As President Trump heads to Europe next month for the NATO summit and then a historic meeting with Russian President Vladimir Putin, his personal attacks on the European Union and other pillars of the Western order are overshadowing his own administration’s attempts to reassure allies that the United States still believes in the transatlantic project it has led since the 1940s.
During a private meeting at the White House in late April, Trump was discussing trade with French President Emmanuel Macron. At one point, he asked Macron, “Why don’t you leave the E.U.?” and said that if France exited the union, Trump would offer it a bilateral trade deal with better terms than the E.U. as a whole gets from the United States, according to two European officials. The White House did not dispute the officials’ account, but declined to comment.
Let’s set aside for a moment the point that Trump’s proposal reveals a basic lack of understanding of Macron’s views and those of the people who elected him. This is an instance of the president of the United States offering an incentive to dismantle an organization of America’s allies, against stated U.S. government policy.
Trump has been publicly trashing the E.U. and NATO since his campaign, but the pace and viciousness of his attacks have increased. Just this week, at a rally in North Dakota, Trump said: “The European Union, of course, was set up to take advantage of the United States, to attack our piggy bank.” He then complained about a $150 billion trade deficit with the E.U., inflating the figure.
Other reports note that Trump recently told Group of Seven leaders that “NATO is as bad as NAFTA,” suggested to the Swedish prime minister that America should leave the NATO alliance , and launched gratuitous public attacks on German Chancellor Angela Merkel at her weakest moment. It’s a deepening trend that leads to an unavoidable conclusion: Trump doesn’t believe in the continued sanctity of the European Union and NATO, as well as the United States’ commitment to both.
Trump defenders often say he is simply throwing out ideas to see what sticks. Some say his motives are primarily political and domestic — or that he is more talk than action. Many cling to the hope that the president’s top diplomatic and military officials can still execute sound policy, reassure allies, manage Trump and head off any real catastrophe.
That was plausible during Trump’s first year in office, and European allies were relatively reassured. But during his second year, so far, Trump has shrugged off previous constraints. His new national security team can only try to tamp down fears and attempt to merge Trump’s “America First” mantra with a responsible strategy.
During an interview this week, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said the president is trying to “reset” the liberal world order, not dismantle it. Trump is being “disruptive” to force allies to agree to reforms needed to reflect U.S. interests, he argued. Assistant Secretary of State Wess Mitchell called Trump’s approach “strategic renovation” during a speech last week in Brussels . Mitchell argued that tackling disagreements such as trade head-on can strengthen the alliance for the strategic competition with Russia and China that lies ahead.
But these efforts to reassure Europe are failing. European officials no longer believe Trump’s words can be discounted. They don’t see the alliance rift as routine or temporary. They don’t believe it’s possible to repair the transatlantic bridge in the middle of a Trump-sized earthquake. European countries have no choice but to hedge and seek alternatives to U.S. leadership.
“If you look at the world today, you realize the position of the West is going to be contested for the first time in several centuries,” former British prime minister Tony Blair told me. “And if the West if is disunited, it’s going to be much less capable of withstanding that challenge.”
If Europe doesn’t feel the United States is really on its side, the risk is that individual European nations turn to other geopolitical forces, and this is bad for America, Blair added.
Of course, Trump’s opinions closely track those of Putin, including on the status of Crimea, aid to Ukraine and Russia’s interference in the U.S. elections. Overall, Trump’s attack on the E.U. and the U.S.-Europe relationship is a huge strategic windfall for Russia.
“As long as there is a unified Europe that maintains a liberal international order with basic rules of the road, it is a disaster for a dictator like Putin,” former vice president Joe Biden told me. “That’s why Putin is doing what he’s doing.”
The United States and Europe have had disputes before. It’s possible this one will get resolved eventually. Meanwhile, Trump is doing enormous and unnecessary damage. His intentional and egregious actions to undermine the E.U., NATO and the United States’ relationship with both can no longer be discounted, rationalized or seen as anything but what they are — a brazen attempt to undo the strategic infrastructure both America and Europe need more than ever.