President Donald Trump is widely seen in Europe and by his numerous critics in the United States as having abdicated American leadership of the West. When German Chancellor Angela Merkel traveled to Washington in March 2016 to visit Trump, one headline blared “Leader of the Free World Meets American President.” This perception of abdication was based partly on Trump’s persistent refusal to criticize Russia for its aggressive behavior under President Vladimir Putin. It was solidified by Trump’s meetings with NATO and G-7 leaders in Europe in late May and then additionally confirmed when Trump announced he would pull the United States out of the Paris climate agreement. The question now is whether Merkel will be able to provide the leadership that the West and its predominant institutions — NATO and the European Union — need. The answer, most likely, is no.
The peculiar thing about leadership is that, to be effective, the leader must have followers who believe following is in their own interest. Leadership is not bestowed automatically, particularly among nation states. To get loyal followers, the leader must choose paths followers are willing and able to travel.
The United States provided such leadership most of the time since World War II. The fact that the United States was the leader of “the West” was unchallenged, even if the quality of that leadership was frequently questioned, for example during the Vietnam War and, more recently, in response to the invasion of Iraq. But there was no country that could challenge American leadership of NATO, (even though France on occasion tried).
The support of the United States for the European integration process and the reassurance provided against external threats and internal imbalances enhanced America’s leadership role. Many smaller European states remained wary of Germany becoming too strong again, distrusted a France that spoke of European unity but often on its own terms, and questioned Great Britain’s commitment to the European project. U.S. involvement in Europe, from the founding of NATO in 1949 until the Trump presidency, provided a crucial and stable foundation for the process of community building to move forward, even at times of serious transatlantic discord. No one European power would dominate on the continent in part because of the way the European Union was designed and in part because of benign American power in the background.
As we know, there is no such formal position as “the leader of the free world,” or of “the West,” and it is an open question whether any other country has the inclination, respect, resources, and capabilities to take on the responsibilities that go with the honorific. But, with the American president seemingly abdicating his responsibilities, the leading candidate would seem to be Germany, as led by Angela Merkel.
Germany’s economic strength has made it the economic and financial leader of the European Union. That is a good credential. But the main reason to look to Germany is that Merkel’s politics are most clearly rooted in the principles and priorities that define “the West.” Those values are articulated in the 1949 NATO Treaty, whose preamble asserts that the allies share a belief in individual liberty, democracy, and the rule of law. In recent years, major NATO statements have added “human rights” to the list. The European Union, of course, endorses a similar set of values.
The problem is that leadership of the West in a conflicted regional and global environment requires something else: power. In this area, Germany comes up short. This is an intentional consequence of history. After World War II, France and other European states hoped to ensure that Germany could not become a threat to peace for a third time in the same century. The United States wanted to make sure that Germany’s potential could eventually be included in a defense against the Soviet Union, but agreed that limits should be placed on Germany’s offensive and, in particular, its nuclear weapons potential. Perhaps even more important, Germany’s post-war leadership and all German governments since have worked hard to establish a new national ethos: Germany would no longer be a warrior state.
Nevertheless, throughout the Cold War, Germany provided substantial forces on NATO’s front lines facing the East. In the almost two decades since the disintegration of the Soviet Union and the Warsaw Pact, Germany and other allies have relaxed their military efforts. Trump has taken Germany to task for only spending around 1.2 percent of its GDP on defense and reports abound of equipment shortages and readiness issues in the Bundeswehr. Perhaps of greater concern is the fact that, even though German public opinion strongly supports NATO, it is skeptical about coming to the support of an ally under attack, perhaps in part because Germans don’t want to send troops on another American mission like Afghanistan.
Today, the lessons of the 20th century remain firmly planted in the German polity. That contributes to American frustration with the German lack of enthusiasm for additional military spending, or sending its troops into combat.
