Officials say Trump, by design or indifference, has already badly weakened the foundation of the transatlantic relationship that American presidents have nurtured for seven decades. As Sigmar Gabriel, a former German foreign minister, put it: “He has done damage that the Soviets would have dreamt of.”
European leaders worry that the next two years could bring even more instability, as Trump feels emboldened, and they are filled with fear at the prospect that Trump could be reelected. The situation has left the continent facing a strategic paradox no one has managed to crack.
“We can’t live with Trump,” Gabriel said. “And we can’t live without the United States.”
In more than two dozen interviews in London, Paris and Berlin — the three European capitals at the heart of the Western alliance — government officials, former officials and independent analysts described a partnership with Washington that, while still working smoothly at some levels, has become deeply dysfunctional at others.
German Chancellor Angela Merkel, British Prime Minister Theresa May and French President Emmanuel Macron have tried different strategies, but all have struggled to develop consistent and reliable relationships with Trump. Lacking a better alternative, the dominant European approach has been to wait him out and hope the damage can be contained.
In all three capitals, there is talk about somehow trying to go it alone, if necessary — to chart Europe’s course. Merkel stated it as bluntly as anyone when she said in a Munich beer hall that Europe must “take our destiny into our own hands.”
That was two years ago this spring, and since then, Europe has taken only cautious steps in that direction — proposals for a European army being one example. Despite modest increases in European defense spending, the United States continues to account for over two-thirds of military spending among NATO members. Europe struggles to keep big, multilateral initiatives alive without American support.
European officials continue to work as hard as ever to preserve relationships with the president and the administration, despite fears and frustrations.
“We manage,” said a senior European politician, who like others in government spoke on the condition of anonymity to freely discuss a sensitive relationship. “Governing by tweets is not the same as governing by diplomatic engagement. It’s a different process. But it’s something we accept and adapt to. I don’t think that our surprise on a daily basis is any greater than that of his own administration.”
Others, often those who are no longer in government, express a less sanguine view. They see a president ticking through his campaign promises and notice uncomfortably that Europe is on the wrong end of many of them.
“In the beginning, we thought, ‘He’s campaigning. The position will change him.’ But he changed the position of the presidency,” Gabriel said. “I find it shocking that, in such a short time, he has managed to rip apart a relationship that has taken decades to build.”
Littered among the wreckage, as seen by the Europeans: an all-but-ruined Iran nuclear deal, tit-for-tat tariffs, a global climate accord that is missing the world’s largest economy, a possible arms race triggered by the cancellation of a key nuclear treaty, and a unilateral retreat from Syria without even a courtesy call to allies that work alongside U.S. forces.
More than any one issue, however, there is the sense that Trump and Europe are fundamentally at odds.
“He’s opened a gate to the return to nationalist, sovereigntist instincts, which at least continental Europe — and the European Union in particular — has been the antithesis of,” said Robin Niblett, director of the London-based think tank Chatham House. “The E.U.’s the antithesis of the Trumpian view of the world.”
Trump himself has emphasized the contrast. Asked to name the United States’ biggest foes in an interview in July, he listed the European bloc ahead of either Russia or China, citing what he described as Europe’s free-riding on defense and unfair trade practices.
“He does not understand what an alliance is,” said François Heisbourg, senior fellow at the International Institute for Strategic Studies in Paris. “An alliance is a perennially broad spectrum. Unconditional alliances are completely alien to his understanding of the world.”
Behind the scenes, officials say, relations often are little better than the public rhetoric would suggest. “On a number of issues, we have tried to convince him that Europe is a key partner of the United States,” said a senior French official. “He will say, ‘I don’t need you,’ and ‘Europe is worse than China.’ ”
The deterioration of transatlantic ties comes as Europe faces a litany of other challenges. The leaders in Britain, France and Germany have all been diminished by domestic turmoil. Outside Europe’s core — and particularly on its eastern flank — challenges to liberal democracy are in vogue, as is Trump-style nationalism. Britain is consumed with debate over whether to stay inside the European Union or risk life beyond.
