Of all the smears that US President Donald Trump has made, his mendacious claims about the European Union are perhaps the most egregious. “Nobody treats us much worse than the European Union,” Trump said in October. “The European Union was formed in order to take advantage of us on trade, and that’s what they’ve done.”
Obviously, nothing could be further from the truth. Yet whenever I raise concerns over comments like these with friends serving in the Trump administration, I always get the same response: ignore the rhetoric and the tweets; pay attention to the policies. Should those of us who worry about America’s longstanding alliances be reassured by this argument?
On one hand, some of the Trump administration’s policies – not least the significant increase in funding for the European Deterrence Initiative – do indeed reflect a firm commitment to America’s European allies. But, on the other hand, such policies are not enough to counter the lasting damage that Trump is inflicting on the transatlantic relationship with his destructive rhetoric and evident contempt for Europe.
Consider the nearly two-year litany of abuse from the White House. Since his inauguration, Trump has accused London Mayor Sadiq Khan of “doing a very bad job on terrorism.” He has falsely claimed that crime in Germany is up and alluded to a terrorist attack in Sweden that never happened. He has explicitly described the EU as a “foe.” And he has also accused Federica Mogherini, EU High Representative for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy, of hating America.
On their own, such statements (there are many more) represent a stark departure from the language that previous US presidents have used to describe America’s European friends. But Trump’s words are even more disturbing when compared to the flattering language he uses to describe US adversaries.
Does it matter that Trump praises Russian President Vladimir Putin and North Korean dictator Kim Jong-un at the same time that he criticizes German Chancellor Angela Merkel? Recent polling suggests that it does. For the past 18 years, whether Americans looked at Russia with suspicion, disdain, or hope, Republicans and Democrats alike have viewed that country largely through the same lens. But Trump’s inexplicable praise for Putin has chipped away at that bipartisan consensus.
According to a July 2018 Gallup survey, Republicans are now almost twice as likely as Democrats to view Russia favorably.
Likewise, there is evidence that Trump’s disparaging remarks about NATO are disrupting the bipartisan support that the alliance has enjoyed for over 70 years. Between 2016 and 2018, the percentage of Republicans who told YouGov that they wanted to withdraw from NATO jumped from 17% to 38%, with another 38% supporting continued membership. Suddenly, a party with a long tradition of backing military alliances is now deadlocked on the fundamental question of NATO.
Beyond politicizing issues that were once bipartisan, Trump is also actively undermining the European project. Since the EU’s creation, US presidents of both parties have assumed correctly that “an ever closer union” is in America’s national interest. Trump has brought that tradition to an abrupt end. Not only has he openly encouraged EU member states to quit the bloc; he has also slapped tariffs on EU exports to the US. And by abandoning the Iran nuclear deal, he has sabotaged one of the signature achievements of EU-US cooperation in recent years.
By weakening Western unity, leaving ambassadorial posts across Europe unfilled, and launching personal attacks against European leaders, Trump has made his intent clear. He is divesting America’s holdings in the transatlantic relationship, and abandoning America’s traditional leadership role both on the world stage and within institutions like NATO. Though Trump and his cabinet members still attend ministerial meetings and summits, their participation hardly rises to the level of leadership.
Consider the NATO summit in July 2018. Almost all of the policy “deliverables” had already been agreed to and finalized months earlier, and were merely repackaged to give NATO leaders something to celebrate. Even the reform of the alliance’s military command structure – the crown jewel of this year’s summit – had been finalized months earlier among defense ministers. There was at least some progress toward closing readiness and mobility gaps; but those achievements were drowned out by Trump’s tantrum over defense spending, an important issue that is ill-served by added drama.
Instead of pushing NATO to grapple with tough issues such as artificial intelligence and space exploration/militarization, Trump’s advisers have decided that simply getting their boss to show up is a deliverable in itself. But NATO can run on autopilot for only so long. Four or even eight years without an American hand at the controls could leave the alliance’s resolve, unity, and capabilities irreversibly diminished.
America’s ties with Europe have always been complicated and riddled with policy disputes. But, unlike past presidents, Trump questions the basic value of the transatlantic relationship. In seeking to undermine it, he has thrown in his lot with the likes of Putin, Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán, and Chinese President Xi Jinping.
When the 46th president of the United States takes office, he or she should not hold any illusions about what it will take to repair the damage Trump has done. Whether it is January 2021 or 2025, merely returning to the post-war status quo will not be an option. To reinvest in the transatlantic relationship, we will first have to redefine it. The coming year would not be too early to start thinking creatively about new paths for cooperation.