PERHAPS NO item on President-elect Donald Trump’s foreign-policy agenda is as unclear as his new administration’s approach to the American relationship with Europe. There are some obvious reasons for this. At various moments in the campaign, he appeared to call into question the Atlanticist consensus over security and economic policy supported by U.S. administrations and European governments for nearly seventy years. Among other things, he questioned the relevance of the NATO alliance and his commitment to abiding by the Article Five obligation to come to the aid of allies under attack. At the same time, he underscored his disdain for the European Union by openly supporting Brexit while also singling out Chancellor Angela Merkel for her open-door policy towards migrants from conflicts in the Middle East. Meanwhile, European governments are unnerved by President-elect Trump’s call for scuttling the Iran deal and walking away from the Paris agreement on climate change.
Prospects for U.S.-Europe relations during the Trump era, at least at this point, do not look good. The question that many Americans (including some Trump supporters) might ask is: does it matter? Europe seems to confront a multiplicity of crises, ranging from internal challenges, such as low economic growth and rising populism, to external threats, including Russian aggression and Middle East terrorism, that seem to be sapping the continent’s political resolve and global position. So why, then, should a new Trump administration waste energy and resources on working out common strategies with the Europeans?
From a historical perspective, the answer is clear. In both the Cold War and the post–Cold War eras, U.S. international primacy has flowed, at least in part, from America’s security partnership with Europe. In the 1980s, an important element of the Reagan administration’s military buildup was strengthening NATO. Then, following the collapse of the Berlin Wall, the United States, working closely with Britain, France and West Germany, was able to achieve the peaceful reunification of Germany in negotiations with Russia. More recently, U.S. and European collaboration on Ukraine-related sanctions and in fighting the Islamic State have not only augmented American leverage but conferred political legitimacy on these policies.
This is not to suggest that all is well within the alliance, particularly as far as burden sharing is concerned. Even Barack Obama has complained about the “ free-rider” problem within NATO. And on the campaign trail, Trump repeatedly called for higher European defense spending. But this is a topic where Trump can already claim some credit: expecting new pressure from Washington on spending and worried about a continuing commitment to Europe, a number of NATO capitals appear ready to entertain defense-spending increases. While the allies have endorsed the goal of spending a minimum of 2 percent of national GDP for defense, a Trump administration is likely to push to make this a hard-and-fast commitment.
But beyond more spending and stronger defenses, the incoming administration also needs to appreciate the strategic utility of closer U.S.-Europe security cooperation. As Trump himself has indicated, an important goal of his presidency will be exploring the possibility of reaching a new understanding with Russia. At this point, it is not clear what this possible “deal” might look like. But one thing is apparent: if anyone understands power, it is Vladimir Putin. A Trump administration will get a much better hearing for its ideas if it is dealing with Moscow from a position of strength. There is perhaps no more effective and efficient way for Washington to project strength than from the platform of a robust and united NATO alliance.
Several things flow from this conclusion. One is that whether it likes it or not, the new administration will need to engage in what the State Department calls “alliance management”—the feeding and care of key NATO allies. Lacking such consultations, it will be harder to maintain Western unity on sensitive policies, such as Ukraine-related sanctions. Last April, as Trump began to emerge as the Republican favorite, he delivered a foreign-policy speech in Washington calling for a NATO summit in the early days of his presidency. This is a very good idea. Politically, it would reassure anxious allies over America’s commitment to the relationship. Substantially, it would enable him to lay out an updated version of the Nixon administration’s “defense and détente” strategy for dealing with the Soviet Union. This would entail rebuilding NATO defenses and political cohesion as an essential means of reaching a solution for Ukraine and reducing Russian aggressiveness along NATO’s eastern flank.
BEYOND NATO, other steps are necessary. Germany, especially after Brexit, has emerged as the key strategic actor in Europe. As the earlier debate over EU sanctions on Russia underscored, German leadership is increasingly indispensable for European action. Major friction between Berlin and Washington would severely complicate U.S.-Europe cooperation, not only on Russia but along a wider range of political and economic issues. Over a longer period, a breakdown of the U.S.-Germany relationship could weaken America’s global position, destabilize Europe and offer Russia an opportunity to expand its sphere of influence.