While nurturing relations with some allies in Asia and the Middle East, President Donald Trump has treated our European allies, the countries that we are most clearly sworn to defend with our own lives, more cavalierly than has any President since World War II. True, the Cold War crucible in which these links were forged is now a relic, but Russian dictator Vladimir Putin strives to restore Russia’s status as a great power rival to the United States. This lends new urgency to Transatlantic relations, since Europe is the foremost theater in which Putin bids to transform the balance of power, mining opportunities presented by Trump’s manifest ambivalence.
Polls tell us that Europeans reciprocate Trump’s scorn. A Pew poll last year asking how many trust Trump to “do the right thing” in world affairs recorded positive responses from 25 percent of Italians, 22 percent of Britons, 14 percent of French, 11 percent of Germans, and all of 7 percent of Spaniards. For the latter three countries, Putin recorded higher scores than Trump; in Germany, more than twice as high.
We worry that this mutual disdain could send Atlantic relations into a downward spiral. To gain a closer feeling for European reactions to Trump and assess where they might lead, we have visited half a dozen European countries over the past six months and interviewed dozens of European opinion leaders. The good news was how little anti-Americanism we encountered, compared to, say, 25 years ago, when Europeans were chafing to break free of their Cold War dependence on the United States, or 15 years ago, when Europeans were aghast at Washington’s decision to invade Iraq without the authorization of the UN Security Council.
In other words, our interlocutors were willing to draw distinctions between America and Trump. About him, for the most part, the views we encountered were unsparing. The French defense intellectual Bruno Tertrais captured the general view, judging him “unfit for office, not in any legal sense—I have no judgment on that—but unfit to govern a major Western liberal democracy.” Yet, though harsh, the criticisms we heard were for the most part more substantive and less visceral than much of the anti-Trump rhetoric that abounds on this side of the ocean.
“The thing people are most alarmed about is the unpredictability,” said British author and former think tank head David Goodhart. Many of our conversations substantiated that assessment. Alain Frachon, a columnist and editorial writer for Le Monde, offered this example: “After [his] extraordinarily anti-Chinese campaign, Trump receives Xi Jinping in Florida [and comes away saying], ‘He is a fantastic guy. He is my friend.’ Even a cynical French Foreign Minister would never say something like that.”
A Polish diplomat serving as an official of the European Commission damned with faint praise, allowing, “Things are much better than we feared,” before qualifying, “We are worried about the unpredictability of the U.S. Administration.” The prominent French intellectual, Nicolas Tenzer, lamented, “Inconsistency [makes] it difficult to understand what Trump’s policies are.” Reinhard Bütikofer, Member of the European Parliament, was blunter. “Trump wants out of Syria until he wants to bomb Assad. He’s inexplicably soft on Vladimir Putin until suddenly he’s tough.” Roman Eichinger, a commentator for the German newspaper Bild, expressed his exasperation to us in terms that later seemed prescient: “Every day he does something else. He says NATO is obsolete; then he says NATO is a great organization. He could start a war against North Korea tomorrow. Or he could start negotiations with Kim himself tomorrow.”
None of our interlocutors credited the idea that there is some method to the madness of Trump’s unpredictability. A French official put it: “There’s no deep calculation or strategy . . . That’s what people like Xi Jinping and us and the Indians and the others know. There’s no deeper interior strategy hidden by the apparent chaos. What you see is what you get.”
Those we spoke to took only limited comfort from the so-called “grownups in the room.” We heard expressions of respect for the generals at the top of the Trump Administration. And we were told that they and Vice President Michael Pence are not the only Americans to have traveled to Europe to offer reassurance to their respective counterparts. A senior U.S. official observed also that “an extraordinary number of Senators and Representatives have visited EU headquarters” on similar missions.
