TSG IntelBrief: President Trump vs. Europe
May 31, 2017

President Trump vs. Europe


Bottom Line Up Front:

• The recent NATO and G7 summits, along with comments made subsequently, provide a clear indication of the chasm that exists on a number of significant issues between the Trump administration and longtime U.S. allies in Europe.

• The ongoing shift in U.S.-German relations is a reflection of two leaders with very different views of the future.

• The German preference for globalism and multilateral engagement runs counter to the Trump administration’s transactional approach to foreign affairs.

• The response from European leaders such as German Chancellor Angela Merkel indicates that the growing distance between the EU and U.S. has generated reasons for Europe to rely less on the United States.


In the days since U.S. President Donald Trump returned from the NATO and G7 summits in Europe, the public-facing exchange of words between Trump and German Chancellor Angela Merkel have grabbed headlines. On one level, it is easy to dismiss the mini-uproar over President Trump’s messages in Brussels and Taormina as simply the latest in a non-stop season of windy words and furious tweets that signify very little in reality. Despite the tense exchanges, the U.S. and Germany have not ceased being allies and partners across a large spectrum of global affairs. But the spectrum of common concerns between the two longtime allies—and, more importantly, of common approaches to solving these problems—is shrinking. The true significance of the war of words between Trump and Merkel lies in what it says about Europe’s assessment of America’s ability and commitment under President Trump to address the many pressing crises facing the international community.

On issues such as climate change, it is difficult to overstate the chasm between Merkel—and the EU more broadly—and the position of President Trump. At every stage, the Germans prefer a multilateral approach to multi-causal problems. Berlin’s stance has been that international organizations such as the UN, as flawed as they have been, are the the best chance for seriously addressing major global challenges. For a variety of reasons, the U.S. largely disagrees—in part because U.S. lawmakers cannot agree amongst themselves on almost any issue, let alone on a path for addressing the most complex and serious international issues that have no clear lanes.

The long-running inability within the U.S. government to find collective approaches for issues that are enormous in scope—or even to recognize that these issues are problems or that they exist—has led to a gradual drift between the U.S. and Europe. Merkel’s recent public statements have intimated that Europe must develop responses and policies to address issues such as climate change, the refugee crisisRussian disinformation and influence campaigns, and other issues without relying on cooperation and assistance from the U.S. As the notion of  mutual defense in the 21st century has shifted from purely static military defenses—which remain vital—to a broader and more systemic idea of defense in terms of lessening future risks, the U.S. approach under the current administration is seen as less well-suited for the task. 

As noted in Chancellor Merkel’s recent comments—which should also be viewed in terms of her domestic political concerns—Germany believes it wise to take more of a leading role in Europe’s future. Since the end of World War II, American foreign policy has been largely built around the recognition that investing in a strong and stable Europe does not simply benefit European countries at the expense of the U.S., but is in the direct interest of the United States itself. Like President Trump, many previous U.S. presidents have rightfully taken issue with the failure of European NATO members to spend the required 2% of GDP on defense. However, Trump’s predecessors have viewed the relationship between the U.S. and Europe as one based on trust and mutual values. President Trump, on the other hand, appears to view the relationship between the U.S. and Europe as he views foreign policy more broadly—as purely transactional. He views treaties as deals, and is driven by a deeply held belief that deals can be won or lost, signed or ripped up, and viewed in isolation. In the wake of Trump’s first meeting with the heads of major European nations, Merkel’s response and recent public statements appear to indicate that she—along with other European leaders—believes that the growing distance between the EU and U.S. has become marked enough to warrant a shift in setting what were once assumed to be mutual priorities.


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