One of the early German reactions to Donald Trump’s assaults on the NATO allies was speculation about Germany becoming a nuclear weapons state. Suggestions that Germany should “think the previously unthinkable,” raised by a prominent German newspaper and a conservative member of the German parliament, were met with cautionary responses and alternative proposals. One proposal envisioned creating a European deterrent on French and British nuclear capabilities, with Germany funding the operation. Chances are neither an autonomous German nuclear force nor a European deterrent force are on the table. They are simply too potentially destabilizing in the former case (as well as a breach of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty) and most likely, in the latter, a bridge too far beyond sovereign control of nuclear weapons for France and the United Kingdom.
The Trump impact on transatlantic relations has also given new life to proposals for intensified European defense cooperation. Such proposals have a long and checkered history, which I have covered in detail in my detailed examination of the transatlantic alliance. The European allies certainly could do more for their own defense, and part of this could come from concerting efforts, reducing duplication, sharing missions, and other practical cooperative steps. But an effective European alternative to NATO would likely cost far more than what they are currently able to produce for their contributions to NATO. This is to say nothing of the new complications resulting from “Brexit,” the British decision to leave the European Union. Some might see this British move as facilitating E.U. military cooperation, but my assessment is that it takes more away in potential capabilities than it adds in the ease of making political decisions.
This suggests that, in the near term, NATO will remain the preferred option for all European members of the alliance. It would take a complete and total American departure from the alliance to change this outlook. And, in spite of the many uninformed and careless comments produced by the American president, the United States is nonetheless increasing its contributions to defense in Europe, and in particular to deployments in the north and east intended to deter any Russian intrusions, whether by massive force or little green men.
This story seems to me like the initial large boom that usually opens a fireworks show: You know there is a lot more to come, including presumably a dramatic finale. The level of uncertainty is enhanced by the fact that, although Trump has won a four-year term as president, the various investigations of his campaign and administration’s connections to Russia raise questions about whether he will end up serving the entire term, to say nothing of winning a second one.
Uncertainty reigns on the European side as well. Angela Merkel has firmly established her claim on at least the moral leadership of the West, to add to Germany’s more comprehensive leadership of the European Union. But her fate rests in the hands of German voters who will have to decide whether she stays in charge when they go to the polls this September. Merkel’s criticism of Trump will do her no harm in the election, as there are likely few less popular Americans in Germany than Donald Trump.
As has been the case in Europe for over six decades, the French-German couple plays an important role in European and transatlantic affairs. When the French electorate stood up to both established left, right and far right parties and elected Emmanuel Macron as president, Merkel and Germany gained an important ally. Macron, without an established party behind him, still faces challenges in his own country. But he and Merkel seem to believe that they are riding a new tide that rejects extreme nativist populism, and that forms a solid platform from which they can reject Donald Trump’s American extremism.
Against this backdrop, the transatlantic crystal ball remains clouded. The United States currently can lay no claim to leadership of the West, or even of the transatlantic alliance, as the positions and posturing of Donald Trump have at least temporarily relinquished that responsibility. At the same time, Germany and Angela Merkel occupy the moral high ground, but are not able to check off all the requirements for the task of comprehensive Western leadership. President Macron can claim a victory at home, and his alliance with Germany adds some stability to the European side of the alliance. The United Kingdom, led by Prime Minister Theresa May, is now and will continue to be distracted by the challenge of managing an ill-considered departure from the European Union that seems likely to make her country weaker and less influential.
To the extent it is possible to predict, the absence of good alternatives suggests that when the fireworks show comes to its finale, NATO will remain standing and the United States will once again lay claim to leadership of the West. This will not likely come during the presidency of Donald Trump, but could come from his successor, whether a Democrat or Republican. One of the remarkable products of the Trump disruption is a convergence, at least in Congress, of the two parties in support of NATO and Western values. This has led some observers to suggest that the Western alliance will emerge from the current crisis even stronger. This may be. But the question will be how much damage to mutual trust and confidence will be incurred in the meantime.
Stanley R. Sloan is author most recently of Defense of the West: NATO, the European Union and the Transatlantic Bargain (Manchester University Press, 2016). He is a Nonresident Senior Fellow at the Atlantic Council of the United States and a Visiting Scholar at Middlebury College.