Analysis & Opinions - Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs, Harvard Kennedy School

Trump & Co. Demolition

| Feb. 02, 2017

How Can Europeans Save Transatlantic Relations?

America and the world have yet to see the likes of this: a newly elected administration that is setting out with manic energy to destroy in mere days what took decades to build. Perhaps the most important and, for friends of the United States, the most painful collateral damage: America’s standing as the world’s moral leader defending democracy, human rights, the rights of minorities and transparency.

Trump’s executive order blocking the entry of refugees and all citizens of a number of predominantly Muslim countries, either for several months or indefinitely  as in the case of Syria, not only impugns the foundational identity of the United States as  a land of and for immigrants, it disregards its constitution and international obligations; the order amounts to a de facto implementation of Trump’s campaign call for a ban on Muslim immigrants. That is undermines the foundations of any long term strategy to deal with ISIS terrorism does not bother either Trump or his advisors. They may never  have heard of  Carl Schmitt or Josef Goebbels but they appear to be using their play book, treating politics as a set of friend-foe relationships and chauvinistically mobilizing resentments against certain groups (the Jews back then, Muslims and foreigners today) as the foundation of their policy.

The gravest consequence of Donald Trump’s rise to power is America’s retreat from its traditional role as a promoter of  world order based on values. But the flip side is equally important: the New York Times  columnist David Brooks has rightly characterized him as “Captain Chaos”. He is destroying the existing world order with his mixture of ignorance, incompetence and intention.

From now on the order of business in transatlantic relations will first and foremost be to protect what has been achieved and proven. The institutions and regulations of the western world that brought peace and prosperity to Europe are no less valuable just because Trump questions or attacks them. Secondly, it will be necessary to develop through smart policies to prevent crises that could be triggered by Trump, whether intentionally or accidentally, from escalating or from harming Europe’s interests. .

In the realm of economic relations Trump has challenged the system of interdependence in trade and investment developed over generations that has brought prosperity to both sides in the postwar period. His proclaimed credo, protectionism generates prosperity and strength, is patent nonsense and is clearly contradicted by the world recession of the last century. Like many Americans, Trump has failed to realize that job losses are primarily a result of modernization, not of globalization. He makes a great show of renouncing existing trade agreements. But will he actually impose the protectionist measures he has proclaimed if they should prove deleterious to the American economy and meet with resistance from domestic business leaders and their allies in Congress? Domestic conflict is to be expected on these issues. In the mean time Europeans would be wise to hold firmly to the principle of free trade and free investment, to implement the treaties with Canada and South Korea, to consider the possibility of joining the Trans Pacific Partnership that Trump rejected and, in due course, to offer negotiations on a new Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP).

Seen in the context of the pan European order  even in an era of “post truth politics” it cannot be denied that by annexing Crimea and intervening in Eastern Ukraine Russia broke with the very principles and regulations that it had helped formulate after the end of the Cold War. Despite all Trump’s assertions to the contrary,  the West should neither recognize nor accept this annexation of territory, even though there may be no solution available at the moment. The same applies to the sanctions against Russia that Trump has repeatedly thrown into question. It is in Europe’s core interest that any reduction or lifting of sanctions be contingent on the implementation of the Minsk Accord and the cessation of Russia’s military intervention in Eastern Ukraine. A firm stance on the part of Europe and notably Germany against Moscow and the Trump administration will presumably find support in the American Congress, particularly if accompanied by substantial support for Ukraine.

Trump’s attitude toward  NATO, the most important guarantor of peace in Europe, has triggered politically almost existential anxieties. Granted, his reference to the Allies’ insufficient contributions toward defense has a core of truth, although he exaggerated the imbalance between America’s and Europe’s respective shares. But by throwing the obligation to provide mutual assistance under Article V of the treaty into question and referring to NATO as “obsolete”, he struck at the core of a political order created by America that is regarded by the overwhelming majority of western Europeans as the foundation of its freedom, the independence of its nations and of peace in Europe. This is especially true of the NATO members along its eastern border who feel particularly threatened by Russia’s expansionist tendencies and fear Trump’s political stance will  weaken deterrence.

However, the final orientation of America’s NATO policy is by no means clear yet. For one, the President –not untypically for him—recently reversed his previous position when he assured the visiting British Prime Minister of his  “one hundred percent” support of NATO. Moreover both cabinet ministers decisive for foreign and security policy, Rex Tillerson and James Mattis, have spoken clearly in favor of upholding classic alliance policy, in particular with regard to Russia’s expansionist policy. This stance is reinforced through  strong support by both Democrats and Republicans in Congress and in the population at large. And the military sector, so central to the American economy and society, is organized around America’s long standing alliance system,  both with regard to the socialization of its officer’s corps and the orientation of the arms industry.

The election of Donald Trump, nonetheless, poses a challenge to the European NATO members and they will have to draw certain consequences. Europeans should be aware that they will have to depend more on themselves than in the past. To be sure, efforts to keep the USA within the traditional NATO consensus should top their agenda: both a self assured, level headed approach to the Trump administration and cooperation with alliance-friendly forces in the country at large will be crucial. But more important yet will be efforts to increase Europe’s contribution to defense and deterrence policy both in the conventional realm and in the fields of cyber security and in counter-terror efforts. This will require increases in the defense budget, a vigorous effort at the European level to end the absurd waste of resources by pooling armaments and armed forces and a re-launch of efforts to strengthen European defense capabilities within NATO.

The consequences of Trump’s election for the European Union must be taken very seriously.  It is already abundantly clear that he is unaware of the historic importance of European unification for peace in Europe. His familiarity with the EU appears to be limited to his unpleasant experience with its regulations regarding the construction of his golf resort in Scotland. He has declared that he holds the EU in low esteem and finds Brexit “fantastic”, predicted that further members will withdraw and asserted that the whole thing is merely a vehicle for German dominance.

Worse yet, Trumps policies closely follow the guidelines of his ideological chief consultant, Steve Bannon, who argues for a retreat into a national “America first” stance not only as the motto for domestic American policy but as a prescription for the rest of the world and in doing so consciously encourages the populist Euro skeptics within Europe, who in turn gladly take up the banner to attack European integration. This principle of a new nationalism proclaimed by Trump and deemed appropriate for all nations stands in diametric opposition to the basic philosophy of the European Union and is a prescription for universal chaos. In one fell swoop Trump has abandoned half a century of American support for the unification of Europe as a means to create a stable new world order, peace in Europe and prosperity in western Europe.

Faced with this challenge Europe has no choice but to hold the course towards unification with increased determination and possibly work to deepen the foundations even though maneuvering through Brexit –so praised by Trump- - will absorb considerable political energy amongst the political class of the EU. If ever there was an “hour of Europe” then it is now. A new European order will be necessary to deal with the challenges of Russian expansionism, cyber threats and terrorism. This will in turn require building  a European defense structure capable of independent action in cooperation with NATO. The French nuclear force, financially supported by Germany and other EU members, could be assigned to Europe.  The EU will also have to develop a new structure that better reflects its internal diversity, creates an arena for cooperation with Great Britain and allows for the collaboration with the United States that, given American and European interests, is still crucial for both sides.

The Trump Era will come to an end eventually. In the meantime Europe must do its utmost to build a united Europe and maintain the good transatlantic relations that still form the core of the western, liberal and democratic world.

This article has been translated into English by the author. It originally appeared in German in Internationale Politik und Gesellschaft, Berlin. 

For more information on this publication: Belfer Communications Office
For Academic Citation: Kaiser, Karl.“Trump & Co. Demolition .” Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs, Harvard Kennedy School, February 2, 2017.

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