But the “grownups” can wield a two-edged sword. Some of our interlocutors spoke bitterly about last summer’s op-ed by then-National Security Advisor H. R. McMaster and National Economic Council director Gary D. Cohn. “America first,” they wrote, means using “the diplomatic, economic, and military resources of the U.S. to enhance American security, promote American prosperity, and extend American influence.” What consideration, then, might be given to allies? The most McMaster and Cohn would offer was that America is “open to working together.” Thus, these “grownups” only confirmed the dismay of Europeans that Trump views international relations, including with allies, as a zero-sum game.
That McMaster and Cohn are already both gone from their jobs, as is Rex Tillerson from the State Department, can hardly be reassuring, nor can the recurrent reports of the possible dismissal of John Kelly as chief of staff. Moreover, whatever balm is or was provided by the presence of the “grownups” could not make up for the dearth of personnel filling other vital policy positions.
Matthew Kaminski, the Brussels-based executive editor of Politico, described the situation this way: “When Europeans go to Washington they have to meet with the interns. There’s no one on the seventh floor [i.e., the top level of the State Department]. There are no ambassadors in most of these countries. There is no regular day-to-day relationship with the United States.”
And a French official told us: “There’s not only disorganization. There are not only tensions and disputes. There’s no one [to deal with]. The State Department is lacking a lot of people, including an Ambassador here. The pretext is that there is a big reorganization coming. But, month after month after month, it looks a bit more like the ‘deconstruction of the Administrative State.’”
In Berlin we heard constant complaints about the absence of an American Ambassador. Now that a new top diplomat has finally arrived, in the form of U.S. Ambassador Richard Grenell, we hear anxiety that he will carry instructions to bully Germans into buying American cars, and to help blow up the Iran nuclear deal. Grenell’s recent controversial assertion to Breitbart that he wants to “empower” insurgent conservative politicians across Europe has done nothing to assuage those concerns.
Those we spoke to took less solace from the “grownups” than from ongoing American military and intelligence cooperation, which was mentioned by several. Le Monde’s Frachon explained: “There is more continuity than people may think. Take three security topics that are important to us and there is much more continuity with Obama and even with Bush than one can imagine reading about Trump. These are Ukraine, jihad in sub-Saharan Africa, and the war against ISIS in Syria and Iraq.”
Others mentioned, in addition to these, the measures taken to strengthen NATO’s eastern flank against threats and pressure from Russia. “My understanding is that the working relationship between the two defense ministries is very good, as it was under Obama,” said Tertrais.
Still, the argument advanced by some American representatives—“look at what we do, not what we say”—was not bought by many. As Thomas Kleine-Brockhoff, a former German government official who now heads the German Marshall Fund in Berlin, put it:
“Words matter. It’s the American President. Other countries respond to words and make their calculation based on words. Therefore, words change things. And by the way, you want to tell me that nothing has changed? Do you want to tell me that withdrawing from TPP, doubting NATO, redefining NATO, decertifying the Iran deal, leaving the Paris climate accord, leaving UNESCO—that’s as if something isn’t happening? And that that something doesn’t have a direction?”
The “direction” he meant was toward isolation. The prospect of American isolationism frightens Europeans, including even French leaders. For all that France at moments has treated America as a competitor, much of the French elite today recognizes that America is France’s most important ally. Thus, a French official conveyed his worry that, regardless of the medium, reckless words from an American President can weaken America. Citing Trump’s bombastic threats against North Korea, he said: “He can do ten tweets about that, or 15, but after that, how much does the [risk] of completely losing [credibility] matter to him? Can he just drop the subject and say, ‘Yeah, I said that, but that was just a negotiating position?’”
Beyond Trump’s volatility and his itchy Twitter finger, we also heard alarm about substantive policies and deeper matters. To some extent, policy differences that the Europeans cited might arise with any Republican, or at least many of them. The political spectrum in Europe is pitched to the left of the American spectrum, as evidenced by the fact that the public sector accounts for about half of the economy in most European countries as compared to about one-third in the United States. This makes Europeans often more comfortable with Democrats, a predilection compounded by the inclination of Democrats to give more deference to globalist ideas or rhetoric.
