Trump, Europe, and the Non-Handshake Seen Round the World


They say an image is worth a thousand words. President Donald Trump’s public refusal to shake hands with German Chancellor Angela Merkel might be worth even more than that. Trump certainly had some words of his own during the joint press conference that followed. He expressed his “strong support for NATO” but repeated his demand that “NATO allies pay their fair share for the cost of defense.” He called the current arrangement “very unfair to the United States” and bizarrely stated, “as far as wiretapping, I guess, by this past administration, at least we have something in common perhaps.” Openly snubbing Merkel and reviving one of the biggest scandals to mar relations between Berlin and Washington – Snowden’s revelations that the U.S. National Security Agency had tapped Merkel’s cell phone – might seem to be an odd way for a U.S. president to treat a major European ally. But for this president, it might be consistent with his aims.

Trump’s snub takes place against a backdrop of uncertainty about the new U.S. president’s commitment to European integration and plans for the transatlantic relationship. Both during the transition and his short time in office, Trump described the European Union as a “German racket,” floated the specter of a possible understanding between the United States and Russia, raised questions about the relevance of NATO, praised Britain’s decision to leave the European Union, and encouraged other European countries to follow suit. It is not clear just how seriously any of these statements should be taken — a tough love approach from the White House could even help to shake Europeans out of their post-modern and introverted comfort zone, and awaken them to the realities of a harsher, hyper-competitive world. Yet, the combination of a deliberately un-predictable U.S. administration and a spontaneously unpredictable Europe may reveal an uncomfortable fact: Europe’s future is not what it used to be. If we move beyond superficial images of a “Europe whole and free” and “ever closer union,” we can see an array of alternative futures lurking on Europe’s horizon, each seemingly grimmer than the next.

Darkness is not predestined, however. Brighter futures are available to Europeans, but only if they pull themselves together and fight for them. To do so, they must come to terms with both Brexit and Trump, and recognize that any bright future must be centered around the active engagement and participation of Britain and the United States in Europe’s institutional architecture — for history tells us that there is no such thing as European cohesion or security outside of a broader Western framework.

Europe Meets Trump: This Isn’t Your Father’s President

Barely a few days before taking office, Trump referred to the European Union as “a vehicle for Germany.” Shortly thereafter, Peter Navarro, head of Trump’s newly created National Trade Council, accused Germany of taking advantage of a “grossly undervalued” euro to prop up its own exports and “exploit” the United States and the rest of the European Union. No wonder the British had decided to exit the union. Trump has even promised to give the special relationship between the United States and Britain a new lease on life, beginning with the possibility of a bilateral free trade agreement. This nullified Obama’s repeated pledges to build up the institutional relationship between the United States and the European Union, as well as his assertion that Britain would have to go “to the back of the queue” if it exited the union and wanted a free trade deal with the United States. Trump also made it clear he wanted Russia as a partner in the fight against terrorism and “radical Islam,” and labelled NATO as “obsolete” during the Republican primaries. Even if he has expressed his support for the alliance since taking office, Trump’s comments have prompted questions about his commitment to some of the initiatives painstakingly fashioned by the Obama administration, aimed at strengthening deterrence and reassuring U.S. allies in Central and Eastern Europe.

It is simply too early to assert with any degree of confidence where theatrics end and real intentions begin. Trump’s swipes at Germany and the European Union could well be part of a negotiating ploy. In his oft-cited book, The Art of the Deal, Trump tells us how re-opening issues that were thought to be settled can help one enlarge the conversation, throw interlocutors off balance, and get a stronger negotiating position. Never mind that in this case what is actually on the table remains a mystery. What is clear, however, is that the twin processes of Germany’s socialization within the West and European integration are historical by-products of U.S. political patronage and economic assistance. They both took root under the umbrella of the military protection afforded by the United States and NATO. As such, the European Union is notably ill-equipped to withstand any sort of sustained charge from Washington, no matter how mild or subtle — and Trump’s poking was neither mild nor subtle.

The notion of a possible 180 degree turn in U.S. foreign policy towards NATO or Russia must be taken with a more than a pinch of salt too. American calls for Europeans to pay their fair share in NATO are old news. It is also somewhat customary for an incoming U.S. president to try to set the relationship with Russia on a positive footing. And yet, even Trump himself has warned us that he might not get along with Vladimir Putin once he gets to know him, and that he will only entertain the notion of a “deal” with Moscow if it would be beneficial to the interests of the United States.

What could make Trump’s deliberately equivocal messaging particularly de-stabilizing is the fact that it comes at a time when successive European crises — related to the future of the euro, how to handle Russia, Brexit, and the ongoing refugee and migrant flow — have called into question Europe’s own cohesion and stability. Trump’s remarks also come in the context of Britain’s decision to exit the European Union, an unprecedented move that sets an uncomfortable historical precedent for the transnational organization. The time could hardly be riper for anyone to stick a thumb into Europe’s wounds. And it is puzzling — at least for Europeans — that the thumb is that of an American president.

In any event, and regardless of whatever twists and turns America’s European policy might take in the months and years to come, Trump’s shock and awe approach to diplomacy may eject Europeans from their comfort zone. That might not be such a bad thing in itself: Europe’s “post-modern” institutional and normative toolkit may have become a liability to navigate the sort of hyper-competitive, war-prone geopolitical landscape that is unfolding — both in Europe’s immediate geographical vicinity and beyond. Think of Karl Marx’s old saying: “Just as mummies fall to pieces the moment they are exposed to the air, so war pronounces its sentence of death on those social institutions which have become ossified.”