With so much at play, Europe’s relations with the United States are not always front and center. But when they are, the issue has often been in the form of a fundamental disagreement that ultimately reminds Europe of its own weakness.
“For decades, you were the solution,” Dominique Moïsi, senior adviser at the French Institute of International Relations in Paris, told two visiting Americans. “Today, you are an additional problem. But we are not strong enough to confront you.”
The big difference from past clashes, Europeans say, is that Trump appears actively hostile toward continental unity in a way that is more typical of Vladimir Putin’s Russia or other Western adversaries. Trump has cheered Britain’s exit from the E.U. and questioned Macron about why France does not leave.
“We’re not used to seeing threats to the European project coming from the United States,” said Niels Annen, Germany’s deputy foreign minister.
If Trump escalates his attacks in the next two years — or in the coming six — Europe is fragile enough that it could crack. The country that gave shape to European unity — and the longest record of peace the continent has known — could be its undoing.
“The moment the Americans try to fracture Europe, it’s going to fracture,” said Thomas Kleine-Brockhoff, director of the German Marshall Fund in Berlin. “This was a feeble construction built on American reassurance.”
The counter view on Trump
For all the alarm and despair about the damage Trump has done and could do to the transatlantic relationship, there is also a recognition that, at times, he has asked legitimate questions and provoked needed debates.
“He picks up a pack of cards and throws them on the table, all jumbled up, and says, now, let’s start again,” said Chatham House’s Niblett. “And we’re trying to say, no, no, hold on, the rules are this, and you can’t disturb the cards on the table. But he doesn’t walk out of a room, and we haven’t seen him do that yet. What we’ve seen him do is, he creates an environment in which he creates leverage by threatening the inconceivable.”
By amplifying the unrest in the United States and in Europe, Trump is forcing a broader discussion about the effects of globalization, immigration and economic inequality. Those in the governing and chattering classes concede that Trump has generated an important debate — though they argue that he has done so without constructive ideas for solving the problems he has identified.
European leaders also look at Trump’s surprise victory in 2016 as a reminder that they too preside over unstable electorates, that the forces and conditions that helped to elevate Trump are roiling their own countries.
Trump has escalated a long-standing demand by the United States that other NATO partners increase their defense budgets, to some success. Barack Obama did the same when he was president, with more limited results. Still, European countries will fall short of the president’s demands.
One analyst said there is “a slight embarrassment” among those who vigorously oppose Trump’s style and approach that the president is right to be raising some uncomfortable questions. Others said Trump’s wake-up call to Europe was actually helpful in forcing the leaders to think more about their own security and their own interests in a world in which the United States has stepped back.
Despite Trump’s threats, there is a serious debate over whether the president actually would take the dramatic step of withdrawing the United States from the NATO alliance. Some said it is inconceivable, arguing that Trump would be blocked by Congress and public opinion. Others, however, fear it could come to that. “This is not some passing whim,” a senior British government official said.
NATO, Europeans say, is built on a combination of hardware and software. The hardware is the alliance’s military muscle, which officials say remains in good shape with full U.S. cooperation. The software is trust and confidence. “Trump’s tweets about pulling out of NATO are more serious than the additional billions that the U.S. invests on the Eastern flank,” said Josef Janning, co-head of the European Council on Foreign Relations in Berlin.
European officials also regard his tough approach to China on trade and other issues as overdue, though they wish he would see them as allies in that confrontation.
“There’s a major contradiction between the evolution of the world and the evolution of America,” said Moïsi, the French analyst. “It’s a total contradiction.”
Despite widespread concerns, some officials who deal directly with the administration say European leaders make a mistake by trying to denigrate the president as some kind of cartoon figure. “It is a very easy and lazy trope in Europe, caricaturing the president,” the senior British official said. “That underestimates the seriousness of the man and the analysis he and his team bring to issues and underestimates the man himself.”
Trump and the Three Ms
How then do you relate to the president? That is the question that has confronted Merkel, Macron and May. Each has chosen a distinct path. None has proved especially fruitful.
Of the three, Merkel has been the most guarded and the least willing to gamble on a successful outcome.
