Editor’s Note: This essay is based on a recent European Council on Foreign Relations report, The Transatlantic Meaning of Donald Trump: A US-EU Power Audit.
President Donald Trump is not shy about self-promotion. So, it shocked no one when he shoved aside Duško Marković, the prime minister of tiny Montenegro, and puffed out his chest to get prime placement in the official photograph at the May 2017 NATO summit. It was perhaps more surprising that Marković used the attention generated to “thank President Trump personally for his support” of Montenegro’s recent entry into NATO, noting “it is natural for the president of the United States to be in the first row.”
Trump’s manhandling and Marković’s response neatly encapsulate the nature of the transatlantic relationship. One side pushes and the other asserts that it wanted to be pushed all along.
The reaction to Trump demonstrates how entrenched this concept of the transatlantic relationship is in Europe. Trump is very unpopular, among both governments and the European population. Recent polls demonstrate he is less popular in Europe than Russian President Vladimir Putin, a man perhaps best known for sporadically invading European countries.
Yet, despite widespread horror at the result, European leaders have shown less policy opposition to Trump than the famously supine Republican Congress. There has been the occasional tough word and awkward handshake, but Europeans have not appreciably altered their approach toward the United States.
This paradox is not difficult to explain. The nations of Europe rely on America for its security and America does not rely on Europe. So, even as Europeans complain or protest, they cannot call into question their relationship with America. This one-sided dependence is the fundamental feature of the transatlantic relationship, the inconvenient fact at the base of decades of rhetoric about shared values and common history. And it means that European leaders must find a way to live with Trump regardless of whom he shoves out of the way.
But can it continue? Trump’s aversion to Europe doesn’t come from just his febrile imagination. Obama’s policies had already pointed in the direction of a progressively reduced American commitment. Demographic and political trends make relying on the United States for security an increasingly untenable proposition. For all his invective, Trump is more a symptom of the rot in the relationship than a cause.
The Regency Effect
In the late 18th century, the British aristocracy began to suspect King George III was mad. And they were right. Exacerbated by his distress at losing the American colonies, the King’s behavior became increasingly erratic. Various calumnies spread about his illness, including the story that the “King had walked up to an oak tree in Windsor Great Park, took a branch in his hand, and entered into a conversation in the belief that he was talking to the King of Prussia.” The British elite responded to the problem of a monarch not in his right mind by turning to the idea of a regency. Parliament empowered the Prince of Wales to act as regent with the full powers of the king, even as George III continued, technically, to reign.
Trump has not spoken to any trees lately, but his fitness and even mental stability have repeatedly been questioned. On both sides of the Atlantic, many have openly and implicitly expressed the desire — and indeed, the expectation — that a type of regency concept would assert itself in American governance. They hope that, rather than governing, Trump will be governed by his advisers, the Congress, the courts, and American civil society generally.
In my conversations with officials and analysts across Europe after the U.S. election, variants of the Regency Effect were almost universally held. Perplexed, I asked a slightly tipsy Italian official why, after so much ink was spilt over the importance of the U.S. election, everyone so suddenly and fervently believed that Trump did not matter. His response was telling: “We have to believe it. We don’t know what to do if it is not true.”
The first several months of the Trump administration have subjected this view to a rollercoaster ride. He withdrew from the Paris climate change agreement and continues to threaten the Iran nuclear deal, both of which many Europeans hold dear. He has intermittently tweeted out a stream of bile and continued to trash Europe and especially Germany. At the same time, members of Trump’s administration have consistently sought to reassure European allies. They whisper to their foreign counterparts that America will stand up for the interests and values of allies. “Bear with us,” Secretary of Defense James Mattis told a conference in Singapore, “[o]nce we’ve exhausted all possible alternatives, the Americans will do the right thing.” Overall, Trump’s advisors convey a clear regency message: Pay no attention to the President of the United States.
European officials take solace in the idea that Trump’s rants have had very little impact on American policy. For example, Trump has maintained an unusual consistency in his unwillingness to criticize Russia or Putin. But on the ground, the United States has continued, and even increased, its support to the European Reassurance Initiative, which was Barack Obama’s response to the Russian invasion of Ukraine. Trump’s 2018 budget request included a 41 percent increase in the funds for this program and an increased U.S. troop presence in eastern Europe. Washington has not only maintained Obama-era sanctions on Russia, but, against the objections of Trump, the U.S. Congress overwhelmingly passed new sanctions on Russia for interfering in the 2016 election, and Trump signed the bill with only some grumbling.
