The future of the West is in Europe’s hands. Rather than affirming his commitment to Western values and institutions during his recent trip to Europe, President Donald Trump did the opposite, breaking with and alienating America’s closest democratic allies. His performance was sufficiently stunning to prompt German Chancellor Angela Merkel, who is not known for hyperbole, to pronounce that Europe is on its own. To cap it off, Trump announced soon after returning to Washington that the United States was withdrawing from the Paris climate agreement, setting his America against virtually the rest of the world.
Until these events, many observers (myself included) held out hope that Trump’s dismissive attitude toward partnership — and Western partners in particular — was a passing phase, a product of bad advice from extremist advisers in the White House and the president’s own intellectual and political immaturity. But such hope is now illusory. Trump has made it amply clear that “America First” really means “America Only,” and that he fully intends to break away from the community of Western democracies forged after the close of World War II. Trump’s acid rhetoric has become alarming reality.
On the horizon is not a world without the West, but a West without the United States. With Trump having made clear that he is defecting from the Atlantic community, Merkel was right to proclaim that Europeans “must take our destiny into our own hands.” The question before us is whether the EU, even as it confronts Brexit and its own populist challenges, will be up to the task of anchoring the Western world.
Europe has little choice but to look past Washington now that Trump has revealed his true colors. He confirmed that he is a businessman, not a statesman; for him, all relationships are transactional — even those with trusted allies. Germany is “very bad” because it spends less than two percent of GDP on defense and enjoys a sizable trade surplus, says Trump. Guilty as charged.
But the relationship between the United States and its European allies is about much more than who pays what. The magic of the Western world is that it left behind this zero-sum, each-for-its-own world. After too many wars, the Atlantic democracies realized that escaping bloodshed meant fashioning an international community that rested on trust, consensual rules, multilateral institutions, and open trade. As a matter of course, members of this community sacrificed short-term gain in the service of long-term solidarity. The result has been an unprecedented era of peace and prosperity.
Trump is oblivious, if not hostile, to this history. He treats Germany and other democratic allies as apartment buildings.
Trump is oblivious, if not hostile, to this history. He treats Germany and other democratic allies as apartment buildings. If they pay their rent on time, they are in good standing. If not, watch out.
Confronted with this American president, it is up to the EU to safeguard Western values and institutions until the United States comes back to its senses. Neither Germany nor the EU as a whole are currently ready to play this role. But the Trump presidency may be enough of a shock to galvanize Europe to step up.
The EU can best ready itself to fill the leadership gap resulting from “America First” by pursuing the following measures.
First, the EU needs a more balanced decision-making structure. Germany has become too influential for its own good, fostering resentment among its EU partners. Even though Berlin will remain the EU’s strongest voice, the union’s inner circle needs widening and more sway. France’s political comeback under Emmanuel Macron will certainly help, but especially in light of Brexit and the political mess that is the United Kingdom, Germany needs to make a habit of building consensus with Italy, Spain, and select smaller member states. If the EU is to lead the West, it needs buy-in from all its members.
Second, despite the continuing anti-EU sentiment on the populist Left and Right, the EU needs to deepen collective governance over economic issues and foreign and defense policy. The EU will not be able to lead effectively without more centralized and capable institutions. The emerging rift with the United States may provide the jolt needed to convince Europeans to further pool their sovereignty.
Third, in order to offset a U.S. retreat from multilateralism, the EU should seek to fashion more effective partnerships with other countries, including non-democracies. Whether wittingly or not, Trump is ceding U.S. influence and forcing Europe to look elsewhere to build coalitions of the willing. It speaks volumes that, over the next few years, the EU may find China a better partner than the United States when it comes to fighting climate change and liberalizing trade.
Finally, the EU should remain Atlanticist and continue to treat the United States as its wanted partner of choice — even as the transatlantic relationship becomes more transactional. After all, the Atlantic community has thrived for decades because of common interests, not just shared values and sentiments. Even if Trump is motivated primarily by short-term calculation of costs and benefits, working with Europe will more often than not look like a good deal. In this respect, Merkel should increase German defense spending and take steps to stimulate domestic demand, not only wooing Trump but also boosting much-needed growth and jobs in the Eurozone.
Europeans should also keep in mind that the Trump era is thankfully time-limited. He is woefully out of step with the political mainstream, likely making his presidency an aberration, not an indicator of things to come.
America will be back. But in the meantime, the EU will have to hold down the Western fort.