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.