Trump’s approach towards Europe is fundamentally different from his predecessors on at least three major accounts
Conventional wisdom on Trump’s approach towards Europe has been unenthusiastic but often reassuring. It is often argued that Trump’s undeniably anti-European statements were made mostly on the campaign trail and as such they account for not more than an electioneering banter. Once he took the rain of the government his past statements were sometimes corrected – for example when he admitted that after all NATO was not obsolete – or sometimes moderated. As far as actual policies are concerned, Trump’s approach towards Europe shows continuity. For example, the deployments of US and other allied presence to NATO Eastern flank took place on schedule as planned by the former administration. In effect, NATO’s Eastern member states have now the largest Allied presence since the end of the Cold War.
The view that prevails now is that the business of government and the complexity of American system – its checks and balances – have pushed Trump towards continuity. As his Presidency is mired by controversy and his approval ratings are weak it is ever more likely that he would stick to continuity and let US foreign policy be run by professional diplomats. However, this view may be overtly optimistic. Trump certainly does not prioritise foreign policy and he is less interested in Europe than other parts of the world. But his approach towards Europe is fundamentally different from his predecessors on at least three major accounts.
First, Trump is the first US President in post-war history who does not support European integration whilst he is openly supportive of anti-European forces in the EU. It is not often remembered today but European integration would have never come about had it not been for the support of the United States and its pushing of Germany and France to co-operate. Since then there were episodes in the past when US-EU relations were uneasy, such as during the war in Iraq, but all US presidents till Trump have always supported and endorsed the rationale for the existence of the EU. This President is different. He was clearly jubilant about UK decision to leave the EU and predicted that more states would follow through the exit door. He openly sympathised with far-right anti-European politicians including Nigel Farage and Marine Le Pen.
Second, Trump does not get alliances. Whether it is NATO or the EU or WTO – for him alliances and international organisations are vehicles for the exercise of power. If alliances do not do what he expects them to do then he turns against them calling them ‘obsolete’. The logic of win-win is clearly alien to Trump’s world outlook so he would continue to show limited support for western institutions that would lack sincerity.
Third, Trump vehemently rejects values as rationale for policies. He was prepared to do deals with Assad and Putin and he famously showed no sentiments for democratically elected leaders. Democracy promotion, whilst never consistently applied by US administrations, is ridiculed now. Humanitarian missions are off-the-agenda and this White House is proud off this. The only ideology out there is transactionalism, the cult of deals offering quick measurable benefits, such as massive arms deal with Saudi Arabia.
All these features distinguish Trump from his predecessors and are laying ground for a very different kind of transatlantic relationship. Up till now US leadership could have been occasionally resented in some quarters in Europe, but it was seen as fundamentally beneficial for Europe’s interest and its survival. This time around America has the President who not only does not care about Europe but also he does not get it. The European method of consensus building is clearly an anathema fro Trump.
None of this is to say that transatlantic relationship will break down under Trump or that he would create a lasting split between the Allies. As Trump remains distracted by various probes and questions of his fitness to run the office, odds are clearly in favour of continuity in foreign policy, which remains run by professionals from State Department. Also, it is not beyond impossible that Trump will not even last till the end of his term. However, the last elections have demonstrated that a very considerable part of US electorate is tired of America’s leadership and engagement in world affairs. Under Trump America is becoming and anti-globalisation introvert power. Europeans would be wise to draw lessons from this. The era of relying on US security umbrella stretched over Europe is coming to its end regardless of the fate of this presidency. America’s moral leadership of the western hemisphere is also weakening with major implications for the EU. Transatlantic relations are changing regardless of Trump.
Marcin Zaborowski is Senior Associate at Visegrad Insight.