Don’t worry: The US and Europe aren’t breaking up

It’s not me, it’s you.
It’s not me, it’s you.
Image: Reuters/Jonathan Ernst
We may earn a commission from links on this page.

Chancellor Angela Merkel, the steward of the liberal internationalism that European politicians are so known for, had a tough few days interacting with America’s 45th president. Her meetings with Trump during the NATO mini-summit and the G-7 conference last week could best be described as difficult and frosty—two words that one wouldn’t ordinarily be associated with US-German and US-European relations.

Merkel visibly demonstrated her displeasure with the meetings this past Sunday as she kicked off her own re-election campaign for a fourth term as Germany’s top political leader. The meetings last week clearly had an impression on the normally cautious and scripted German chancellor, who probably wakes up every single morning wishing that the US Constitution would allow president Barack Obama to run for a third, four-year term. But alas, she’s forced to deal with Donald Trump, the anti-Barack Obama; brash, impolitic, unconventional, improvisational, and skeptical (if not openly hostile) to multilateral economic institutions and defense alliances.

“The times in which we could rely fully on others, they are somewhat over,” Merkel told a crowd of 2,500 supporters in a Bavarian beer hall. “This is what I experienced in the last few days…that is why I can only say that we Europeans must really take our fate into our own hands.”

If you didn’t know any better, you would think that the US-German relationship that has been iron-clad (with a few hiccups, courtesy of the National Security Agency during Obama’s tenure and the war in Iraq during the Bush years) since World War II is on the verge of spontaneously collapsing in the middle of the night like the Berlin Wall. Angela Merkel doesn’t say controversial things very often; she’s laser-focused, runs a tight ship, holds herself accountable, and has been successful for the past twelve years with that formula. Think the opposite of Silvio Berlusconi, the controversial, scandal-plagued, and loose-lipped former prime minister of Italy, and Merkel will come to mind. So when an experienced political operative like chancellor Merkel publicly discusses a scenario of Germany—and Europe as a whole—distancing itself from the United States, it’s easy to see why Atlanticists would get nervous.

Richard Haass, the president of the Council on Foreign Relations and a former senior State Department staffer in the George H.W. Bush and George W. Bush administrations, quickly took to Twitter to express concerns that many in the foreign policy establishment now have: “Merkel saying Europe cannot rely on others & needs to take matters into its own hands is a watershed-& what US has sought to avoid since WW2 .” Ditto Bill Kristol, editor-at-large of the Weekly Standard and a scion of the neoconservative camp: “Merkel’s comments today are a reminder that Trump’s failures are, while he’s president, also America’s failure, and damage America.“

Is Merkel beginning to condition the German and European publics towards a new reality, where European foreign and economic policy is increasingly separate from that of Washington in the Trump era? Not likely. Before we automatically assume that the US and Europe are headed for an inevitable collision course, we should keep a couple of things in mind.

First and foremost, Merkel’s comments about the need for Europe to begin taking more matters into its own hands isn’t a particularly new revelation. The German chancellor, to her credit, has spoken in the past on the absolute necessity of Germany and the rest of the Western European states of getting their own houses in order and starting to unwrap itself off of US security guarantees. Last November, Merkel warned young party supporters that Europe won’t be able to survive and prosper if it continues to assume that the US will reflexively come to the rescue during a security crisis. Unlike some of her German colleagues, she recognizes that Europeans no longer have an excuse to slack on their military budgets. Merkel stressed that theme again in January of this year. “Let’s not fool ourselves,” she said during a speech in Brussels. “From the point of view of some of our traditional partners…I’m convinced that Europe and the EU will have to learn to take on more responsibility in the world.”

As Americans, we like to make fun of our European friends across the Atlantic for being sticklers of the old world, fans of hefty bureaucracy and fancy dinners that would make the White House Correspondents Association dinner look like a dive-bar. The Americans are the leaders, and the Europeans are the followers…or at least that’s how the picture is commonly portrayed.

That portrayal, however, is no longer relevant in the 21st century. The times during the Cold War and the peace dividend decade of the 1990’s when European governments would back up the United States in overseas military engagements and defer to Washington’s wisdom on many of these issues have now been replaced with a period in which Europeans are much more independent in the conduct of their foreign policies. From the German and French resistance to the 2003 invasion of Iraq and Europe’s accommodation to Moscow to disputes over climate change, international trade, and refugees, the age of a more assertive Europe is already here.

Indeed, Europeans are now seriously promoting European solutions to European problems without Washington’s assistance or direction; the Minsk de-escalation accord, for instance, wasn’t an American creation but a French and German proposal. President Obama wasn’t the world leader to gathered Ukrainian and Russian officials in the same room during the height of the war in Eastern Ukraine. That was the job of Angela Markel and former French president Francois Hollande, an extensive late night negotiating session that produced an imperfect and much-violated ceasefire agreement. The fact that the Minsk Accords have been broken by pro-Russian separatists and the Ukrainian military thousands of times over the last two years shouldn’t discount the leadership that Western European leaders showed during Europe’s biggest security crisis since Kosovo.

Many US foreign policy analysts frequently assume that a stronger and more resolute Europe on the international stage is bad for America’s national security interests—that somehow, a more independent Europe translates into less overt control for the US. In some cases, particularly on climate change, that may be true.

But the dynamic Europe that Merkel is proposing can also be a benefit to the United States. The more Europeans do for themselves, the less money, resources, and US military planning Washington will need to devote to the defense of a Europe whole, free, and at peace. Rather than shuddering at Merkel’s words and worrying about a complete rupture of the US-European bond, Americans and Europeans should be encouraged by them. Burden-sharing has long been a bipartisan US foreign policy goal. And now Europe’s most important leader is on board.

All of this, of course, doesn’t obviate the need for president Trump to treat America’s European friends and allies with a little more respect. The visuals during Trump’s first trip to Brussels—pushing the Montenegrin prime minster out of the way, practically dislocating French president Emmanuel Macron’s shoulder during a handshake, and European leaders laughing nervously as Trump was chiding allies during a speech in front of NATO’s new headquarters—was a picture perfect illustration of the stereotypical American: arrogant, loud, and obnoxious. The smiles and hugs that we have grown accustomed to during NATO and G-7 summits are in danger of being replaced with scowls. Trump needs to understand that, while he may not like that Germany is exporting so many cars to the United States or that the French elected a supporter of the European Union, the Europeans remain America’s best friends in terms of values and interests.

Trump’s demeanor, though, shouldn’t outweigh a common-sense concept: Europeans can and should embrace more responsibility for their national defense and for the problems in their neighborhood. Angela Merkel thinks so too.