As world changes, Europe rethinks strategic dependence on Trump’s U.S.

by Hal Brands

Bloomberg

In 1776, the New World declared independence from the old. Today, it is the Old World that is declaring independence from the new.

French president Emmanuel Macron has become the latest European leader to issue a declaration of strategic independence from Donald Trump’s America. Asserting that Europe can “no longer rely” on Washington for its security, he argued that “it is up to us today to take our responsibility and guarantee our own security, and thus have European sovereignty.”

The idea of Europe seeking to take greater responsibility for its own security is hardly a bad thing. Yet the cruel reality is that Europeans tired of reliance on an increasingly unreliable America have nowhere else to go, at least in the short term. And this will only increase the resentment many feel at their continued dependence on a superpower that seems to have gone rogue.

If Macron’s comments sound familiar, it is because they were. Even before Trump’s inauguration, Germany’s Angela Merkel declared that Europeans must take “our fate in our own hands,” sentiments she reiterated after Trump deliberately snubbed NATO’s Article 5 commitment at an alliance summit in May 2017. Later that year, the EU created a joint-defense structure called Pesco that some see growing into a pan-European military.

And last week, German foreign minister Heiko Maas argued that Europe should create “payment channels that are independent of the United States” to shelter European companies from U.S. sanctions and thereby prevent Washington from wrecking the Iran nuclear deal. Channeling the bitter trans-Atlantic debates over the Iraq War, he declared that Europe must “form a counterweight when the U.S. crosses the line.”

What Maas was talking about — a Europe that is strategically independent of, and perhaps operating in opposition to, the U.S. — would represent a dramatic break. Since the late 1940s, there has been no shortage of strains and crises in the trans-Atlantic relationship. But a basic strategic bargain nonetheless endured. The U.S. would provide for European defense through NATO; it would take allies’ concerns into account in shaping its own policies. In return, the allies would accept a degree of strategic subordination to Washington; they would provide support — diplomatic backing, contributions of troops to nearly every war America has fought, etc. — for U.S. global leadership.

However, many Europeans had growing reservations about U.S. policy under George W. Bush (too unilateral and aggressive) and Barack Obama (too retrenchment-minded). Those misgivings have multiplied exponentially under Trump.

His apparent ambivalence about alliance guarantees, solicitude for Vladimir Putin, and “America First” rhetoric have unavoidably stirred concerns about Washington’s commitment to European security. (That those concerns have arisen even as Trump’s Defense Department has increased funding for the European Deterrence Initiative is a marker of just how alarming his worldview and rhetoric have been.)

Trump’s unilateral rejection of the Paris climate change accords and the Iran nuclear deal — two agreements negotiated with substantial European input — have fostered a perception that the U.S. is indifferent to vital European interests. The president’s support for anti-EU politicians, and his frequent identification of the EU as an economic enemy rather than a strategic partner, have raised the specter of an American superpower that is not simply unsupportive of but actively hostile to the European project.

In these circumstances, no one can be surprised that key leaders are calling for Europe to decrease its reliance on the U.S. This impulse, in fact, has driven some recent moves in Europe’s foreign relations. The trade deal the EU negotiated with Japan last month is, among other things, an effort to cultivate new trade partners and strategic relationships as the U.S. takes a nationalist, protectionist turn. Pesco, at least in the eyes of some supporters, is a move toward a more autonomous European defense capability. And even though many Europeans have strong concerns about China’s unfair trade practices and human rights abuses, the EU and China have forged a partnership meant to modernize World Trade Organization rules on subsidies and technology policy in the face of what they describe as an American assault on that institution.

All this provides the backdrop to Macron’s recent remarks. But if many Europeans aren’t feeling very good about the trans-Atlantic relationship these days, their options for going elsewhere — or simply going it alone — are quite limited.

On trade, the EU and China may team up tactically to oppose U.S. protectionism, but the idea that an illiberal, mercantilist China provides a better strategic alternative for Europe still borders on the farcical. With respect to the Iran deal, European officials can talk about creating new payments channels or enacting blocking statutes that will prevent European companies from complying with U.S. sanctions, but those companies are not going to choose Iran’s market over America’s.

On security, European military weakness is so severe that it would take decades for the EU or any other association of European nations to be able to defend the continent’s eastern flank from Russia, much less project power into unstable neighboring regions such as the Middle East and North Africa. German politicians may talk about strategic autonomy and reorientation, but given that the German military is full of submarines that can’t sail, planes that can’t fly and tanks that can’t drive, it is hard to take such comments seriously. On a range of other issues, such as counterterrorism, U.S.-European cooperation is so deep and fruitful that it is hard to imagine the continent functioning effectively should that cooperation be disrupted.

Europe, moreover, is hardly unified over how to deal with Trump’s America. Poland, which has a right-wing, illiberal leadership of its own, is drawing steadily closer to Washington; the U.K. will be more rather than less dependent on the U.S. after Brexit. The EU itself is becoming weaker rather than stronger amid rising nationalism and populism, and even those countries that favor a stronger, more united Europe — namely France and Germany — disagree over who should lead it. Europe’s more realistic politicians — including Merkel — understand this, which is why they have emphasized the need for continuing trans-Atlantic cooperation on security and other issues, and cautioned against precipitating a decisive break.

For now, that is. The realization that Europe is impotent to escape its strategic dependence will only deepen the resentment that many Europeans feel, by underscoring that the continent remains in thrall to even an erratic, often-unfriendly America. That realization, in turn, may not lead to a quick trans-Atlantic divorce, but it could promote a more gradual trans-Atlantic drift that would ultimately prove quite damaging.

If European observers conclude that the U.S. is an undependable or hostile superpower, then any future moves toward European integration could take on a more explicitly anti-American cast. The flaws of alternative partners such as China may come to seem less severe, particularly given that Europe does not perceive — at the moment, anyway — a military threat from the giant in the East. There may emerge a generation of Europeans who lack the experience of the Cold War and are accustomed to seeing the trans-Atlantic relationship in more adversarial terms.

All this will eventually make a difference. Despite its present weakness, Europe still has the economic power and latent military potential to be a real player in global affairs, if it can summon the requisite purpose and unity. Whether it aligns with, independently of, or against America will profoundly shape global politics and strategic competition in the 21st century.

How this all plays out will thus depend on how long the current moment in U.S. foreign policy lasts. If Trump is defeated in 2020, or even if his party is decisively repudiated this fall, committed European Atlanticists can reassure themselves that bearing U.S.-inflicted indignities in the short-term is a price worth paying to preserve the relationship for the long run.

Yet if the Age of Trump persists, if Europeans conclude that his presidency is not an aberration but a lasting strategic departure, then charting a new, more independent course may no longer seem so unrealistic.