She has also been the most consistent target of Trump’s ire: Her 2015 decision not to close Germany’s borders to refugees and her vivid embrace of the liberal international order have made her an especially convenient foil. “What Merkel did to Germany is a shame. It’s a sad, sad shame,” Trump said on the campaign trail — a remark he has echoed many times since.
On the morning after Trump’s election, Merkel issued a statement that was less a welcome than a warning, asserting that she would work with the new president only on the basis of “common values — democracy, freedom, as well as respect for the rule of law and the dignity of each and every person.”
In their early meetings, Merkel sought to assume a role she had played with Obama and other neophyte world leaders, which was that of guide and mentor. The studious German chemist brought maps and charts, using visual aids to convey the importance of U.S.-European cooperation in the face of a revanchist Russia.
“She was trying to teach him in the beginning, to explain how things relate to each other and what the relevance was,” said Almut Möller, who with Janning leads the Berlin office of the European Council on Foreign Relations. “She wanted to engage with a rational partner on the other side.”
But at the July 2017 G-20 summit in Hamburg, Merkel tried and failed to keep the United States in the Paris climate agreement, learning in the process that Trump’s disdain for science was no campaign-trail act. Ever since, she has reconciled herself to the fact that Trump will probably do what he pleases and that she has little chance of swaying him.
“Merkel has been increasingly passive on this,” Janning said. “She has switched to damage control.”
Much of that strategy has revolved around ignoring the president’s provocations. Unlike other world leaders who have replied to Trump’s taunts with insults of their own, Merkel has largely avoided taking the bait.
Peter Altmaier, Germany’s economy minister and one of Merkel’s closest advisers, declined in an interview to offer any direct criticism of Trump and played down the idea that any one person can do serious damage to a partnership that has spanned generations.
“The transatlantic relationship does not depend on this or that administration in the U.S. or in Germany or in Europe,” he said. “The cooperation over 70 years has been a success story for all sides concerned.”
Other German officials, however, freely acknowledge the difficulties.
Peter Beyer, Merkel’s transatlantic coordinator, said he struggles to know whom to talk to in an administration where many of the most reliable interlocutors have left or are leaving. Germany, he said, is now trying to diversify its American contacts, building up relationships in Congress, in states and in cities.
“We have to remind ourselves that the United States of America is not only the president,” Beyer said. “We have concentrated too much on the D.C. universe.”
The relationship between Macron and Trump started with an alpha-male-style sizing up, captured by the seemingly endless handshake between the two leaders at a NATO meeting in Brussels in May 2017, not long after Macron was elected.
It may have peaked with the “bromance” of summer 2017, when Trump came to Paris for Bastille Day ceremonies and was captivated by the display of the French military on parade. He liked it so much he wanted a similar parade in Washington, which never came to pass.
Trump already had pulled the United States out of the Paris climate accord and was moving to withdraw from the Iran nuclear agreement. Macron’s lobbying against those moves produced no shift in Trump’s positions.
In April, Macron and his wife, Brigitte, came to Washington for a state visit. Macron was the first foreign leader so honored by the president. But the trip became a turning point in their relationship.
During a photo opportunity, Trump flicked something off Macron’s shoulder. The small action was widely interpreted by Macron’s allies as Trump’s way of diminishing the man who was publicly defending the climate and Iran pacts and championing Europe’s multilateral alliance in the face of Trump’s disparagement.
Macron indirectly rebuked Trump in an address to a joint session of Congress, but he still left Washington empty-handed. A friend saw Macron after his return to Paris. “I asked him how it went, and he told me it was really, really rough,” this person said.
Trump flew to Paris in November for the 100th anniversary of the end of World War I, a gathering of enormous importance to the European nations whose losses in that conflict were staggering. En route to Paris, Trump attacked Macron’s proposal for a European army. In Paris, he appeared detached from events and in a foul mood much of the weekend, including at a meeting with Macron.
Before the visit, Trump had declared himself a “nationalist,” a word with dark connotations on the continent. Macron, in a speech before world leaders the weekend of Trump’s visit, issued a rebuke, calling nationalism “a betrayal of patriotism.” Once back in Washington, Trump took aim again at Macron through Twitter, further straining their relationship.
