Analysis & Opinions - USA Today

US-Europe Alliance is in Crisis

| June 06, 2017

There will be real costs to America if the president sticks to this course, from trade and the Iran deal to fighting ISIS and containing Russia.

The 70th anniversary of the Marshall Plan this week should be a celebration of the trans-Atlantic alliance — the most powerful and successful in modern history. Secretary of State George Marshall’s speech at the Harvard commencement on June 5, 1947, set in motion the historic U.S. aid program to revive Europe’s shattered economies. It also set the stage for the creation of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, the Common Market and eventually the European Union.

Instead of celebrating, however, America and Europe are experiencing their most significant crisis in decades. President Trump’s recent visit to NATO and the EU was the least successful of any U.S. president in seven decades, exposing deep ideological divisions and a widening gulf of trust across the Atlantic. Last weekend’s terrorist attacks in London had the same effect. Trump repeatedly criticized London Mayor Sadiq Khan for telling citizens not to be alarmed by the attacks, when Khan actually said they should not be alarmed by a heavy police presence. Trump’s tweets did not go down well in stoic Britain, where the World War II maxim, “keep calm and carry on,” still holds.

The policy differences alone are profound. European leaders want a historic free trade agreement with America, but Trump’s nationalist economic strategy led him to reject it. German Chancellor Angela Merkel is determined to maintain tough EU and U.S. sanctions on Russia over its occupation of Ukraine. Trump appears more interested in a rapprochement with Russian President Vladimir Putin. The chasm is deepest and most emotional on climate change. Trump’s announcement that America will pull out of the historic 2015 Paris Agreement is deepening distrust among European citizens and their governments, which consider it an urgent priority.

When I served as U.S. ambassador to NATO, America had a bruising argument with France and Germany over the Iraq War in 2003. We buried the hatchet eventually by joining forces in Afghanistan and negotiating a nuclear deal with Iran. We knew the NATO alliance was worth preserving. Trump has downplayed the importance of those longstanding ties — according to Politico, even to the point of removing from his prepared speech an affirmation of NATO's Article 5, the commitment by member nations to defend one another.

That is why the current crisis is far more threatening to the long-term future of the alliance than past disagreements. Trump’s ambivalence about NATO and skepticism about the EU are seen by European leaders as an open break with 70 years of U.S. commitment to the continent.

The heart of the problem is Trump’s view of Europe, and Germany in particular, as an economic competitor rather than a strategic partner. This is a sea change in American attitudes towards Europe. All of Trump’s predecessors dating to President Truman have prized Europe’s political and military alliance with America. Trump’s boorish behavior in Brussels and his intemperate tweets criticizing Merkel (and now Khan) have only reinforced the doubts about him in Europe.

If Trump sticks to this course, there will be real costs for the United States. Europe remains our leading trade partner and the most important investor in the U.S. economy. The 27 European members of NATO remain the largest group of U.S. allies in the world. On nearly every important U.S. global priority, Europe is a key partner. We need the United Kingdom, France and Germany to persuade Iran to adhere to the 2015 nuclear deal. Trump may soon ask Europe to contribute additional troops to NATO’s Afghan mission. The U.S. fight against the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria will be seriously undermined without British and French support. America needs NATO allies to hold the line against Putin’s territorial ambitions in Eastern Europe.

All this argues for a White House reassessment of its dramatic distancing from Europe. Trump was right to strengthen ties with Saudi Arabia and the other Persian Gulf States on his first foreign trip. But our alliance with Europe is far more important to us. In contrast to Arab authoritarian leaders, we share with Europe a commitment to democracy, the rule of law and human rights. Despite their persistent, public spin to the contrary, the more experienced White House hands have to realize the magnitude of the problem Trump has created.

To be fair, Europe can do more to meet its own obligations to America. Trump is right to ask the allies to step more resolutely into the fight against ISIS. He has the American public behind him in asking Germany and the European nations to increase defense spending. All modern U.S. presidents have insisted NATO’s European members should meet the alliance defense spending standard of 2% of gross domestic product.

But Trump’s bull-in-a-china-shop approach has backfired. He would do better to push the allies in private but acknowledge publicly that the majority of them actually increased defense spending after Putin’s annexation of Crimea in 2014. All, including Germany, have pledged to reach the 2% target by 2024. Pushing on this open door would have been more effective than lecturing leaders such as Merkel in an election year.

The creation of NATO and support for European unity remain among America’s greatest foreign policy achievements. At a time of Russian assertiveness in Eastern Europe and dangerous instability in the Middle East, America needs its European allies in NATO more than ever.

That is why cooler heads in the administration must steer the impulsive, inexperienced Trump back to an effective relationship with NATO and the EU. Without such a sharp recalibration over the coming months, Trump’s bumbling Europe strategy could turn out to be one of the most significant U.S. foreign policy failures of the post-World War II era.


For more information on this publication: Belfer Communications Office
For Academic Citation: Burns, Nicholas.“US-Europe Alliance is in Crisis.” USA Today, June 6, 2017.