Hostile ally: The Trump challenge and Europe’s inadequate response

U.S. President Donald Trump greets Hungary's Prime Minister Viktor Orban in the Oval Office at the White House in Washington, U.S., May 13, 2019. REUTERS/Carlos Barria - RC1AB086D0B0
Editor's note:

The trans-Atlantic strategy and policy of both the United States and Europe in the new paradigm of great power competition have been failures, with the Trump administration’s hostility to Europe an act of self harm and Europe’s responses to its challenges inadequate, argues Constanze Stelzenmüller in a report for the Brookings – Robert Bosch Foundation Transatlantic Initiative (BBTI).

Executive Summary

Brookings – Robert Bosch Foundation Transatlantic InitiativeTwo and a half years into the Trump administration, an odd calm appears to have settled over the trans-Atlantic relationship. The United States has not started a war against Iran or North Korea. It has not left the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) or the World Trade Organization (WTO), nor has it taken its troops out of Syria or Afghanistan. Washington has not yet acted on its threat of a trade war with the European Union (EU). Various sanctions have been discussed, but not actually imposed. Almost any of these events, had they occurred, would have had a significant negative impact on Europe’s prosperity and security. The European Union, for its part, has not been engulfed by a tsunami of uncontrolled immigration, nor has it been torched by populists. It has not imploded or been abandoned by its member states. Even Britain is still in the EU — for now.

But that the absence of disasters should be cause for relief is no small measure of how bad the relationship has become. And beneath the surface, things are not well at all. The United States might act on its manifold threats. Europe might buckle under a new crisis. But even barring a cataclysmic event, global levels of friction and risk have undeniably risen. The U.S. president and his administration have made their distaste for the European Union and some European allies plain. The feeling appears to be reciprocated in many European quarters. The calm, in other words, is deceptive and unlikely to last.

This essay examines how American and European trans-Atlantic strategy and policy have fared in the new paradigm of great power competition. It concludes that so far the record is one of failure on both sides. It postulates that despite the Trump administration’s emphasis on national sovereignty and its dislike of free trade and multilateralism, its hostility toward Europe is an act of self-harm. For Europe, meanwhile, the challenges presented by the shift in its strategic landscape are huge; but while they are exacerbated by the current U.S. administration’s policies, they are not caused by them. The truth is that Trump holds up a mirror to Europe. We Europeans may not like what we see in it, and indeed we should not. But we are well advised to take note, and act on what we see.