Thus we heard many complaints about Trump’s withdrawal of the United States from the Paris climate accord and his refusal to recertify the Iran nuclear deal and especially about the threat of new Iran sanctions that would be extraterritorial, thus hitting European companies. We asked some of our interlocutors whether these objections to Trump might not arise toward any Republican President. Kleine-Brockhoff answered:
“If you have a consensus on first order issues—a cooperative world order based on multilateralism and long-term treaties, alliances, norms, values—you can have policy differences below that that don’t rise to first order, that don’t challenge the whole system. If you don’t have that, then other issues become first-order. We would have been able to deal with a Republican Administration of Marco Rubio with his critique on Iran because Rubio wouldn’t have challenged the system as such. He wouldn’t have doubted NATO. He wouldn’t have doubted the multilateral system. He wouldn’t have doubted treaties of that nature per se. In a Trump context, that’s just one piece in a long list of the destruction.”
One issue on which it is unlikely any other Republican would be acting like Trump is in launching tariff wars. Frachon told us, “We French are not natural free traders, but is he really going to destroy the free trading system?” He elaborated on his concern: “A bloc of the United States, Europe, and Asian countries sharing the same norms [will assure that] these Western norms will be global norms in twenty-five years. If not, the [global] norms will be Chinese norms.”
The sense recurred in our conversations that differences with Trump are larger than disagreements about policy but rather go to basic values and images of the kind of world in which we want to live. An aide to Angela Merkel mentioned her reaction in May 2017 to the McMaster/Cohn op-ed, which was intended to make Trump’s “America First” idea comprehensible and presumably less offensive to outsiders. It may have achieved the first but not the second of these purposes. “The Chancellor read it and thought, ‘this is not the way I perceive international politics.’”
A manifesto issued by a dozen prominent Germans appealing for Germans to stick with America despite Trump put it this way: “The United States, inventor and—until recently—guardian of the liberal order, currently does not see itself as system guarantor. Donald Trump is the first U.S. President since World War II to fundamentally question the ideas and institutions of the liberal international order.”
Said one of the signers in an interview: “There’s a lot of concern that the U.S. is no longer willing to be the guarantor of the democratic values that made Europe strong again and brought peace to Europe.”
In a speech late last year, then-Secretary of State Tillerson declared, “one of the advantages the U.S. takes into all of our various foreign policy arenas [is] that we have many, many allies . . . which are a great strength of U.S. policy around the world.” But speaking to various opinion leaders in the countries that have been traditionally our most important partners, we heard that our allies feel little valued by Trump, and sometimes deserted. Frachon told us:
“The ideological battle has been abandoned by the U.S., by Trump, the battle for human rights, freedom, the UN Charter, liberal democratic values. . . The Brits, the French, the Germans are alone; the U.S. is not there anymore. Trump is leaving this battlefield when he gives the impression that actually he admires these autocrats more than the mediocrity of democracy. . . In this ideological battle against autocrats, and [those] seduced by autocrats, we have the impression sometimes that Trump is on the other side.”
Not all Europeans feel deserted by Trump, since he has cultivated relations with Nigel Farage, Member of the European Parliament and former leader of the UK Independence Party, and Marine Le Pen of the National Front in France. Laure Mandeville, a leading correspondent for Le Figaro, told us “a lot of [European populists] saw the election of Trump as confirmation of the justness of their diagnosis, that sovereignty is important, borders are important.”
There is peril in this, though. Unlike the United States, most European countries have in their past seen democracy collapse into dictatorship and several have brutal memories of living under fascism. The 2017 electoral defeats of populist candidates for President of France and Prime Minister of Holland assuaged fears of an unstoppable populist rise. But we heard cautions against saying “Le Pen didn’t win, Wilders didn’t win, we’re through.” Robin Niblett, leader of the think tank Chatham House, argued: “No, we’re not through. All of the messages we’re issuing say, ‘This is not over, this is not over.’ Take it seriously. There is a lot more listening and a lot more learning to be done, and there are more waves to come.”
