an interventionist Putin who gave the wake-up call that Europe must reverse declining defense budgets.)

Echoing his declaration following his Singapore summit with Kim Jong-un that he had ended the North Korean nuclear threat, Trump said that because of his pressure, “We now have a very strong NATO, much stronger than it was two days ago.”

Trump made it clear over two days of NATO meetings that he expects “wealthy Europe” to take on more of the cost of defending itself – from Russian aggression, among other things. But he also suggested the US has some role to play in influencing Europe’s actions and determining how Europe conducts its affairs.

At the summit’s close he spoke of the $11 billion Nord Stream II pipeline Germany is developing with Russia to carry natural gas through the Baltic Sea to German ports. “I’m very concerned with the pipeline, I don’t like the pipeline,” Trump said. “How do you trade so much with the people you’re protecting against?”

At his breakfast with Stoltenberg, Trump said the German-Russian pipeline project is “something that NATO has to look at.”

On trade with Europe, Trump issued a veiled threat to the European Union – whose trade representatives travel to Washington later this month for talks – saying either the EU opens up wider to American farmers and other producers, or there will be swift consequences. “If they don’t negotiate in good faith, we’ll do something about the millions of cars coming into the US” from Europe, he said.

And as he has in the past, Trump allowed himself to criticize Europe over its immigration policies, saying immigration is “ruining” Europe.

Both bad cop and good?

Trump deemed his style of knife-in-the-wound criticism followed by flattery “a very effective way to deal.” He appeared to employ the same tactic before and after arriving in Britain, saying of Prime Minister Teresa May in an interview published Thursday that he “told her what to do” on Brexit “but she didn’t listen,” then praising her at a joint press conference Friday for “doing a fantastic job.”

But some European officials reported their leaders to be “aghast” at the American president’s tactics – as when he read to them the name of each NATO member, and the percentage of its gross domestic product it spends on defense.

“Can you imagine a European leader saying any of these things in America, saying this or that policy, especially something as politically sensitive as immigration, is ‘ruining’ America?” said one European official who requested anonymity to more freely discuss Trump’s remarks. “It starts to seem like he really believes he has a right to tell us what to do.”

Indeed Trump does seem to consider that US leadership in NATO – and US military spending that dwarfs that of all other NATO members combined – give the US president a right to demand things of his European counterparts. Clearly he understands there would be no transatlantic partnership without the US.

Yet even though Trump has made defense spending and burden-sharing his overriding theme when it comes to NATO, he has more recently homed in on the Nord Stream II pipeline project as an unacceptable example of Europe dealing with the same Russia from which it wants US military protection.

US LNG for sale

The US has for many years criticized Germany’s energy ties to Russia, but under Trump the strategy has shifted to pressuring Germany (and other Europeans) to buy US natural gas instead. But European officials in Washington say they tell their colleagues in the administration that US LNG is too expensive – because of the cost of transporting it – and that their boss, as a businessman, should understand that European governments cannot simply order private energy firms where to buy oil and gas.

Some in Europe suspect that Trump is also trying to use the energy issue as a means of prolonging Europe’s dependence on the US – and perhaps even dominating it by aggravating divisions between Europe’s east and west.

They note that some Eastern European countries fear the consequences of closer Western European energy ties to Russia – and that it is some of those same countries that feel supported and encouraged by Trump’s nationalist and populist tendencies and by his antagonism toward the EU.

But now many of those who have felt buoyed by Trump’s nationalist views worry about his apparent admiration for Putin – and what might transpire at Monday’s summit. Just days before the NATO summit, a delegation of parliamentarians from Lithuania, Ukraine, and Georgia was in Washington warning members of Congress of the dangers of Nord Stream II.

Yet while Eastern Europe’s nationalists may find solace in Trump’s apparent disdain for the EU, they have also been taken aback to see Trump at times rivaling Putin in disparaging NATO.

“The Euroskeptics in Eastern Europe have been thinking they could stand up to Europe’s traditional leaders and the EU because ‘the US is on our side,’ ” says Biscop. “But now they’re nervous that maybe the US is not so much on their side – and where does that leave them?”

Does Trump tip the scales?

Biscop says the arrival of Trump in the White House may be the weight that shifts Europe’s balance toward the common strength and action the US has both encouraged and, at times, undermined.

French President Emmanuel Macron continues to encourage – sometimes as a lone voice – a common European defense. Germany’s Merkel may have set the stage for Europe in the time of Trump when she proclaimed last year, after the president’s first G7 meeting, that “We Europeans have to take our fate into our own hands.”

“It’s easy to convince yourself that the United States is always going to come to defend Europe, but the arrival of Donald Trump is finally convincing people that maybe the US is not always going to come,” says Biscop. “So in that sense Trump is encouraging some form of European strategic autonomy.”

And just as Merkel underscored that Europe’s development would come “in friendship with the United States,” few Europeans seem to envision a Europe that turns against the US.

“I wouldn’t even frame it as distancing ourselves from the US,” Biscop says. “What it means is a more balanced relationship with the US, more development of the security role of the European Union,” he says, “and more attention to partnership with others.”

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