Macron seeks to continue his role as chief defender of the European alliance, but today he is threatened politically by a domestic revolt. His efforts to change France have been met with weekly protests that began late last year, known as the “Yellow Vest” movement. The protests have left Macron weakened, contrite and focused on trying to rebuild his damaged image. He has been forced to look inward, quieting his ability to counter Trump’s voice.
The British prime minister was the first world leader to visit Trump in Washington after his inauguration in January 2017, demonstrating that the “special relationship” between the two allies remained intact.
Officials say the private talks went smoothly, but the optics of the trip weren’t good — she and the president were photographed holding hands, as she was helping to steady him down a slope — and the day after she left, his administration moved ahead with its travel ban on several Muslim-majority countries, which was even more controversial in Britain than in the United States.
The personality contrast between the freewheeling president and the restrained prime minister pointed to a personal relationship that would always be difficult.
British officials have worked assiduously to build relationships with the changing cast of advisers around Trump, but they have been forced to redo the way they conduct their diplomacy in Washington. They have gone well beyond traditional sources inside the administration to gain insight into Trump’s thinking and potential moves and in their efforts to influence the president.
Trump’s visit to Britain last summer seemed, from all outward appearances, a humiliation for the prime minister. In an interview with a British newspaper, the president was dismissive of May’s handling of the Brexit debate and praised Boris Johnson, who had just resigned as foreign minister in protest over her Brexit policies. Trump said he thought Johnson, a political rival to May, would make “a great prime minister.”
News of the interview broke as Trump and May were having dinner, and it instantly became the defining story of the arrival. British officials say Trump appeared chagrined by the attention the interview received. The next day, at a joint news conference, he lavished praise on the prime minister. “He doesn’t like to apologize, but he was getting as close as he ever does,” a British official said.
The British had planned the trip strategically, with a glittering display of pomp and ceremony at Blenheim Palace, the birthplace of Winston Churchill. It was the kind of show the president admires and one designed to fuse the countries together. “A lot of thought went into the choreography,” one senior British official said. “The trip was not to make it about personal chemistry, it was to make it about national chemistry, and the national chemistry, it’s very, very good.”
The meetings between the two leaders, according to officials, went more smoothly and substantively than the public assessments of the visit suggested. “When he is in a very good mood, he is engaged, serious and listened to her on the subjects she was raising,” one official said.
But May has made no real progress in changing Trump’s mind on the big issues.
Meanwhile, she, like Macron, must focus her attention domestically, as the Brexit debate continues unresolved ahead of the March 29 deadline for Britain to leave the European Union. Even on this issue, Trump has been an unreliable ally, undermining May by criticizing her negotiating stance and calling into question whether Britain could expect a quick trade deal with the United States once it is no longer part of the E.U.
Declarations of independence
If Europe is so unhappy with the United States, why not just go it alone?
In foreign policy circles across the continent, the idea is often broached. The notion of a post-Atlantic world — one in which Europe is no longer reliant on the United States for its security — has appeal at a time when the continent is being protected by a president who chafes so bitterly at the responsibility.
Even Merkel — a staunch Atlanticist — floated some version of independence with her May 2017 suggestion that Europe take “our destiny into our own hands.” But that statement, vague to begin with, has become even fuzzier with time. “She has repeated that a million times,” said Janning, of the European Council on Foreign Relations. “There is no idea what it means.”
Behind the words, there has been only cautious action. Europe has committed to keeping the Iran nuclear deal alive — and even created a tool for financial transactions to help companies avoid U.S. sanctions. But it is unclear whether the continent has the political or economic might to preserve the agreement without the United States. The prognosis for the Paris climate accord is more favorable, but the American void has been keenly felt.
On defense, Germany’s military increases have been modest, and the country has continued its post-World War II tradition of trying to avoid putting troops on the ground in international conflicts.
Officials in Berlin sharply criticized Trump when he announced a withdrawal of troops from Syria late last year. But the German government has repeatedly resisted direct participation in the Syrian war, preferring to play a support role. France has been more aggressive, joining — and at times leading — international operations.