The Power of Disinterest
The dominance of the Regency effect is not surprising. Even tipsy diplomats understand Europe’s dependence on the United States. But it still begs the question of why this dependence persists. Why does a rich continent of 500 million people depend on a distant nation of 300 million to defend it against much poorer and weaker threats on its borders? Why do the nations of Europe outsource this most sacred of national responsibilities?
My understanding of the role of the American president for Europeans began in a seafood restaurant. In fact, it was my favorite such restaurant in Washington, which was why I accepted the lunch invitation from the Spanish embassy. But I knew the price in advance. It was 2010, I was a senior advisor in the State Department’s European Bureau. Spain held the rotating presidency of the European Union. They desperately wanted Obama to attend the U.S.-E.U. summit in Spain and they were pushing hard. They were even willing to cough up for the seared tuna to talk to a low-level official like me — a sign they had clearly reached a desperate state in that effort.
Between bites, I explained again what they had already intuited: Obama would likely not go. As I ordered dessert, the Spanish officials did not bother to hide their deep disappointment. The U.S. government offered a substitute. But without the American president, the summit had no meaning at all. Despite the important outstanding issues in U.S.-E.U. relations, the Spanish soon cancelled the summit altogether.
As commentators often note, Americans do not reciprocate this obsessive attention. No European official has ever dined out on the slim hope that a Washington visit by European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker will be announced.
But Americans’ lack of interest in Europe is not a bug — it is an important feature of the transatlantic relationship. Europeans want a protector whose own interests are remote from the internal struggles of Europe. They want a partner who will provide stability and security without posing a threat or taking a stand on the issues that divide Europe, such as immigration or fiscal policy. The Greek attitude toward Germany demonstrates the problem. Greece needs help. But because of the European Union, and especially the euro, Germany is too involved in Greek domestic politics to be trusted in Athens as a security provider.
Of course, many European capitals have differences with Washington on a variety of foreign policy issues. But because America’s main foreign policy interests are in other theaters, they either matter little to European domestic politics or European leaders can hope that they will change.
On the foreign policy issues that matter to European security — principally Russia, terrorism, and stability in the southern and eastern European neighborhoods — the United States as a distant power has less fixed positions than the powerful European states do. On Russia, for example, U.S. policy has fluctuated dramatically in the last three decades, from hostility to reset and back again. Trump offers the chance for another reset, but the opposition to it in Congress implies that deepening hostility is just as likely. European national positions on Russia, though they vary greatly across the continent, have stayed much more constant. They are largely fixed by geography and history.
America’s disinterest and consequent flexibility mean America is the wild card in European foreign policy debates. European leaders hope not so much for a neutral arbiter as for an ally in their internal struggles with other European states. For this reason, individual European member states have always been keen to maintain their individual bilateral relations with the United States, even as they took measures to create a supposedly unified European foreign policy apparatus.
In the period after the creation of the office of E.U. high representative for foreign affairs in 2009, meetings with national European officials in the U.S. State Department would typically begin with a plea for the United States to accept that the European Union was a unified actor. But they would generally end with a plea for U.S. support in some internal European struggle, such as keeping Germany off the U.N. Security Council. The message was clear: Respect our unity except when our country needs your support.
For Europeans, America means security and stability. But, more than that, it means disinterested security. Europeans certainly want protection from Russia and terrorism, but, working together, they could provide that themselves. The problem is that they also want political protection from each other. And only America can provide that.
The Transatlantic Continuity
Such is the transatlantic bargain that the madness of Trump threatens to disrupt. As the dominance of the Regency Effect implies, foreign policy leaders on both sides of the Atlantic are keen to protect it. But regency will only succeed if Trump is really the problem. And, even though Trump’s ideology and disposition represent new threats to the alliance, there is ample reason to suppose the problems run deeper than one mercurial president.
In fact, Trump’s antics obscure what has become a clear, if a much more slow-paced, trajectory in American policy. The United States has been scaling down its global commitments, and particularly those in Europe, for several years. As of today, it has fewer troops stationed abroad than at any time since it started tracking such data in 1957.
