America is on the brink of a historic break with Europe

America is on the brink of a historic break with Europe

The Trump administration’s newly unveiled national security strategy lists reinforcing America’s alliances as a major objective. Yet in the first year of his embattled presidency, Donald Trump has so undermined our ties to Europe that we could be on the verge of a break in the seven-decade trans-Atlantic alliance.

Nicholas Burns reports in his article America is on the brink of a historic break with Europe, thanks to Trump for USA Today that Trump is the first U.S. president since World War II who does not seem to consider himself the leader of the democratic West. His populist America First platform has opened deep fissures in his relations with European leaders. He has changed the way the U.S. government talks about our oldest allies, describing the European Union more as an economic competitor than a leading strategic partner. In contrast, prior U.S. presidents regarded the European project as a force multiplier for shared interests across the Atlantic in democracy, human rights and the rule of law. Trump’s distancing from Germany Chancellor Angela Merkel and, more recently, British Prime Minister Theresa May, however, is strikingly different than his praise of autocratic leaders Xi Jinping of China and Vladimir Putin of Russia. Trump often seems more interested in forging closer links with Putin than with Merkel. This poses an immediate problem for Washington at a time when it needs a stronger channel to Berlin, to compensate for reduced British influence in Europe due to Brexit. Trump also seems more often at war with NATO than leading it. While he is right to criticize the allies for insufficient defense spending, he must be careful to avoid demonizing Europe to the American public. After all, Europe fought to end the Bosnia and Kosovo wars with us, stood by us on 9/11, and still has troops with us in Afghanistan.

Recent U.S. presidents conceived ambitious and historic projects with Europe. George H.W. Bush and Bill Clinton guided NATO toward peace with a new Russia at the end of the Cold War. George W. Bush persuaded NATO to adopt a counterterrorism focus after 9/11.

Trump’s refusal to admit any refugees into the USA for four months and his continuing refusal to admit any refugees from Syria have left the EU shouldering nearly all the burden during the most serious refugee crisis since 1945. His disavowal of free tradeand the Paris climate accord, withdrawal from two United Nations agencies and distancing from the Iran nuclear deal and NAFTA have rattled European leaders,whose differences with Trump’s agenda now clearly outweigh areas of agreement.

It is thus not surprising that in a new poll by the German firm Körber-Stiftung, 88% of Germans say their country’s priority defense partner should be the EU and not the United States. 

A Pew poll this summer illuminated a similar decline in European confidence in Washington since Trump assumed the presidency, with 62% of Germans holding an unfavorable view of America.

This translates into a deep loss of American influence with a continent that remains Washington’s largest trade partner, largest investor in its economy and largest collection of allies worldwide. U.S. Foreign Service officers of my generation considered ourselves guardians of an alliance with Europe that was vital for our economy, security and values. All our presidents were wired for leadership with their European counterparts. We saw the alliance with Europe as one of the great American achievements of the past century.

Yet Trump displays little interest in writing the next chapter of the West. Instead, we are left with clashing substance and symbols even in the once special relationship between Britain and America. How else to understand the unprecedented repudiation of a U.S. president by the archbishop of Canterbury and the British prime minister after Trump foolishly retweeted a vile British anti-Muslim website.

Europe still matters to America. We are together the central organizer of the most important global institutions. We remain the most powerful political, military and economic force for good. Polls on this side of the Atlantic continue to show that a majority of Americans support NATO, strong ties to Europe and free trade, even as our president heads resolutely in the opposite direction.

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