This may prove to be an apt moment to discuss the state of the union. But I’m not talking about the U.S. State of the Union here, but rather the state of the European Union. According to some sources, things aren’t looking very good in Brussels when it comes to their view of America. And while President Trump has certainly been a major driver of distress among some European leaders, they’re worried about a sea change which could be the new normal in Euro-American relations.
Michael Birnbaum, Brussels bureau chief covering Europe, and his Europe-focused colleague Griff Witte have an opinion piece at the Washington Post which describes the ongoing turmoil. While many of the complaints being aired are rather predictable liberal/socialist concerns over an erosion of the status quo, they also reflect the shifting nature of international diplomacy in the 21st century. They describe many of Europe’s leaders as basically keeping an eye on the clock and hoping they can ride out the Trump presidency, but even after he eventually leaves office, they’re worried that things won’t snap back to the old normal.
Trump may not be an aberration that can be waited out, with his successor likely to push reset after four or eight years of fraught ties. Instead, the blend of unilateralism, nationalism and protectionism Trump embodies may be the new American normal.
“It is dawning on a number of European players that Trump may not be an outlier,” said Josef Janning, head of the Berlin office of the European Council on Foreign Relations. “More and more people are seeing it as a larger change in the United States.”
Even before Trump was elected, Europeans sensed that Washington’s traditional role as guarantor of the continent’s security and stability was slipping away, and that post-World War II ties were fading along with the generations that forged them.
But Trump’s seeming delight in smashing transatlantic bonds — and the lack of domestic constraints on his ability to do so — has signaled, Janning said, that the basis for Western strength and peace for 70-plus years “probably won’t come back.”
This editorial piece paints a rather dismal picture of the leadership inside the EU right now. The authors focus heavily on the anger (or at least disappointment) of many EU leaders in Trump’s decision to pull out of the Iran deal, but it goes much further than that. European Council President Donald Tusk is quoted as saying of Trump, “With friends like that, who needs enemies?” He goes on to dismiss, “the capricious assertiveness of the American administration.”
The situation in Germany is, in their view, becoming particularly problematic, with a majority of Germans seeing their relationship with America deteriorating. The cover of Der Spiegel last week sums it up nicely.
Underlying all of the quotes and interpretations is a common theme. The old way of doing business seems to be crumbling. And by that, they mean (and specifically admit in a few cases) that Europe has relied on both American money and military might to build their own version of western culture ever since World War 2. They didn’t need to invest in their own military (and Germany’s is nearly defunct at this point) because the United States was the superpower that would always stop anyone else from attacking them, and foot the bill to boot. They could build their economies and arrange all manner of favorable trade deals, including using government subsidies to warp the markets, secure in the knowledge that America wouldn’t do anything about it. All the while, America fell further into debt and our military was strained to the breaking point.
And then came Trump. It was probably surprising to the Europeans that many Americans responded strongly and positively when the President talked about unfair trade deals and the need for our allies to kick in more toward their own defense. The President is hardly universally loved at home, but the fears of these European leaders may be revealing something which wasn’t previously discussed. Whether you agree with the President on most things or not, these disparities were issues that resonated with a wide swath of the voters. And whether Donald Trump is in office for eight years or only four, America may deliver another president who will bring the same expectations to the table.
So perhaps the quoted EU leaders are correct. Perhaps the relationship has shifted on some fundamental level. And just maybe that shift was long overdue.