Since the end of World War II, the transatlantic relationship has been the bedrock of American foreign policy. Presidents of both parties, from Harry Truman to Richard Nixon, Ronald Reagan to Barack Obama, all supported a politically and economically integrated Europe bound to the United States by shared democratic values, robust trade and a military alliance — NATO — rooted in the principle of collective security. It is no exaggeration to say that the postwar effort to build a liberal democratic Europe has been America’s most successful foreign policy achievement, helping to ensure peace and prosperity on a continent once racked by total war, genocide and economic privation.
That consistent, bipartisan commitment to a “Europe whole, free and at peace” is at stake now that Donald Trump is president of the United States. Like no American leader before him, Trump has questioned the very foundations of transatlanticism, openly rooting for the dissolution of the European Union and repeatedly denigrating NATO as “obsolete.” Trump’s ascension to leadership of the free world could not have come at a worse time. With Russia’s ongoing war against Ukraine, massive migratory waves from the Middle East and North Africa, stubbornly low economic growth, rising Islamic terrorism, political disintegration in the form of Brexit and the rise of nationalist movements across the continent, Europe is facing a series of challenges that collectively pose its greatest crisis since the Cold War. By providing succor to anti-EU populists and forging a new diplomatic entente with Russia, Trump may aggravate these tensions, destabilizing Europe from within and without.
Trump’s opposition to European integration breaks with more than seven decades of U.S. foreign policy tradition. In a recent joint interview with the Sunday Times and Germany’s Bild, Trump disparaged the EU, saying, “I don’t really care whether it’s separate or together, to me it doesn’t matter.” Echoing claims one normally hears from Mediterranean socialists, Trump said the multinational body is “basically a vehicle for Germany,” when in reality it restrains German power. Whereas the outgoing U.S. ambassador to the EU warns that 2017 may be “the year in which the EU is going to fall apart,” Trump’s likely replacement looks upon the prospect with glee. “I had in a previous career a diplomatic post where I helped bring down the Soviet Union,” Ted Malloch told the BBC. “So maybe there’s another union that needs a little taming.”
The driving force behind Trump’s antagonism toward Europe is White House senior counselor Stephen K. Bannon. One of the president’s closest political advisors, Bannon’s recent elevation to the National Security Council suggests his portfolio has been expanded to include foreign policy. And it’s in this realm where his influence could be most disruptive.
In 2014 remarks to a conference held at the Vatican, Bannon praised the “global tea party movement” formed in “reaction to centralized government” like the EU. “Strong nationalist movements in countries make strong neighbors,” Bannon asserted, ignoring the entirety of Europe’s 20th century history, which suggests exactly the opposite. When he was executive chair of the website Breitbart.com, Bannon provided favorable coverage to all manner of far-right, anti-EU political parties, including the United Kingdom Independence Party, or UKIP, France’s National Front and Alternative for Germany. In a break with diplomatic protocol, Trump’s first meeting with a foreign leader after his election victory was UKIP’s Nigel Farage, whom he encouraged London to appoint as its ambassador to Washington.
Planned Breitbart bureaus in Berlin and Paris will bring the brand’s nativist conspiracy-mongering to continental politics, stoking the forces determined to tear Europe apart. Because of her (since-abandoned) open-door policy to Syrian refugees, German Chancellor Angela Merkel is a bete noire for Bannon and his European allies, the symbol of everything they hate about so-called globalism. On the campaign trail, there was no world leader whom Trump attacked more often or vituperatively than Merkel. Asked whom he trusts more, Merkel or Russian President Vladimir Putin, Trump responded, “I start off trusting both,” thus equating one of the world’s most admired and pro-American leaders with a ruthless ex-KGB officer who invades his neighbors and kills his enemies.
Europeans, then, must face the prospect of an American president using his bully pulpit to work over the heads of their elected governments in collusion with anti-establishment political factions resolutely opposed to the European project. Simultaneously, they must contend with Trump’s proposed strategic rapprochement with Moscow: an external threat potentially even more dangerous to Europe than nationalism.
Trump has indicated that he might lift sanctions placed on Russia for its aggression against Ukraine and recognize Moscow’s annexation of the Crimean peninsula. Either of these moves would undermine the fundamental tenet of Europe’s postwar political settlement — that nations may no longer use force to change borders.
What’s more, the new president has repeatedly expressed reservations about NATO Article 5, which mandates that an attack on one member is an attack on all. Notwithstanding Trump’s promises to rebuild the military, deterrence ultimately depends upon credibility; that is, an adversary’s belief that one will indeed defend allies and uphold treaty guarantees. By sowing doubts, Trump — intentionally or not — givesPutin a green light, increasing the possibility of conflict.
To Europe’s detriment, it seems Trump and Putin have similar, zero-sum outlooks. Trump’s inaugural pledge to put “America First,” combined with his dismissal of alliances built upon liberal democratic values — like the EU and NATO — neatly correlates with Putin’s preferred world order: Every country for itself. Trump and Putin are already simpatico in their support for anti-EU firebrands; traditionally pro-American Europeans will now find themselves politically stranded, stuck in a vise-like grip between a militarily aggressive Moscow and an indifferent Washington.
The peace and prosperity Europeans take for granted is not the normal state of things; American commitment to Europe has been the precondition for its stability. Were Washington to reject its traditional role as guarantor of the continent’s security, it could have a disastrous effect on European political dynamics, reigniting disputes and perhaps even armed conflicts between countries where such tensions have long been unthinkable.
James Kirchick is author of “The End of Europe: Dictators, Demagogues and the Coming Dark Age.”