When asked about attacks on the press in the U.S., German Chancellor Angela Merkel says freedom of press is an "essential pillar of democracy." Rough Cut (no reporter narration). When asked about attacks on the press in the United States, German Chancellor Angela Merkel says freedom of press is an “essential pillar of democracy.” (The Washington Post)

 

As is true for just about everyone else on the planet, the Europeans are trying to figure out President Trump and the America’s foreign policy — and figure out who speaks for America’s foreign policy.

In Europe, political leaders have gone from panicked to confused. When Vice President Pence traveled to Europe, he certainly sounded more reassuring than Trump. The Post reported that whatever reassurance he provided went only so far:

Although the vice president repeatedly stressed that he was speaking on behalf of President Trump, the two men indeed seemed as though they were separated by an ocean.

Pence offered bland mollifications, forced to calm and cajole European countries that, in the post-Cold War order, until recently never had cause to question the support of the United States. But at a campaign rally Saturday evening in Florida, Trump did the opposite, again criticizing NATO — hours after Pence had extolled its virtues in Munich — and offending yet another ally when he implied that there was a recent terrorist attack in Sweden, one that seemed to exist only in the president’s imagination.

The study in contrasts between Trump and his No. 2 was almost as stark as the timing and substance of Pence’s trip — a pacifying visit just four weeks into Trump’s young, if turbulent, presidency.

Put differently, does Pence (or any Cabinet-level official) matter, or does he operate outside of “official” Trumpian foreign policy that contemplates that U.S. interests may not include the security of all of Europe?

Europeans are in information-gathering mode, as Bloomberg reported. European Parliament member Christian Ehler, an ally of German Chancellor Angela Merkel, is in the United States looking for clues as to whether the Trump-Bannon outlook is “ideology” or actual policy. The report quotes Ehler as saying, “If you would come up with a situation where, let’s say, Russian money is feeding right-wing campaigns in Europe and an ultra-conservative, libertarian, sometimes-xenophobic social platform would be the intellectual backbone for social media campaigns in Europe, and this would be related to personalities in the U.S. government, that would be very problematic.”

In other words, pro-Putin forces would be delighted to see Trump (intentionally or unwittingly) undermine Merkel, who remains the bulwark of the U.S.-E.U. relationship and the most resolute leader on the continent when it comes to Russia and defense of Europe. Jamie Kirchick writes, “With federal elections approaching this fall, it’s not only Russian meddling that should concern Merkel, but American as well. Trump has made clear that he’s at best indifferent, if not openly hostile to the modern European project, and [Stephen K.] Bannon has indicated that anti-E.U. populists have a friend in the White House.”

As Kirchick notes:

Bannon and Merkel differ profoundly in their visions of Europe. The Chancellor, who grew up in communist East Germany, innately understands Vladimir Putin’s Russia as a threat to Western values and security. Fending off complaints from both her left (Greece’s Syriza-led government) and right (Hungary’s Viktor Orban), she has held the line on the European Union sanctions regime imposed upon Moscow for its territorial annexation of Crimea and ongoing invasion of Ukraine, which she termed as exemplifying “the law of the jungle.” Bannon, meanwhile, like Trump, sees Russia as a potential ally in the fight against Islamic terrorism as well as a bulwark in defense of traditional values; both Bannon and Putin support the same, illiberal populists currently on the rise across Europe. “The Judeo-Christian West really have to look at what he’s talking about as far as traditionalism goes — particularly the sense of where it supports the underpinnings of nationalism — and I happen to think that the individual sovereignty of a country is a good thing and a strong thing,” he said of Putin in 2014. Whereas Merkel stresses the importance of NATO as the bedrock of Western security and a deterrence against Russian revanchism, Bannon, also like his boss, appears to view the alliance as a nuisance.

It’s worth noting that one major accomplishment of the post-World War II international order was the full integration of Germany (completed under President George H.W. Bush) into the West as a democracy and solid defender of NATO. This job was done so effectively, Merkel now seems to be holding the Atlantic alliance together — with frequent reference to U.S.-type appeals for a free press and respect for international borders and human rights. Merkel, in a way, is much more a citizen of the West than is Trump, who seems to have gone through life without any appreciation of American values and world leadership.

Now, no matter how much Bannon would like to orchestrate an international wave of populism, his and this president’s ability to do so remains limited. “I think they are probably so busy trying to staff the government, contain damage, get ready for the State of the Union, etc., that they have neither the time nor — importantly, the ability — to make much mischief,” says Trump critic Eliot Cohen. “In general, we should stay out of other people’s elections, other than supporting clean voting and accountability more generally.”

Kori Schake of the Hoover Institution agrees that Trump and his political aides would be foolish to butt into German politics. “Given their difficulties with the travel ban executive order, I’d think their time was better spent achieving their own domestic priorities,” she says. “Involving themselves in Germany’s elections would badly undercut the cooperative messages Vice President Pence, Secretary of State Tillerson, Secretary of Defense Mattis, and Secretary of Homeland Security Kelly all gave to Europeans last week. It would lead to comparisons with Russian election meddling invidious to the U.S. ” And of course an effort to help Bannon’s right-wing allies could only “serve to assist Chancellor Merkel’s re-election.”

With or without help from the United States, Russia almost certainly will continue to meddle in European nations’ internal politics. The Telegraph reports,  “The leader of the far-Right Alternative for Germany (AfD) party has held talks in Moscow with Russian MPs close to Vladimir Putin, it has emerged. Frauke Petry also met with Vladimir Zhirinovsky, the ultra-hardline nationalist who has called for Russian nuclear strikes against the West in a show of strength. The meetings come amid growing concern that Mr. Putin is seeking to manipulate Western elections in favor of populist parties seen as more favorable to Russia’s interests.” The best way to interfere with Putin’s plans is by shining a light on his skulduggery and exposing his flunkies in the media and elsewhere. “The best way to inoculate against it is exposure,” says Schake. “As the great Justice Brandeis said, sunlight is the best disinfectant.”

Putin understands how critical Merkel is to the democratic Western alliance. It’s her vision of a peaceful, liberal (small-l) and stable Europe, not the Trump-Bannon apocalyptic vision of revolution and destruction of Western institutions, that poses the threat to Putin. In sum, Europe is nervous and will be more nervous as both Putin and possibly Trump-Bannon seek to dislodge the linchpin of the Atlantic alliance. The outcome of the German election may be the most important political event of 2017 — and Putin knows it.