This is the background that you need to understand the emotions around the next NATO summit on July 11-12, as well as the Trump-Vladimir Putin meeting on July 16. For the first time since 1945, Europe is grappling with an American president who has a fundamentally different view of America’s international role. Trump no longer wants the United States to be the West’s central organizing force. He no longer cares about the benefits that role has brought, if he even understands them.
But although Trump’s dislike of U.S. allies has been clear for decades, only now is that dislike shaping into a clear policy: Europeans are bracing for a United States that no longer considers security and defense organizations to be special and inviolable. Instead, Trump sees the American commitments to all of the institutions he despises as bargaining chips, and he is prepared to use U.S. troops in Europe to force Europeans to make concessions on trade and other things. He may use his meeting with Putin for the same purpose: To intimidate the British, the Germans and others worried by aggressive Russian behavior, and to force them to do what he wants, in whatever sphere he happens to care about. Everything is up for grabs.
This new attitude has already had one very minor, little-noticed effect: The radical-right Polish government last week unexpectedly rushed through amendments to a law it had passed curtailing public debate about the Holocaust. For months, the government wasted its political capital defending this ludicrous law, which was particularly offensive to the Israelis, not to mention many Poles. But in the run-up to the NATO summit, the Polish leadership is terrified that U.S. troops will be withdrawn from Poland; Polish leaders know Israel’s Benjamin Netanyahu is close to Trump, and they don’t want to give the White House any excuses.
That’s a price this Polish government is willing to pay (and it’s notable that the White House does not seem to demand that this same government halt its ongoing assault on the independent judiciary). But what about others? Not everybody will be asked for such a small, essentially cosmetic sacrifice. Perhaps the Germans will be asked to destroy their car industry in exchange for keeping U.S. troops in Heidelberg. Perhaps the British will be told to bankrupt their farmers in exchange for promises of joint maneuvers. As for smaller countries — Estonia, Lithuania — they are out of luck: They haven’t got many chips to bargain with in this new poker game, and they can be traded away to Putin — if he wants them — at low cost.
The bigger question, of course, is what price American voters are willing to pay for accepting these new rules. Here’s one possible consequence: If it becomes clear that the United States no longer supports NATO’s security guarantee — or supports it for some countries and not others — then does the alliance have any value at all? Maybe the whole thing comes crashing down, NATO becomes worthless, and the United States finds itself all alone at the poker table. Without its European bases, the United States ceases to be a force in Eurasia. The U.S. military will have trouble projecting military power into the Middle East or Africa. Perhaps Russia, or China replaces the United States as the dominant power, particularly if the E.U. collapses — and then they set the trading rules. Is that what we want?
The other risk is that the coming trade wars take a toll, and not just on Harley-Davidson. U.S. multinationals are by far the biggest beneficiaries of the trade arrangements around the world. If American markets are no longer open to European companies, then why should Europe be open to Amazon, Facebook and General Motors? Europeans might decide to impose new tariffs and taxes — or use antitrust legislation to try to break up big American corporations.
There have always been downsides to the American-led international order, for everybody. It was a series of negotiated trade-offs: You win some, you lose some. Mostly, America won. There was a reason successive American administrations supported the WTO, NATO, NAFTA and the E.U.: These organizations were the basis for American military power, as well as for American wealth and prosperity. If Trump destroys the trust upon which this system was based, it may never be revived. Europe may be poorer and more unstable as a result. But so will the United States.