Trump’s Feud With Europe Is Worse Than You Think


If I learned one thing from my recent three week visit to Europe, it’s that the transatlantic partnership is in serious trouble. And I’m not talking about what Trump said at the NATO summit this morning, calling Germany Russia’s puppet and criticizing other longtime allies for not shelling out enough on defense. I’m talking about a much less visible, but arguably more corrosive phenomenon: The breakdown in the relationship on a day-to-day, operational level.

Over and over again, at cafes, universities and government ministries, I kept hearing a similar refrain from government officials and academics: We have no idea what the United States wants and we can’t trust its representatives—a collapse in communication and trust that has left the operational level of the transatlantic relationship paralyzed. As someone who has lived and studied Europe for nearly two decades, hearing this was truly jarring. I fear that if the current state of affairs continues, U.S. national interests and power will be put at risk.

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Don’t underestimate the importance of America’s day-to-day interactions with its allies overseas. More than vague words repeated by leaders in high profile meetings, the transatlantic partnership is comprised of an unparalleled set of dense exchanges among bureaucrats and diplomats built over the last 70 years. These day-to-day working groups and dialogues seek to address many of the most pressing global problems—rogue states, terrorism, financial stability and environmental crises, to name a few. It is not by chance that these are also the same set of issues confronting U.S. national interest. Thanks to global transportation, communication and trade, there are few areas where states can simply “go it alone.” But that’s not necessarily a bad thing. Given the economic and military might of the transatlantic space, partners working together can accomplish a lot.

This operational level requires seemingly mundane and painstaking engagement by a contingent of dedicated officials on both sides of the Atlantic. European officials have to constantly balance the demands of the U.S. with those of their own leadership, attempting to thread the needle to find a compromise. To reach these deals, European officials need a reliable and trustworthy U.S. partner.

But the friends, academics and government officials I met with told me the administration is undermining this work. Europeans bemoaned U.S. surrogates, who seemed cast right out a crime drama procedural, playing good cop-bad cop. One day, the European officials would find themselves talking to a rather sympathetic U.S. figure doing his or her best to justify or even apologize for the administration’s demands. The next day, the “Cowboys,” as my European friends called them, would arrive, setting down ultimatums. Both positions would then be made irrelevant by a single presidential tweet.

One European official pointed to the public spat between U.S. Treasury Secretary Steve Mnunchin, an advocate of free trade, and protectionist White House trade adviser Peter Navarro during trade negotiations held in China in May of this year. In the case of Iran sanctions, an issue Europeans watch closely, two different State Department officials gave conflicting statements as to U.S. policy regarding oil purchases within a week of each other. And then there was the recent confusion over U.S. troop presence in Europe. U.S. Ambassador to NATO Kay Bailey Hutchinson repeatedly denied any interest in redeployment, while leaks revealed a Pentagon analysis into just such redeployment. Meanwhile, the U.S. ambassador to Germany has made a series of harsh demands of German companies, while the U.S. ambassador to Estonia has resigned in protest of the president’s statements on the EU and NATO.

Many of my European colleagues have been seriously distressed by this whiplash. They want to try and address the problems that they face in their policy space. But in many cases, they simply are not getting a clear and reliable signal on what the U.S. policy position is, making compromise nearly impossible.

But it is not just that Europeans do not know what the U.S. wants. They also told me they are increasingly skeptical of what Americans are telling them. U.S. intelligence and information has long been considered the gold standard, its detail and sophistication unparalleled. In areas from counter-terrorism to corruption and financial regulation, the U.S. has used this advantage to press its policy objectives globally. For example, a U.S. official might approach a European counterpart with evidence of a crime committed by a European firm or citizen. In the past, European officials would typically trust U.S. intelligence and arguments. Increasingly, however, European officials are questioning their credibility. This skepticism started during the era of the Iraq War, when U.S. claims about weapons of mass destruction turned out to be unfounded. But information distortion practiced by the Trump administration has supercharged these doubts. In the last few months alone, President Donald Trump has made dubious assertions about the historical origins of the European Union, German crime statistics and the funding model of NATO—assertions that my European counterparts, who have access to their own data and history books, have not let go by so easily. I increasingly had conversations in which Europeans questioned the trustworthiness of their interlocutors as well as the credibility of the information they provided.

Europeans’ concerns are not just about the Trump administration’s unreliability or tone. I lived in Germany during the Iraq War, when Europeans bristled at U.S. unilateralism. I had to constantly confront the image of the ugly American, bullying the world. But back then, it was U.S. tactics that were up for debate—not U.S. values. Now, for the first time, I felt Europeans struggle with the idea that the U.S. might not just be a bully, but a threat. They worry that the administration is losing sight of basic values like democracy and rule of law—values that have long animated the transatlantic alliance.

In several exchanges, my European friends struggled to ask me whether or not I agreed with that assessment. I found many of my reassurances rung hollow. Conversations invariably turned to reports of children in cages at the U.S. border or Trump’s smiling handshakes with North Korean dictator Kim Jong Un. When these friends tried to make sense of what might be motivating the administration’s policy (or lack thereof) in place of traditional U.S. values, they speculated about corporate interests, the “domestic base” or the mercurial nature of the president himself. As I sat in a bakery in Berlin, a colleague concluded that the only possible beneficiaries of U.S. policy were China and Russia.

Many I spoke with saw Europe facing one of two bad choices. A bleakly hopeful group is betting that Europe can put the operational level of the transatlantic relationship in hibernation for a few years and have it reawaken in a post-Trump world. They seemed resigned to the fact that many policy areas would simply sit frozen for the next two years. A second group, however, feared a much darker scenario in which the U.S. turns more aggressively against Europe. For them, a realignment in global politics is coming—and waiting is for suckers. I was deeply saddened to hear these people, whom I consider Atlanticists, consider decoupling from the U.S. militarily and possibly forging relationships with other states to balance against U.S. pressure. You could feel that they were crossing a mental Rubicon, opening up the possibility for the first time something that had been simply unthinkable before—that they may need to protect themselves from U.S. power.

The transatlantic partnership is not made up of any single commitment or set of funding requirements. It is made up of thousands of people on both sides of the Atlantic, working every day to bring prosperity and peace to each other. In the short term, the administration’s disregard for these relationships will make it harder for the U.S. to address its own policy priorities, from terrorism and migration to non-proliferation and financial stability. In the long term, it could set in motion a radical transformation in the international system. If the administration wants to avoid this, U.S. officials and diplomats need urgently to rebuild and recommit to the operational level of the partnership. Otherwise, they risk our own national interests.

Abraham Newman is professor of government and the Edmund A. Walsh School of Foreign Service at Georgetown University.



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