Trump’s affinity with Europe’s populists may blunt their own wonted antagonism toward the United States, but he evokes that prejudice elsewhere on the political spectrum. “He is a perfect foil for [Jeremy] Corbyn’s anti-Americanism,” observed Niblett. Trump’s scheduled state visit to the United Kingdom was canceled after some two million Britons signed a petition against it, while hard-Left Labour MPs had a field day in parliamentary debate ridiculing a President whose “power is enormous [while] his intellectual capacity is protozoan.”
In Germany, two prominent journalists in Die Zeit rebutted a manifesto by German Atlanticists in part by reeling off a litany of “all the craziness [of the United States]” thus: “epidemic arms ownership, the gap between rich and poor, the death penalty, the asocial health system, the elitist educational system, the democracy-crippling dominance of Wall Street, widespread racism, exaggerated nationalism, horrendous energy consumption, religions sectarianism—to name but a few.”
But such talk seemed much less in the air today than we can recall in previous decades. What has caused anti-Americanism to recede? The answer, in a word, is Putin. “We’ve seen a step-change in how we tackle the question of European defense,” said the group’s ambassador to the United States, David O’Sullivan, in a clear allusion to Russia. “The nature of the threats we face has evolved radically, and so has our response.” Thomas Greminger, the Secretary-General of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, said of Russia’s aggressive behavior, “The rule-based European order has been put in question. Long-time norms of non-aggression in Europe have been violated.”
This alarm about Russia reminds Europeans of the value of their ties to America. Paradoxically, Trump’s strangeness and his coolness toward Europe seems to have generated a sense of wistfulness about pre-Trump America, which our interlocutors hoped will return post-Trump. “A lot of people in Europe are thinking the storm will pass. Just keep our heads down,” said Goodhart. A French official echoed those words: “Quite a few people take the view that it’s just a bad time and we should just duck and cover for four years and then things will be re-established.” An official of the European Parliament exemplified this view, telling us: “Trump is like hurricane season. You know it will do damage and also that it will blow over.”
However, several of our interlocutors worried that it will not “blow over,” but rather that some deeper change is occurring in the American body politic. They noted that the spirit of pulling back from engagement with the world and especially with Europe was evident first during the presidency of Barack Obama even though he was far more appealing to Europeans than Trump.
Bild’s Eichinger put it: “I don’t think it’s so easy to say [that America will revert to internationalism after Trump]. Look at Obama’s policy. He was the first who said: Let’s orient more to the Pacific. Let’s focus on America. The difference was almost all Europeans loved Obama, and almost all hate Trump. But there’s a development in the United States to focus on America, to end the wars.”
Jörg Lau, one of the journalists who rebutted the Atlanticist manifesto in Die Zeit, told us: “The retrenchment began under Obama. It’s ultimately [a question] whether Europe can depend on America going forward. We think it’s wishful thinking to believe we can.”
Ironically, while fear of Russia is engendering warmer feelings toward America and even perhaps a willingness to endure Trump, we also encountered anxiety about Trump’s own attitude toward Russia, even if it has not yet expressed itself in concrete policies. Frachon put it: “Trump is not able to conduct his Russian policy because of the involvement of the Russians in the elections. So there is no Russian policy. It’s not bad; it’s not good. It doesn’t exist. Still, he has portrayed Putin, if you’re German or French, let alone if you are Polish or if you are from Tallinn or Riga, in a way that makes you say something is different. The music is different. So maybe we realized that this music was important.”
Despite Trump’s resilient friendliness toward Putin, his Administration had devoted resources to strengthening NATO’s defenses in Eastern Europe with the result that, as we were told, he is liked better there than in Western Europe. We also encountered differences from country to country within Western Europe. In Britain, we heard that the country was so absorbed in Brexit as to mute feelings about other issues notwithstanding the intense campaign for cancellation of Trump’s visit. Moreover, a number of Britons seemed to hope that Trump, who appears to favor bilateral trade agreements over multilateral ones, would welcome some kind of deal with the United Kingdom that would mitigate the costs of leaving the European Union.