For all we know, Trump could very well become Europe’s savior. Or not. He could also help push Europe down a Westphalian cliff, a period of increasing political contestation and renegotiation, whereby the very institutions designed to moderate the continent’s security dilemma may be re-configured or, in the worst-case scenario, break down completely.

Beyond all the usual chit-chat about the randomness and ignorance behind Trump’s remarks, he is surely poking in the right place if his intention is indeed to turn the European order upside down. Trump is not beating around the bush, having signaled possible policy shifts towards Europe’s key powers and institutions: Russia, Germany, Britain, NATO, and the European Union.

Trump and Europe’s Futures

Will Trump turn the Europe we know upside down? Is that really his intention? These are important questions. But they should not prevent us from appreciating deeper trends. The fact that the United States may well need to undertake some significant adjustments in its European policy is not of a Trumpian origin. Indeed, such adjustments could help the United States hedge against the potential de-structuring of Europe’s postwar geopolitical architecture. This trend has not been discernable for many observers,, but has been brewing for some years now. Where is Europe now, geopolitically speaking? How did it get where it is? And, most importantly, where will it go from here? There is no easy answer to any of these questions, but the old joke of the optimist and the pessimist could help us get a better sense of the array of futures that awaits Europeans down the corner – a corner that might be closer than they think.

We hear some common refrains from pessimists:

Europe is in total disarray. The financial crisis undermined the foundations of European solidarity, and the economic situation has not improved to the extent that it should have. An emboldened Russia has illegally annexed Crimea, is waging a conventional war in eastern Ukraine and an unconventional one in the rest of Europe. There has been an Arab Spring gone bad and the world is suffering the consequences by way of mass and disorderly migration into Europe, a humanitarian crisis in the Mediterranean, and a security meltdown in places like Libya, Syria, and Mali. On top of that, we have Brexit, a wave of populism spreading through the European continent, and someone in the Oval Office pouring gas into Europe’s fires.

The sort of setbacks that Europe has experienced in recent years are nothing short of impressive . What’s more, the international situation in Europe can still get worse before it gets far worse. However, there is nothing pre-ordained about any of this. Other, brighter futures are possible.

One possible future would witness a rebooted transatlantic bargain. In this future, a more cohesive and balanced NATO sets the foundations for securing Eastern Europe while ring-fencing geopolitical instability emanating from the broader Middle East.

One could imagine yet another future is one in which greater transatlantic economic integration (whether through the so-called Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnershipa E.U.-U.S.-U.K. trilateral, or an alternative framework) sets the stage for greater economic growth in Europe and the United States, for continued U.S. engagement on the old continent, and for a global economic revival of the West.

Or perhaps Britain and the European Union will set aside their Brexit-related grievances, accommodate each other’s demands, and set the foundations for a constructive relationship — one that respects Britain’s interests and recognizes its position as a great European power. This would be a future in which Britain’s ongoing economic integration with the rest of the continent continues its course, allowing London to continue to contribute to the development of the European Union’s energy, trade, foreign, and defense policies. This outcome would set the foundations for a more flexible and strategically extroverted European Union. It is a future that does away with the idea of “punishing Britain” as well as Britain’s old divide-and-rule playbook.

Other scenarios involve European elites seeing trendlines more clearly and welcoming back the idea of geopolitics. For example, Europeans could wake up to the fact that handling Asia has become the ordering principle of U.S. grand strategy. The United States will continue to pivot (yes, it will be a pivot) towards the Asia-Pacific region and, as such, Washington may have to tolerate a greater degree of risk in Europe and the Middle East. If this were to happen, Europeans would be wise to then understand that the United States could entertain a notion that might seem strange today, but is very sensible to some in Washington: Russia — as a Eurasian power that spans Europe and Asia — can help balance against China. This aim could one day become more useful to American global priorities than those inward-looking, parochial, risk-averse, panda-hugging Europeans. This is a future that Europe should be eager to forestall. It is one in which Washington and Moscow could trade cards in Asia, the Middle East, and — yes — Europe in order to serve their own more important interests, even at Europe’s expense.

To stop this from happening or to at least mitigate negative outcomes, Europeans might reach a simple conclusion: They cannot allow Russia (or, for that matter, any other power) to be more important to the United States than Europe is. They therefore decide — ideally sooner rather than later — to relieve the United States of much of the burden of defending Eastern Europe, thus affecting its cost-benefit analysis towards the transatlantic relationship. This would allow the West as a whole to explore the possibility of a more constructive relationship with Russia (including cooperation in regions like the Middle East, Central Asia or East Asia) from a position of strength and security in Europe. This is a future in which Europeans reject any possible temptation to align with China geopolitically. Instead they draw on their global heritage and capabilities to contribute to a joint Western effort to defend the liberal world order forward, and step up their engagement in the Indian Ocean, Central Asia, the Arctic, and even the Asia-Pacific itself.

That all sounds like a rather tall order, if not outright political science fiction. However, Europeans owe it to themselves to bridge ongoing differences and take the necessary measures to get as close to as many of those brighter futures as they can. The alternative is the devil they know.


Luis Simón is Research Professor at the Institute for European Studies (Vrije Universiteit Brussel) and Director of the Brussels office of the Royal Elcano Institute. He has a PhD in International Relations from the University of London (Royal Holloway College).

Image: White House

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