Dark Days Ahead: Does Trump Have a Point About Europe?

13 July 2018, 1046 EDT

For the first year of the Trump Administration, the Washington D.C.- based denizens of the U.S. foreign policy establishment assured themselves that although Donald Trump had tipped over the geopolitical apple cart, everything broken could be put back into place without undue difficulty. They were wrong.

Taking their cue from the caustic reactions of American allies to Trump’s twin summit debacles, foreign policy elites on both sides of the aisle are now a chastened bunch–only too aware of the immense damage Trump is doing to the fabric holding together America’s alliances, the de jure and de facto clusters of its closest allies.

The allies have become increasingly disabused of this Administration’s year-long recitation of how much it values them, in both trade and security terms. For they now stand on the precipice of deeming the U.S. a pariah nation state, not to be trusted and sufficiently harmful to their interests that they appear on the verge of sidelining the U.S. in their renewed approach to preventing the world from succumbing to the throes of nationalism. It would appear the world is at an unprecedented inflection point, at least in the postwar era.

Donald Trump’s penchant for lauding dictators and potentates, while denigrating allies and friends–in remarkably personal and pugilistic terms–has caused our NATO, G-7, and WTO allies to begin laying the groundwork for isolating the U.S. when it comes to tending to their core national security interests. Already in the early days of the new Administration, public reports surfaced that the UK and Israel had discussed at the highest levels of their governments whether it might be necessary to begin withholding certain tranches of their most sensitive intelligence.

In recent weeks the President of the European Council Donald Tusk remarked “with friends like this, who needs enemies,” while the new German Foreign Minister Heiko Maas gave a speech in which he equated recent U.S. foreign policy forays with those of Russia’s actions that have directly harmed Europe. Already his predecessor Sigmar Gabriel had declared on his way out that “the U.S. is permanently changed.” And Emmanuel Macron declared this week that France does not share the same values with the U.S. Only our Asian allies have been more cautious in their recent appraisals of American missteps, for traditionally Japan and South Korea are less public about their discontent.

The cost of the unprecedented calumny on the part of the Trump Administration in their eyes is significant, and growing closer to severe with each passing week. For it is increasingly clear that America’s allies are becoming less secure and less well-off due to direct assaults on them from this President, both verbal and consequential. Ipso facto, the U.S. is becoming less secure and less well off as a result.

In the early days of the first term of Obama Administration, U.S. officials at every level of the State, Defense, and Treasury Departments—below cabinet level—were met with surprising scorn when they sat down with officials from the UK, Canada, Japan, France, Germany etc. for the first time. It was as if they were welcomed back to the table of good nations, but woe was the American diplomat to attempt to lead or steer allied discussions in the first year. American officials literally had to do penance for the sins of the Bush Administration. One can only imagine what it will be like after Trump.

The chief beneficiary of the Administration’s belligerence toward its allies is of course Russia, with its top foreign policy aim being to undermine Western political systems and all alliance-based institutions, with China being a close second. Russia is actively seeking to take over the traditional American role as the go-to global broker, not to mention everything from its Ukraine invasion to its interference in elections and key votes across the West.

China, the most prolific thief of intellectual property in the world by far, is somehow now more able to portray itself duplicitously as the global champion of free trade, with the U.S. sidelining itself. Moreover, China’s geostrategic strategy of first becoming a regional hegemon, then becoming a global superpower (either along with or in place of the U.S.), is well under way, and more recently advanced by the U.S. pulling out of the TPP and failing to join the China-dominant Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank (AIIB).

The U.S. is now well on its way down the path of irascible isolationism, opening up crucial international space for Russia and China to vie for influence among America’s traditional allies, friends, and recipients of American aid either in security or economic assistance terms. Taking the most salient example, North and South Korea are as engaged with China and Russia as they are with the U.S. at present, which bodes ill for prospects of a complete, irreversible, and verifiable denuclearization of the Korean peninsula.

The key to avoiding a world in which America has withdrawn and the Western alliance is splintered, is for America’s erstwhile allies to band together and uphold the liberal international order. Specifically, this will require “the rest of the West” to engage in highly sophisticated diplomacy, spearheading tactical and strategic initiatives to prevent Russia and China from growing more influential on one hand, and designing formulas and sufficiently resourced strategies to maintain western influence over all the “gray area” states, i.e. those neither fully loyal to the West or its principal rivals, on the other.

But are the allies up to the task? It would appear not, firstly because they seem unfit for the task after decades of free-riding on the outsized portion of alliance security costs borne by the U.S. Even at the end of the Cold War, the Clinton Administration mistakenly unfurled the U.S. security blanket all over again. In effect, the so-called “peace dividend” never materialized.

By the end of the Obama Administration, U.S officials were so exasperated with European free-riding that they finally realized their bluff had been called. When U.S. officials would demand burden-sharing in public, allies would counsel American officials to be more public with their complaints; when the U.S. would go public, they were told they’d have much more success if dressing downs were delivered in private.

Secondly, aside from woeful defense spending and serial capabilities depreciation across the board, European, Inter-American, and Asian allies are simply unaccustomed to having to step forward and compensate for deficient Anglo-American leadership. Due to their sizable self-inflicted wounds, the U.S. and UK, aided by Russia, have taken themselves out of the grand geopolitical game. What more evidence is required than the Singapore sling and the Brexit bacchanal.

