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.
With stakes like these, the new administration will need to think carefully about how to keep Germany onside. It is clear that work needs to be done. Following the election, Merkel delivered the president-elect an unmistakable message: while ties with the United States were a cornerstone of German strategy, U.S.-Germany cooperation had to be based on “a common platform of democracy, freedom, advocacy for human rights all over the world and championing the open and liberal world order.” The question, of course, is whether the German conception of a values-based approach to foreign policy is compatible with a Trump doctrine that is more transactional in nature. The answer to this question will come in the form of how the new administration addresses issues like the sanctions on Russia, the Iran deal and the Paris climate agreement—issues where the German government (in an election year) will have strong and potentially contrary positions to those held by Washington. Donald Trump may not have the interest or the inclination to develop a close consultative relationship with the German chancellor, but he will need a “Merkel whisperer” of sorts.
Britain is another key question. Despite the president-elect’s support for Brexit and his apparent embrace of Nigel Farage, the former leader of UKIP, the results of the referendum last June represent a net loss for the United States. With Britain leaving the EU, the United States will enjoy less support in European councils and Europe itself will miss the pragmatic and liberal solutions that London has tended to offer. Britain’s process for extracting itself from the EU will be long, complicated and, at times, painful. There are two interrelated dangers here. One is that the disengagement process itself will distract the British government from addressing other pressing international responsibilities. There is also the larger danger that post-Brexit Britain will turn inward, becoming more parochial and less interested in a partnership with Washington. The new administration can play a constructive role here, by helping London compensate for Brexit by pushing it towards a more active role in NATO. Other initiatives could also be taken by Washington to underscore that the relationship with Britain remains special, including a Trump-designed “new age” trade agreement with a non-EU Britain. As in the case of Chancellor Merkel, some personal repair work appears necessary between the president-elect and the British prime minister. This should not be too difficult to achieve, but nobody should expect a Reagan-Thatcher romance to develop.
Beyond Germany and Britain, there is the issue of rising populism in Europe, particularly in the case of the forthcoming elections in France. As tempting as it might be for a new Trump administration to intervene in these elections in 2017, the impulse must be rejected. The National Front and Marine Le Pen clearly view Donald Trump’s victory as an auspicious sign. But a Le Pen presidency would be deeply destructive, unleashing political forces that would undermine European unity and trans-Atlantic cooperation. Success for the National Front remains unlikely, but even identifying with Le Pen’s cause would prove a costly mistake for the incoming Trump team, complicating the task of building ties with Berlin and other EU governments. A far better alternative would be to remain neutral in the contest, with the expectation that the center-right candidate, François Fillon, would be elected. Fillon, with conservative views on economics and a strong position on combating Islamic terrorism, could prove to be President Trump’s closest partner in Europe, particularly in terms of ratcheting up the campaign against the Islamic State.