On the other hand, as Goodhart told us, “Germany is the epicenter of the continent’s anti-Trump feelings. [He] is a living negation of modern Germany’s liberal cosmopolitanism.” Everything we heard in Germany confirmed that. A dozen prominent German intellectuals signed the aforementioned manifesto urging preservation of Germany’s special ties to America in spite of Trump. In other words, they represent the pro-American camp in German discourse. Yet, while arguing in favor of America, they were withering toward the current U.S. Administration. “Germany sees the current international order as a cornerstone of its foreign policy,” they declared, but Trump pursues a “strategy of undermining the international order.” Ergo, “for Germany, Donald Trump’s foreign policy creates a previously unknown conflict of interest with its most important ally.”
France seems to have taken Trump more in stride than Germany thanks to its young charismatic new President, Emmanuel Macron, who has adopted an upbeat attitude toward the American President, hosting him on Bastille Day. Jacques Rupnik, research director at the Sorbonne’s Sciences Po, explained it this way: “People were kind of baffled by Macron’s efforts to ingratiate himself with Trump, but the answer was, since this guy is so vain and the personal thing matters so much, if you persuade him that the French do military parades and they can bring you to the Eiffel Tower, you can influence him on issues of importance to France such as the climate change agreement or Syria or, above all, Iran.” Said Le Figaro’s Mandeville: “Trump has to be educated. He discovered—because probably he didn’t know—that France is an old nation with a military tradition.” Indeed, the show apparently impressed the President so much that he returned home to direct the Defense Department to stage a military parade in Washington.
A French official told us the question facing Paris was whether to “confront the President or, given his personality, try to make friends with him and influence him marginally, to keep a line open rather than ostracize him.” Tertrais shared a more cynical version: “Macron, when he hosted Trump, reportedly said something along the lines of, ‘I like to buy a stock when it’s low.’”
For France, Trump is a wonderful opportunity. Several of our interviewees made this point in different ways. “Trump for us, like Obama in his own way, vindicates a traditional French narrative, one that you’ve seen since 1958,” when Charles de Gaulle returned to power, with his conviction that “the Americans will not always be involved in European security.” Thus, an official of the European Commission told us that his colleagues joked that Trump should be awarded the Charlemagne Prize, which is given for outstanding contributions to European integration.
The first practical step in this direction has been the initiation of something called PESCO, which stands for Permanent Structured Cooperation. PESCO was foreseen in the EU treaty of 2009 but only brought into existence at the end of 2017. It envisions a variety of joint operations, the creation of some joint units, and the attempt to eliminate some of the European Union’s debilitating duplication of military production.
A former EU official explained: “The [EU] members see we cannot rely on the U.S. anymore so the motivation is there to move ahead with an EU foreign and defense policy. This is good, but not having the United States with us is tragic and dangerous. Despite Trump, we need to preserve a strong Atlantic alliance.”
Thanks no doubt to Putin and perhaps as well to Islamic terrorists, and despite Trump and the perennial anti-American currents in European culture, the sense of needing the United States seems widespread. The twelve German intellectuals whose manifesto we have already mentioned put it, “The West, even today, does not exist without the United States.” And a French journalist said, “People understand that in terms of security we need the United States. They criticize the United States, but they’re still happy to rely on it.”
In an interview during his presidential campaign, Macron spoke of recapturing the thread of De Gaulle-Mitterand foreign policy—two French leaders who were decidedly chilly toward the United States. Whatever Macron intended by invoking those two names, he has reprised none of that chilliness. And his project of enhancing dramatically Europe’s ability to act in the security arena poses no necessary threat to Atlantic cooperation. A European Commission official said, “We need strategic autonomy in order to be meaningful partners.”
This image of a vastly stronger Europe still firmly linked to America is greatly appealing. But whether Macron will succeed remains very much an open question. The centrifugal forces within the European Union that led to Brexit and recently to Catalonia’s attempt to secede from Spain could scotch this plan, as could domestic challenges to Macron as he pushes controversial reforms of the French economy. And America’s relations with Europe could be disrupted by the volatility of President Trump. As Niblett expressed it, “We’ve dodged the bullet in the first year [of Trump’s presidency], but we’re not out of the woods.”