France is perhaps best placed to take on the mantle of global leadership, but the force-de-frappe is something of a pale shade of its former self. Macron cannot even get the European house in order, let alone ensure that France’s initially successful intervention in Mali will achieve sustained stability. And while the follow up to Macron’s pronouncements on Syria have been lacking, his attempt to broker peace in Libya is off kilter due to the French bias in favor of the strongman General Haftar. Even at home Macron’s initial honeymoon with the French public is wearing thin.

Whereas his cross-border comrade Chancellor Angela Merkel is getting her wings clipped further and further. First, she nearly lost power, only to be saved at the last minute by a herculean effort of her junior coalition partner the SDP party. Second, in her weakened state, the former teflon Chancellor is now between Scylla and Charybdis with a vague European immigration deal on one hand, and the possibility that her Bavarian counterparts may still bring down her government on the other.

Canada, Japan, India, Australia, Israel, and Brazil—not to mention NATO, EU, UN, G7, and WTO—appear somewhat dazed and confused, not yet comfortable in either stepping forward alone or in some coalition of what is left of the leaders of liberal international order. NATO has only recently gotten its act together, having failed to prevent/deter the Russian invasion of Ukraine, including a feeble response in the first NATO summit after Crimea was taken when, just as the allies were wrapping up in Wales, an Estonian agent was abducted by the Russian FSB and Russian interceptions of NATO ships and fighters spiked.

The evisceration of conventional deterrence in Europe has been immensely costly to the West. The Obama Administration’s doubling down on the European Reassurance Initiative was too little too late, and although the forward placement of troops and equipment in Poland is positive, once deterrence is lost it is much more difficult to recover than to prevent it from being lost in the first place. And with Trump’s myriad complaints about NATO, it isn’t clear how long the U.S. contribution to the mission will remain in place.

But the blame is even greater on the European side, having merely responded to the Ukraine occupation with sanctions due to dwindled capabilities and readiness. Our European allies make up the majority of NATO, but all of the EU. The EU gets credit for effective maritime anti-piracy operations around the Horn of Africa in recent years. Stretching back further, the EU achieved a series of historical breakthroughs via its method of using economic integration as a driver for political integration—chief among these was bringing former Warsaw Pact countries into the EU as the Cold War ended. However, more recently the EU has muddled through a series of recent crises, from the European financial crisis to the refugee crisis.

On a deeper level, however, our European allies are guilty of far worse. They have long been able to spend greater sums on their defense, but they had grown used to America’s penchant to fund and deploy its arm forces for the benefit of all western allies. European free-riding on America’s European security blanket has been costlier than conventional wisdom suggests. Even during the Cold War, countries of the EU were spending far less on national defense than would otherwise have been required without its American protector. Our European allies built outsized welfare state systems, with free or low cost higher education systems and highly subsidized healthcare systems all throughout the Cold War period, from the 1950s all the way into the 2000s.

But it is the artificial export advantage that European firms have long enjoyed that constitutes the core of the American complaint. All EU member states trade freely with one another, a vast economic and geographic area. But their firms are protected by EU tariffs, thereby making it difficult for top American exporters to compete and win customers in the protected EU market. This means artificially greater profits for European producers, and artificially lower profits for their American counterparts.

In addition, the most efficient exporters in Europe’s biggest countries like France and Germany are able to build factories in the EU’s low wage countries like Romania and Bulgaria, and export within the Eurozone devoid of tariffs. Considering Germany, this disparity is further compounded by the single currency of the EU, the euro, which provides added protection to its exporters thereby allowing it to “triple” its benefits, for Germany’s vast trade surplus would under normal economic conditions force it to appreciate its currency.

Thus, European allies are in fact partly to blame for the rise of nationalist politics in the U.S. and the arrival of Donald Trump. Thus, in a way they are now getting what they’ve long deserved. Our closest allies are ruing the day that under Clinton, Bush, and Obama they could have helped to prevent the eventual nativist surge. Europe, Canada, and soon perhaps Japan are now on the verge of a trade war with the U.S., which they also could have forestalled. The nature of unfair, or “rigged,” competition among western allies is a crucial cause of the current leadership crisis, but more important still is the paltry level of military capabilities of our oldest allies.

After decades of taking their cue from the U.S. and the UK, the rest of the West lacks either freedom to maneuver at home, or experience leading from the front abroad. Trudeau, Abe, Modi, etc. do not stride confidently on the global stage, and it remains unclear whether anyone outside of Macron and Merkel has the wherewithal to offer effective leadership of the West’s primary alliances and organizations. It is time for each of these countries to augment their capabilities, generate sustained political will, and forge consensus among themselves for taking geostrategic steps in concert so as to compensate for British and American abdication.

As this is new and uncertain territory for the U.S., there are no guardrails in place to guide the country back to a sure path out of this predicament. In fact, correcting course is even more unlikely given the fact that the primary impediment may be the president himself, with confirmed reports that additional national security and policy aides may soon be leaving the White House due to the President making foreign policy decisions in such an uninhibited manner.

It would appear that the UK and U.S. are unlikely to sort out their internal difficulties any time soon. And now Donald Trump will in fact summit with Vladimir Putin, just across the border from Russia. This week’s NATO summit narrowly avoided turning out to be a disaster, but nonetheless served to undermine the West further. Therefore, if the allies—the “best of the rest”—do not get their act together and work collectively based on a well-formulated strategy to deal with the multi-pronged threats to the West, a lonely harrowing world it will be, for Europe and for the U.S.