Macron and Merkel recently signed a friendship agreement in the German border city of Aachen, with both proclaiming the need to more tightly integrate the fates of their two countries, which have been historical enemies more often than friends. But the continent’s preeminent powers remain a long way from being able to stand on their own.
“Both Macron and Merkel talk of Europe being capable of strategic autonomy, of not being dependent on the U.S. for its security. But so long as Germany spends so little on defense, and so long as its strategic culture is so different to that of France, that objective is not viable,” said Charles Grant, director of the Center for European Reform. “They can talk the talk, but they need to walk the walk.”
Some are growing impatient waiting for that to happen and are pushing for Europe to move faster. “We have to grow up. We have to mature,” said Norbert Röttgen, chair of the foreign affairs committee in the German parliament. “We have to learn to be adults in international relations.”
Few would disagree. But something always seems to get in the way: disunity within the European Union, Britain’s messy exit, sluggish economic growth and a prevailing sense — despite ample evidence to the contrary — that the world’s problems can be kept at a distance from European shores.
As international relations increasingly resemble the great-power competitions of old — with the United States, China and Russia all vying for spheres of influence — Europe stands uncomfortably apart.
“We are the last vegetarians in a world full of carnivores,” said Gabriel, the former German foreign minister. “And if Britain leaves, we will be vegans.”
Four years vs. eight years
After just two years of the Trump presidency, there is no way to draw conclusions on what his time in office ultimately will mean for the relationship between Europe and the United States. At the least, this is a time of transition, but to exactly what is the question.
“This is a time when history is hesitating,” Moïsi said, “and you don’t know which direction it’s going to go.”
The French scholar sees the continuing rise of populist movements across Europe as almost inevitable. Like others on the continent, he fears that the European parliamentary elections in May will produce potentially sizable victories for members of populist parties.
“I think there are many people in America who think Europe is lost, that Europe is going to go that way,” he added. “I’m saying, well, it may very well be the case. The elite are largely guilty for that, for the succession of bad leaders and irresponsible actions. At the same time, you can say it’s not totally inevitable. Macron can do well in the European elections. Trump can be defeated. The mess Brexit has created may push people to rationality again. That’s why I’m saying we are at a turning point, that history is hesitating.”
Across the three countries that have been closest to the United States since the end of World War II, there is a sense that the presidential election of 2020 could — perhaps will — become a line of demarcation about which way history will turn. From Europe, the U.S. election is viewed as the event that will define the future.
“He’s already done a lot of damage,” a former British government official said of Trump. “But, as yet, it’s impossible to say if he’s a disrupter or a destroyer. Much depends on whether he gets a second term.”
In the analysis of many officials in Europe, a one-term Trump presidency will produce limited but survivable damage, which is why the wait-him-out strategy has been favored by many. But officials worry about what could come in the next two years, even if Trump isn’t reelected.
One worry is that an unshackled Trump, a Trump who has jettisoned most of the advisers seen by allies as restraining influences, will now act on his own impulses and convictions. “This president is not unpredictable,” Janning said. “He will do what he says.”
The second concern is that, under increasing pressure from special counsel Robert S. Mueller III or because of worries about his prospects for reelection, Trump could lash out in other directions to create distractions and diversions.
If the president wins a second term, officials said, the effects could be far more severe. “Damage has been done to the public view of America, and it would just be more profound and longer lasting,” said Nigel Sheinwald, a former British ambassador to the United States.
That is a temperate analysis compared to the dire view expressed by Heisbourg. He says eight years of Trump in office could profoundly rearrange relationships at a time when there is already great uncertainty. “The U.S. will not simply be seen as an uncertain ally, but it would cease to be seen as an ally,” he said. “That’s the risk.”
Jörg Lau, foreign editor of Die Zeit, offered a concluding view. With many officials in Europe debating the degree to which Trump is an aberration or a reflection of significant changes in the political makeup of the United States, Lau posited the question this way: “Who says that Trump is the end?” he asked. “He could be the beginning.”
Balz reported from London, Paris and Berlin. Witte reported from Berlin. William Booth and Karla Adam in London, James McAuley in Paris and Luisa Beck in Berlin contributed to this report.