The US and Europe have had strained relations before, but the Trump presidency poses new challenges to the alliance. What are the stakes as the EU attempts to act with strength while also maintaining its partnership with the United States?
The Cold War is long over, but a new battle for power and supremacy is emerging. Today the front lines are no longer between the East and the West but between liberal democracies and repressive states. Unfortunately, ideological elements of those repressive states are gaining traction in Europe and America, which in turn has led to more isolationism and defensiveness on the world stage.
Enter Donald Trump. The new US president’s view of the world differs strikingly from his predecessors. Until now, all US presidents have valued European nations as strong partners in a transatlantic alliance based on shared principles and values. But the Trump administration doesn’t seem to care much about America’s traditional partners or common principles. Trump instead stands for “America first” and promotes a winner-takes-all approach in which compromise and cooperation are seen as weaknesses.
This unprecedented development puts Europe—and particularly Germany—in a very uncomfortable position when it comes to US leadership and its commitment to Europe. As German Chancellor Angela Merkel put it after the G7 summit in Italy: “The times when we could totally rely on others are gone. … We Europeans have to take our destiny in our own hands.”
It was a turning point in US-German—and US-European—relations. The shift in Merkel’s stance toward the United States marked a new and far more cautious approach. The chancellor urged Europe to take responsibility for its own defense and to move toward a common European security policy.
This, of course, isn’t the first time that there have been strains in US-German relations. In 2002, Chancellor Gerhard Schröder refused to join President George W. Bush’s “coalition of the willing” to invade Iraq. And in 2011, Merkel abstained from the UN Security Council’s resolution to impose a nofly zone over Libya, a measure President Barack Obama supported. Both decisions tested Germany’s alignment with the United States, but the fundamental values of the pair’s relationship were kept intact.
The current division goes much deeper. Trump’s threat of a trade war with Europe, his persistent attacks on Germany’s trade surplus, and his criticism of the European Union’s insistence on open markets have become more than just an irritation. Populist parties and movements in Germany are fueling anti-American sentiment. The state of the US-German relationship could even sway the German elections. So, what is Europe to do?
In March 2017, as part of the Aspen European Strategy Group, Aspen Germany invited more than 30 European and American experts to assess the repercussions of the new Trump administration on the future of transatlantic relations. Writing off the United States as a major European partner would be a mistake. But waiting out the current US administration and hoping things go back to normal in 2020 is also not an option. In other words, Europe must strike a delicate balance. Europe needs an active and engaged United States to keep NATO alive and ready to act, to help manage relations with Russia, and to deal with growing instability in the Middle East and North Africa. Europe also has a major interest in being involved in US-China relations: peace in East Asia is vital to the European economy. At the same time, Europe must strengthen and increase its own defense capabilities, especially against the rising threat of Russia toward the Baltic states and Eastern Europe. But even here, the EU still needs US nucleardeterrence capabilities so that it doesn’t become a battleground for other world powers.
The uncertainty of the US commitment to the international order confronts Europeans at a time when the European Union itself is struggling on many fronts: the Russian conflict in Ukraine, Russian cyberwarfare, an autocratic Turkey, an ongoing refugee crisis in the Middle East and North Africa, Brexit, terrorist attacks that threaten a free society, and the rise of illiberal governments in Hungary and Poland. So until Europe can replace the United States as the leader of the free world, it will need to keep the United States engaged in key areas, like free trade and multilateralism.
Trump sees the European Union as a competitor—especially Germany, with its high trade surplus. As a result, his Americafirst approach favors protectionist measures. With simplistic slogans like “Buy American” and promises to create new tariffs, Trump hopes to turn back the US trade deficit. However, Europe is America’s biggest trading partner—a fact that can be used as leverage. Europe also needs to make clear to Trump that the transatlantic relationship is not about the United States providing unilateral support to Europe. In fact, Europe has supported US economic growth and stability for decades. To keep the Trump administration invested in strategic transatlantic multilateralism, Europe should focus on common threats: fighting terrorism and ISIS and retaining a common strategy on Russia, particularly vis-à-vis Ukraine, where escalation is still a possibility. But Europe must also act from a position of strength. The Trump presidency is a wake-up call to renew the foundation of the EU as a potent, capable union committed to Western values.
Anna Kuchenbacker is the deputy director of Aspen Germany. Rüdiger Lentz is the executive director of Aspen Germany.