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The Transatlantic Continental Drift

The American national-security establishment has long harbored disdain for Europeans' approach to policymaking and geopolitics. But the tenacity with which US President Donald Trump has attacked European allies shows that transatlantic relations have entered into dangerous new territory, and at precisely the worst time.

DENVER – The Earth’s continental plates broke apart and first began to shift hundreds of millions of years ago. But anyone visiting European capitals or following events in President Donald Trump’s Washington can be forgiven for thinking that another tectonic divergence is underway. 

Of course, transatlantic mistrust is not new. In the run-up to the 2003 Iraq War, then-US Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld sparked controversy by drawing a line between “old Europe” and “new Europe,” the latter comprising the ex-communist states that were more enthusiastic about following the US into war. In the eyes of many Europeans, Rumsfeld’s goal was to sow division within Europe.

Now Europe must deal with another difficult American named Donald. The Trump administration has pursued an even more aggressive approach to Europe, deeming the European Union a strategic competitor and raising doubts about America’s long-term commitment to European security. In keeping with the Trumpian worldview, the US now views Europe as a freeloader that has taken advantage of American largesse.

Demonstrating his tenuous grasp of US interests, Trump seems intent on weakening the forces of European integration. He also has tried to drive wedges between Europeans, and not just between “old” and “new” (among whom he has a number of cheerleaders). For example, Trump makes no secret of his sympathy for the Brexiteers, even as they continue to discredit themselves in the eyes of most Europeans, and perhaps even among a majority in the United Kingdom, too.

Trump’s “America First” worldview makes no room for a partnership between the US and Europe, or for any allies who do not automatically throw their support behind US policies. US Vice President Mike Pence made this all too clear at the Munich Security Conference in February, where he scolded Europeans for undermining US sanctions against Iran, and rather resembled a teacher reciting a list of overdue assignments.

American paternalism toward Europe will not necessarily end with Trump. As we have seen, it reflects a longstanding attitude within the US national-security establishment, including among neoconservatives, many of whom have openly refused ever to work for Trump. On issues ranging from the Balkans to the Russian threat against Ukraine, the prevailing American view is that Europeans are weak. Or, as a popular 2003 foreign-policy book put it, “Americans are from Mars, Europeans are from Venus.”

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To be sure, Europe also bears some of the blame for transatlantic tensions. When the EU began its expansion process some 20 years ago, Poland and other EU applicants complained to US diplomats about being told by European envoys to choose between America and the EU, as if there were two different sets of values and interests. Europeans’ supposedly more evolved views on climate change, the death penalty, the uses of soft power, and many other issues were marshaled in support of a single European identity, with interests distinct from those of the US.

Of course, much has changed since then, and some Europeans have come to realize that they must do more to strengthen transatlanticism, not least by increasing their defense spending, streamlining EU decision-making processes, and settling economic disputes. (One major holdout is Germany, whose defense spending as a share of GDP remains well below the 2% target set by NATO.)

But an even more fundamental challenge for Europe is internal. Across a wide array of issues, Europe’s leaders need to do a better job of explaining to their constituents what the European project is really about. To earlier generations, the answer was obvious: European integration is necessary to prevent another world war. But while that was true 70 years ago, it is clear that the project’s raison d’être needs to be updated to address European voters’ current concerns.

Europeans originally thought they were joining together in a civilizational undertaking. But with the deepening of the bloc’s structural integration and the inclusion of a unified Germany, many Europeans started to feel like they had been forced into the world’s most onerous bureaucracy. And as social and economic pressures from immigration have increased, more Europeans have begun to feel as though they have lost their national identities. Their minds are not likely to be changed by lectures about moral responsibility and the needs of the less fortunate.

Hence, for some member states – including some that have benefited tremendously from EU membership – the instinct now is to shut the door and roll out the barbed wire. But as any serious European leader knows, migrant and refugee crises – and immigration policy more generally – must be addressed comprehensively at the EU level, including with a robust foreign policy focused on addressing the root causes of the problem.

As Europeans grapple with fundamental issues of identity, bureaucracy, and sovereignty, US policymakers, whatever their political pedigree, need to take a deep breath and reflect on the causes of the current transatlantic rift. Specifically, they should consider whether high-handed paternalism is really the best approach to a continent whose values and interests so overwhelmingly overlap with their own.

At the risk of stating the obvious, the rising threat to democracy – and even to civilization itself – demands that the US and Europe demonstrate more mutual respect and cooperation. There is no reason to expect anything to change under the current US administration, but we still need all hands on deck to prepare for a better future for transatlantic relations. It’s time to push the continental plates back together.

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