If the image of Europe enhancing its own strength while preserving a tight connection with the United States proves a pipe dream, then what? This is where our conversations grew unsettling. The alternative would seem to be a Europe that allows itself to be drawn closer to Putin’s Russia, re-enacting in a more modest way the tragic episode of appeasement.
Putin has supported, financially and otherwise, populist parties across Europe, almost all of which are on the far Right, while also retaining the loyalty of leftist parties comprising the remnants of communist movements once beholden to the USSR. Already, Hungary’s populist Prime Minister, Viktor Orban, has drawn close to Russia, as have leading Czech and Slovak politicians. More alarmingly, the recent national election in Italy, the third-largest country in the European Union, leaves the populist and pro-Russian Five Star Movement poised to take power in coalition with the far-Right and even more pro-Russian League party.
In France and Germany, the core of the European Union, similar dynamics are evident. The right-wing populist Alternative für Deutschland (AfD) in Germany and National Front in France are pro-Russian, as are the main leftist party in Germany, Die Linke, and the main leftist candidate in France’s presidential election, Jean-Luc Mélenchon, who drew 20 percent of the vote.
Still more troubling, pro-Russian sentiment is not found only on the two extremes. Former German Chancellor Gerhardt Schroeder was made chairman of the board of Rosneft, Russia’s state-controlled giant energy corporation, and has adopted a pro-Russian stance echoed by a substantial minority among the Social Democrats. Christian Lindner, the head of the Free Democrats, broke with Prime Minister Merkel over Ukraine, saying Germany should accept Russia’s annexation of Crimea. And even in Merkel’s own ranks, Horst Seehofer, Minister of the Interior since mid-March and the head of the Christian Social Union, which is the Bavarian counterpart of Merkel’s Christian Democratic Union, traveled to Moscow with an entourage of 60 to meet Putin as if to establish a parallel diplomatic connection, declaring “many trouble spots in the world will not be resolved without Moscow.” Toting this up, Kleine-Brockhoff commented to us:
“The jet fuel for the Russophile camp is supplied by Donald Trump. One wonders whether he is aware of the second-order effects of his open hostility towards Germany. The more he displays contempt and treats Germany like a client state, the more people will like the idea of balancing America with Russia.”
According to a recent ZDF poll, a majority of Germans—82 percent—do not see the United States as a reliable partner. That puts the United States behind Russia, which isn’t trusted by 58 percent of the German population.
In France, apart from the far Left and Right, former Prime Minister Francois Fillon, the candidate of the moderate-Right Republican Party and the early favorite in last year’s presidential race until he was brought low by scandal, was friendly to Putin or, in the words of one of our interviewees, “really a Russian guy.” He ended up with 20 percent in the first round of voting, the same as Mélenchon and a point behind Le Pen. Taken together the votes for those three, plus the 5 percent cast for Nicolas Dupont-Aignan, a breakaway from Le Pen’s National Front, mean that fully two-thirds of the ballots in the first round were cast for candidates sympathetic to Putin’s Russia.
Le Pen, who ran second overall, and her breakaway disciple, Dupont-Aignan, between them polled more than Macron in the first round. Little wonder that Moritz Koch of the newspaper Handelsblatt told us, “Germany must support Macron. He is the firewall between order and right-wing populism—and the end of the EU.”
An alternative scenario to the disintegration of the European Union is the emergence of pro-Russian majorities or pro-Russian policies within it. Poland and the Baltic states would be the only ones sure to resist. The United Kingdom would have been a weighty partner in their camp. But Brexit has removed Britain from that equation. President Trump said during his campaign that NATO was obsolete. Later he declared it “no longer obsolete.” But his high-handed treatment of allies as expressed in that original epithet could make it a self-fulfilling prophecy as our long-time partners feel impelled to adopt alternative security strategies. Europe uncoupled from the United States and under the sway of Russia could be Trump’s most important legacy, a strategic nightmare left for his successors.