Among its other lessons, the 2016 presidential election starkly revealed that a deep gulf had opened between the American electorate and its foreign policy establishment. The establishment in both parties has long made the case that American global “leadership” and American efforts in distant regions are necessary to sustain global stability. They thus ultimately serve American interests. In a world of new and rising powers, they seek to ‘adapt American leadership’ to the new context rather than find a new role for the United States.
The American public has always been a somewhat disgruntled supporter of this leadership approach. Mostly it was too busy with other issues and too secure to really care. But as homeland security has become more of a concern and the costs of inconclusive foreign wars have increased in recent years, they have become less tolerant of America’s traditional leadership role in Europe and the world. Fifty-seven percent of the American public now say that they want to reduce American commitments abroad and to focus on more strictly American needs. They do not accept that the abstract foreign policy concepts of “leadership” and “regional stability” have direct payoffs for America.
Obama’s foreign policy tried to compromise between the establishment and the public view. He accepted the need for American leadership, but insisted on reducing America’s costs and commitments if he was to be able to sell an ever more expensive leadership to an increasingly self-interested public. This approach underpinned his efforts to reduce American commitments in Iraq and Afghanistan, to avoid U.S. intervention in Syria, and to scale back the American presence in Europe.
Unfortunately, Obama’s efforts at compromise meant his own foreign policy apparatus largely did not understand or accept the political constraints he himself felt so keenly. The foreign policy establishment excoriated him for a lack of strength and leadership. His own national security officials, largely drawn from that establishment, constantly pushed for more U.S. involvement abroad in — for example — Syria, Ukraine, and Afghanistan.
Clinton tried to represent this establishment foreign policy view on the campaign trail but found it had little resonance. By contrast, Clinton’s primary opponent, Bernie Sanders, and Trump both generated enthusiasm through their rejection of the establishment and, in part, its traditional foreign policy.
Given Sanders’s surprising strength in the Democratic primaries and Trump’s even more surprising victory, at least one political lesson is very clear from 2016: The foreign policy establishment lost. It was nearly completely unified in its opposition to Trump’s neo-isolationism and yet it made no difference at all. Trump demonstrated that a president can be elected without paying any heed whatsoever to the “blob.” Future presidential candidates will take note. Even if they are more sober and internationalist than Trump, no one will gain political advantage by putting the case for continued American global leadership to the American public.
The “blob” has not surrendered. The Republican foreign policy establishment has provided Trump’s regents. In the corridors of power in Washington, they advocate, often effectively, for continued and even increased commitment to the conflicts in the Middle East and Afghanistan, as well as for continued adherence to the Atlantic alliance. Trump’s lack of attention to detail, and the lack of personnel in the foreign policy apparatus willing to implement his agenda, mean that his actions tend to create confusion rather than actual change.
But presidential incompetence and the public’s lack of interest is a weak foundation on which to build a durable foreign policy. The disinterested nature of America’s security relationship with Europe means that its commitment to the continent is usually first in line for the foreign policy chopping block. For a public that wants to put America first, it is particularly hard to explain why America should protect a relatively stable continent of rich democracies. Trump has made a lot of rhetorical hay out of Europe’s freeriding on America. Neither the American foreign policy establishment nor their European allies have found an effective political counter-argument.
All of this creates a deep challenge for Europe. Europe has an intense strategic and psychological dependence on the United States, yet Trump’s America, and arguably any future America, is both uninterested in, and unable to fulfill, its traditional role in Europe.
The states of Europe should be preparing for that day. But, as the mild reaction to the radical Trump presidency shows, internal divisions mean that by and large they are not. For all the upsetting changes in America and Russia, for all the crises that have rocked Europe in the last several years, and for all the destabilizing developments in Europe’s neighborhood, E.U. member states clearly prefer the old bargain that has served them so well. For the most part, they will cling to it until its demise becomes clearer than truth. In the meantime, no one will block Trump’s photo opportunity at the next NATO summit.
Jeremy Shapiro is the Research Director at the European Council on Foreign Relations. Previously, he was a fellow at the Brookings Institution. Prior to Brookings, he was a member of the U.S. State Department’s policy planning staff.
Image: Ich/Wikimedia Commons