2018 was the year Europe stood up to Trump

Is the special relationship still special?
Is the special relationship still special?
Image: Jesco Denzel/German Federal Government via AP
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One of 2018’s most memorable political photographs came to us courtesy of the G7 Leaders Summit in Canada. The picture captured European and other world leaders standing across a table from a seated, unimpressed-looking Donald Trump.

After two years of European leaders trying—and mostly failing—to forge a good relationship with the US president, 2018 was the year they finally started to stand up to him.

Since Trump’s election in November 2016, Europeans have grappled (paywall) with the new dynamic he has brought to the transatlantic relationship, given his lack of interest for (and sometimes open hostility towards) European affairs during his campaign for president.

At first, many European leaders believed that creating a bond with Trump would ultimately pay off. It did not. In the last year, they have instead coalesced around a broad strategy to protect themselves from the whims of a global superpower and its famously mercurial president.

Changes in the transatlantic relationship

Trump has made a concerted effort since 2016 to disengage from the transatlantic relationship. He pulled the US out of the Paris Agreement on climate change and the Iran nuclear deal; repeatedly criticized NATO and threatened to cut back US defense spending in Europe. He started a global trade war that has impacted European aluminum and steel producers; cozied up to Putin’s Russia; praised the UK’s withdrawal from the EU; and called the bloc one of his “greatest foes.” His position towards the continent has largely been one of benign neglect or outright hostility, mixed in with jarring moments of praise and admiration.

This dual approach is not new to US diplomacy. While Barack Obama spoke passionately about the strength of the transatlantic relationship, and remained committed to American defense obligations under NATO, he also famously called Europeans “free riders” and made Asia relations a focus during his two terms. He also oversaw a crisis in relations when it was revealed that the US National Security Agency was spying on European leaders and embassies. And before Obama, George W. Bush regularly castigated EU members for not investing enough into their defense budgets, while spending his second term trying to repair the European relations that had faltered during the Iraq War.

But Trump has brought this type of diplomatic hedging to new extremes. Initially, there was “this idea that…you could cultivate a relationship with him, throw him a military parade or something, and he would be dazzled by the baubles,” says Jeremy Shapiro, the research director of the European Council on Foreign Relations. “I think in the course of this year, slowly and progressively…people stopped believing in that at all.” 

“Conceivably, you could have a good relationship with him,” Shapiro says. “But what was the point? It didn’t get you anywhere.” 

Europe fights back

Now, European leaders are changing track. Both French president Emmanuel Macron and German chancellor Angela Merkel have repeatedly stated that the EU can no longer count on the US to ensure European security. After Macron did so in a recent interview, Trump, who previously enjoyed a good rapport with the French president, sent out a series of aggressive tweets about France. In response, Macron more or less ignored him, stating during an interview, “I do not do policy or diplomacy by tweets.”

In an August editorial in Handelsblatt, German foreign minister Heiko Maas criticized “the ever-changing whims of the American President” and called for Europe to “reassess” its relationship with the US. Several European nations have called for an increased investment in sovereign defense spending, and Germany and France have both renewed calls to form a united European army, something EU members have tried, and failed, to turn into reality for years.

After Trump reimposed US sanctions on Iran, European finance ministers announced in late September (paywall) that they would develop a financial strategy to allow European companies to keep doing business with Iran while avoiding secondary sanctions from US regulators. Jean-Claude Juncker, the Commission’s president, announced that the EU would study the possibility of building a special purpose vehicle that would allow European companies doing business in Iran to avoid US dollar transactions.

The Trump administration has hit back hard. Secretary of state Mike Pompeo said he was “disturbed and indeed deeply disappointed” by European attempts to bypass US sanctions, and on the prospect of a European-funded defense force, Trump tweeted:

Not all European powers have turned away. Hungary’s illiberal leader, Viktor Orban, has built a beneficial friendship with Trump. So has Poland, another illiberal democracy in eastern Europe. Just one day after the European Commission announced it would sue Warsaw for passing a set of laws that would limit the independence of its courts, Trump praised the country for its “independence.”

What’s next?

Observers say Europe can, and should, do more to protect its sovereign interests. As Mark Leonard, the director of the European Council on Foreign Relations (ECFR) writes, “In order to have a strong transatlantic alliance, the EU will need to develop the tools to think for itself and stand up for its own interests and the international order that underpins them.”

They will need this leverage if they hope to extract any concessions from the US, Shapiro says. “The usual way you would deal with the American ally is to appeal to the strategic value of the relationship, the cultural ties, the longstanding sense that ‘We’re in this together,'” he explains. “None of that was working with Donald Trump. So then you have to confront him from a position of strength.”

Trump may want to reimagine the transatlantic relationship to better benefit the US, but his approach appears to be driven by the idea that a splintered, weaker Europe is preferable to a unified one. This ultimately risks hurting the US, as Europe has sought to circumvent American authority on trade issues and has drawn closer to China in the process. “Playing ‘divide and rule’ is a good idea when dealing with real enemies, but it makes no sense to sow division among countries with whom one has generally friendly relations and close economic ties, and when their collective support might be needed in other contexts,” writes international affairs professor Stephen M. Walt.

Alina Polyakova, a fellow at the Brookings Institution, says that a US retreat poses an opportunity for Europe. ”Europe has a great capacity for … political leverage that they’re not using at all,” she says. “As the US potentially takes a step back from having this role as the shining beacon of Western liberal democracy, that could be an opportunity for Europe to step in.”

That’s what European leaders seem to have decided to do, as they go head-to-head with the US over secondary sanctions, trade, climate change, and defense spending. As Shapiro explains, “They’re essentially saying: Don’t take us for granted.”