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Will Europe Meet the Strategic Challenge Posed by President Donald Trump?

BLOG - 3 July 2018

By casually rejecting the G7 communique, President Trump has, as we know, dealt a severe blow to the transatlantic relationship.

Since then, his words and tweets have made his goals even more obvious. From Singapore, he indicated that “his relationship with Justin Trudeau was strong, as it is now with Kim”. There is perhaps no better way to blur the distinction between enemy and friend. Then, in a baffling tweet, he encouraged the Germans to get rid of Merkel's leadership. He thereby endorses the agenda that his ambassador in Berlin has set for himself, i.e. supporting the "conservative forces" (understand: populists) in Europe.

"The reversal of American policy - because it is not the whim of one man, but the actual foreign policy of the United States - is protean."

Trump's ideological agent, Steve Bannon, crisscrossed the Old Continent in support of the Orbán line. It is said that he even played a role in pushing the League and the Five Star Movement in Italy to form an alliance. At a meeting on 27 June in Fargo, North Dakota, the American President said: "We [the United States] love the countries of the European Union. But the European Union, of course, was set up to take advantage of the United States. And you know what, we can’t let that happen.” This anti-EU obsession is confirmed by journalistic investigations indicating that Donald Trump, when he meets Emmanuel Macron, asks him why France is still part of the European Union. Regarding the United Kingdom, the American President has made it clear that he prefers Boris Johnson (or even Nigel Farage) over Theresa May.

The reversal of American policy - because it is not the whim of one man, but the actual foreign policy of the United States - is protean. To other interlocutors, the President of the United States repeated that he would not embrace European grievances against Russia over the Donbass and Crimea. According to him, there is no reason at all to trust Ukraine, and it is imperative to find a modus vivendi with Vladimir Putin. With regard to the Middle East, Donald Trump shared with King Abdullah of Jordan his intention to withdraw completely from Syria ("bring the boys home"), and to reach an agreement with Putin based on reinstating Bashar al-Assad’s control over the whole country, in exchange for Russia’s commitment to limit Iranian influence. It is true that Mr Netanyahu played a major role in guiding Trump in this direction.

In this context, Europeans anxiously await Mr Trump's next European tour. On 11 and 12 July, he will participate in the NATO Summit in Brussels. At the very least, it will be an opportunity for him to pillory Germany again for its refusal to reach the fetishized figure of 2% of its GDP for defense spending. One can fear a much tougher blackmail from the American President, as he is perfectly capable of balancing his demands on commercial matters against his reluctance to maintain the American security guarantee to Europe (Article V of the North Atlantic Treaty, guaranteeing an American military presence).

"Mr Trump is now determined to impose his own choices. He knows that he is supported by his electoral base."

After Brussels and NATO, the American President will continue his travels in London - God Save the Queen - and then to Helsinki, where he will finally have the meeting with Mr Putin he has long desired. For months, the President's entourage and commentators alike had considered such a meeting impossible because of the suspicions weighing on a possible "collusion" between the Trump campaign and Russia, as well as because of Congress’s (and in particular The Republicans’) anti-Russian stance. The very fact that it is taking place shows that, after over a year of power game, Mr Trump is now determined to impose his own choices. He knows that he is supported by his electoral base. He will not let himself be "normalized". As a former senior Obama administration official said at Institut Montaigne last week, "the President of the United States is determined to replace the rules-based system with a Trump-based system.

Having witnessed the outcome of the Singapore Summit, Europeans have everything to fear from Helsinki. Their interests - whether regarding European security, the Middle East or the world order - may be directly threatened.

Perhaps this whole "Trump in Europe" sequence will show he has more bark than bite? In any event, it should encourage Europeans to ask themselves: what should we do now? So far, the main European leaders have approached the Trump challenge not in a piecemeal fashion, but with differing methods. Mrs Merkel, particularly targeted by Trumpian vindictiveness, has proven herself to have some broad shoulders. Seen from Washington, the Germans have appeared in recent months ready to endure all kinds of humiliation, as they are stunned by Mr Trump's repeated threat to overtax German car imports. President Macron played the proximity card, to better assert in a frank way his substantial differences with the American President and to try to influence him. The European institutions, the Baltics, Mrs May and others have also tried their luck in one way or another.

"Europeans must now get over the fascination of being easy prey. It is now urgent for them to launch a strategic and in-depth reflection on what the European response to the existential challenge posed by Donald Trump should be."

The time has come to outline a real strategy, ideally with 27 or 28 members, or at least with a number of key countries, in consultation with the European institutions. This means first of all identifying Europe's strengths and weaknesses. One obvious weakness is that, even more than usual, Washington will be able to benefit in Europe from a stable of Trojan horses. In particular, how can the nationalist-populist drift in certain Member States, now encouraged by the American President, be countered? What forces in Europe can be relied upon to counter the Trump line?

Second, how can Europe's assets be exploited? Should we, for example, soft pedal on geopolitical issues - Iran, Syria or even Ukraine - to better establish a power balance on trade issues? Is there not a good use to be made of Mr Trump by expecting him to be indifferent to the taxation of GAFA companies or to obtain Chinese concessions in matters such as intellectual property? Or, on the contrary, considering the state of deep crisis in which the European Union finds itself, should we not cling to a "Fortress Europe"-type strategy? This would imply that our priority would be to strengthen European cohesion, to correct the dependencies of both the European economy and defense on America, by defending our vision of the international order against the Trumpian vision, but without seeking confrontation. Is there room for a more offensive strategy - project against project - which would allow Europe to seize the "Trump moment" as an opportunity to assert its identity?

It is clear that these few options - purely illustrative - may correspond to different timetables. And that upstream of these options, arises the question regarding the bet on the nature of the Trump challenge, its sustainability (or not) and the depth of the mark it will leave on the international system. One thing is certain: Europeans must now get over the fascination of being easy prey. It is now urgent for them to launch a strategic and in-depth reflection on what the European response to the existential challenge posed by Donald Trump should be.
 

 

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