After Super Tuesday, the odds now heavily favor Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump to clinch their parties’ nominations. So it is not too early to ask how a Clinton or Trump presidency would shape Transatlantic relations. To judge by what I have heard, Europeans who have been paying attention to the race are increasingly anxious—no matter who wins in November.
In about five months NATO will hold a summit in Warsaw that will define whether the alliance will rise up to the challenges of a resurgent Russia and an unravelling Middle East. Unlike the Balkan wars in the 1990s and the post-9/11 “out-of-area” shift in strategy, the threats emanating from Russia and MENA are not only orders of magnitude greater; they’re hitting Europe where it hurts. All this is happening at a time when the EU’s institutions have been strained to their limits by a narrowly avoided Grexit, an impending Brexit, a Eurozone crisis, and now the greatest mass migration to hit the continent since the end of the Second World War. Meanwhile, Europe’s elites continue to display near-limitless levels of denial.
The United States and Europe need to revisit the basics of mutual security more now than at any time since an enlightened generation of postwar American and European leaders crafted a collective response to the communist threat emanating from the Soviet Union. This will require EU leaders to recognize the gravity of the situation and stop pretending that they have somehow managed to develop a better mousetrap when it comes to securing the continent. Perhaps most importantly, they need to recognize that the United States has always been an unofficial partner in the European project. Americans, for their part, should recognize and reaffirm that NATO and the overall strength of U.S. relations with Europe remain the foundations of the liberal international order, as well as recognizing that a new level of strategic engagement between the United States and Europe is necessary for our mutual security.
If Hillary Clinton wins the presidency, the conventional wisdom in Europe has been that not much will change in our relations, and that a Clinton Administration may even do more to reinvigorate a relationship that has been bruised by the “pivots” and “resets” of the Obama years. But Europeans would do well to remember that in the still regnant narrative of Democrat world-minded internationalism, Europe no longer commands the central place in U.S. strategy it once did. If the trends of the past eight years are any guide, there is a dwindling number of people high up in the Party, and the policy community associated with it, who have any special attachment to Europe or sense of how important the U.S. security commitment and NATO were to our success in the Cold War and the post-Cold War transition. Or the sense that, even as the alliance creaked and groaned, with “old” and “new” Europe divided over the Bush Administration’s Middle East policy after 9/11, we were still able to come together, if imperfectly, on Afghanistan.
Admittedly, the past eight years have been tough on U.S. relations with Europe, with the Obama Administration’s “leading from behind” and Merkel’s “leading from the middle” having left a sense of Transatlantic drift. There is an expectation in Europe today that, if Clinton wins, the U.S. will lean in and lead at least somewhat more proactively than it does today. However, the interventionism that Secretary Clinton advocated during her time in the Obama Administration focused on areas other than Europe—even if she did favor a tougher stance on Putin’s seizure of Crimea and advocate for more aid to Ukraine. Still, none of this has yielded a new strategic reorientation, nor given us reason to believe that Europe genuinely registers in the Democratic Party’s electoral discourse for what it is: a continent in a deep crisis, badly in need of a new American strategy and, frankly, leadership. If a future Clinton Administration were to adopt a kind of “Obama-Plus,” strategy, with perhaps a more forward-leaning policy, particularly in MENA, such activism might come with a revised set of expectations that Europe pick up where it left off at the end of the 1990s—that is, that it should move out-of-area to assume functions of which it is clearly incapable today.
The prospect of a Trump presidency is one that seems to be inducing genuine convulsions among Europe’s America-watchers—this time, in a rare display of solidarity, in both “old” and “new” Europe. There seems to be little appreciation in Europe of the scope of public disenchantment and anger in the United States directed against the political elites, and why Trump has successfully tapped into it. The initial condescension and scorn from some of Europe’s wonks for Trump, to whom he epitomizes the “ugly American,” is transforming into a deepening anxiety, as the realization sinks in that he may very well occupy the White House come January. There is not much in a potential Trump Presidency that Europe’s political elites can in fact connect to past administrations. The regnant angst in Europe over the trajectory of the GOP primaries goes beyond either Trump’s rhetoric or his promises to “make America great again.” Rather, it is his statements to the effect that he would get along very well with Putin, that Crimea is Europe’s problem, and that Merkel’s policy on immigration is insane that many in Europe see as erratic or simply incomprehensible; European elites have grown accustomed to the reluctant internationalism of the Obama era. Trump has given every indication that his foreign policy would be steeped in the Jacksonian tradition, yet this is an aspect of the U.S. electorate that Europe finds especially hard to grasp. Whereas Clinton seems to promise more liberal internationalism, Trump’s foreign policy pronouncements strike many in Europe as antithetical to their present worldview. From the vantage point of Berlin, Paris, or Warsaw what is emerging as the foreign policy of a Trump Administration, however inchoately, is one that many in postmodern Europe would struggle to comprehend, much less engage with beyond public and private scoffing and attempts at transactionalism. There is a deepening concern in Europe that a Trump Presidency would leave NATO in dire straits and without a common purpose, as it grapples to adapt to the changed strategic environment along its eastern and southern flanks. They fear that bilateralism would not merely serve to buttress the alliance, but rather become the centerpiece of the “deal.”
Regardless of the outcome in the presidential election come November, there is a sense in Europe that NATO and Transatlantic relations overall will not return to center stage. In either instance, Clinton or Trump, it would be hard to imagine the kind of reinvigoration of Transatlantic relations and Europe’s place in U.S. foreign and security policy that is urgently needed to begin addressing the larger question of multiplying threats to the liberal international order. To begin sorting out today’s mess in and around Europe, the United States needs to do more than merely enhance the pattern of Transatlantic relations that has evolved over the past decade-plus, as the leading Democrat contender seems to be saying. Likewise, it requires more than the often overheated campaign rhetoric that plays well at Trump rallies but simply scares the living daylights out of those in Europe with a deep appreciation of how rapidly a crisis in and around the continent can bring the whole edifice crashing down.