Mainstream European politicians initially saw in U.S. President Donald Trump a real-estate billionaire, a reality TV personality, and a novice to the political stage. In their eyes, he threatened to pull the United States away from NATO, pivot to Russia, and abandon free trade and multilateralism. At the same time, he expressed anti-EU sentiments and flirted with populist parties across the Atlantic. In short, to Europe’s mainstream, Trump posed an almost existential threat to the European experiment. To others, meanwhile, the new president was a beacon of hope and inspiration in keeping with the rhetoric of the continent’s populist leaders.
One hundred days into his presidency, Europe is still struggling to make sense of Trump. There is much consternation and vacillation in European capitals about what the Trump administration’s foreign policy will entail. Will the United States’ traditional global leadership role fundamentally change, leaving Europe to fend for itself? What does America First mean for Europe and the transatlantic relationship?
Some inkling may emerge sooner than expected. Trump sent his influential daughter Ivanka to meet German Chancellor Angela Merkel in Berlin on April 25. What Merkel thinks clearly matters to Trump, who held long talks with Merkel during her visit to Washington on March 17 and over the phone since. Ivanka’s visit also confirms that Germany, not the leaders of the EU institutions, matters for policymaking. As the Trump administration finds its feet on foreign policy, there are both encouraging and concerning signs to which Europeans ought to pay close attention.
Allies Still Matter—but Tough Love?
During the 2016 U.S. presidential election campaign, Trump repeatedly spoke disparagingly of America’s allies. Accusing Washington’s partners in Asia and Europe of not paying enough for defense, candidate Trump even went so far as to entertain the option of pulling back U.S. forces from those regions and conditioning protection unless allies “fulfilled their obligations.” While Trump has continued to talk tough since his inauguration on January 20, 2017, pressing leaders from Merkel to NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg to spend more, he has also moderated his posture.
The fear that Trump would weaken the U.S. commitment to NATO has not materialized. Whether coming from Secretary of Defense Jim Mattis, Vice President Mike Pence, or the president himself, the Trump administration has offered reassurances that it intends to continue to honor the decades-long U.S. commitment to the Atlantic alliance. Trump has even praised NATO’s growing defense spending and efforts to boost intelligence sharing to combat terrorism, remarking that NATO is “no longer obsolete.”
Trump is tallying this activity as a win for his administration. However, NATO’s recent spending spree is less a function of Trump’s bravado and threats and more a reflection of the deterioration of European security and a decision made by NATO in 2014 that all allies should spend the equivalent of 2 percent of their national GDP on defense.
This does not mean Europeans can afford complacency, however. Trump still fundamentally holds a transactional view of alliances. The NATO summit in Brussels on May 25 will be a real test for European allies to demonstrate resolve toward gradually fulfilling the 2 percent spending target while balancing the president’s expectations of quick results. Defense spending aside, transatlantic rifts could also occur should Trump continue to make critical foreign policy decisions without first consulting allies (as in the April 7 air strike against Syria in response to a chemical-weapons attack) or if he presses NATO allies to make stronger military contributions in Syria or Afghanistan.
Trade: A New Source of Transatlantic Friction?
One of Trump’s most consistent themes has been vociferous skepticism of free and open global trade. In his eyes, the United States has been on the losing end of trade deals for years. On the campaign trail, he ran against Republican orthodoxy, calling the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) the “worst trade deal ever” and the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) a “horrible deal.” He also threatened to impose massive tariffs on Chinese and Mexican imports.
In several instances, campaign promises have already translated into consistent actions. Since his inauguration, Trump has withdrawn the United States from TPP, questioned whether the United States must abide by certain World Trade Organization (WTO) rulings, and signed an executive order to review U.S. trade deficits.
For Europe, Trump’s protectionist leanings mean a new source of transatlantic friction. Germany, with which the United States has run a trade deficit for years, is particularly concerned, having been repeatedly named alongside China as a possible currency manipulator. U.S. administration officials have accused Berlin of exploiting a “grossly undervalued” euro. Moreover, the much-discussed border adjustment tax on imports could hit European car manufacturers hard. Whether the dead-on-arrival negotiations on the proposed Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP) with the EU can eventually be resuscitated is too early to tell.
Despite his protectionist leanings, there are signs Trump is moderating his trade policy. He has backtracked on lambasting China as a currency manipulator and expressed a desire to reform rather than destroy NAFTA. The fact that Steve Bannon, an economic nationalist, and the anti-China trade hawk Peter Navarro are seen as losing influence in the White House to the more moderate economic adviser Gary Cohn reinforces this view. While antitrade winds are also blowing strong on the other side of the Atlantic—as the failed TTIP campaign shows—trade is likely to be a constant source of tension between Washington and some European capitals in the next four years.
Skeptical of Multilateral Institutions—but Still Engaged
As a candidate, Trump did not hide his aversion to multilateral institutions and negotiations. Particularly in Trump’s crosshairs during the campaign was not only the multilateral trade regime that includes TPP and the WTO but also multilateral institutions such as NATO and the UN. An early draft executive order called for a review of all current and pending treaties with more than one nation. Trump’s proposed 2018 budget includes draconian cuts to spending on international activities such as UN programs—not to mention slashes to America’s own development efforts. Such actions could force European donor nations to pick up the tab while simultaneously attempting to increase defense spending.
Despite its skepticism of multilateral institutions, the Trump administration does not appear to be throwing multilateralism under the bus altogether. The United States is still committed to participate in various multilateral forums, with Trump slated to attend summits of NATO, the G7, the G20, the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN), and the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) later in 2017 alone. Moreover, the administration has not yet made up its mind about whether to walk away from the 2016 Paris climate agreement or the 2015 Iran nuclear deal (which Trump once called the “worst deal ever negotiated”), despite previously suggesting it would.
When it comes to the European Union, Trump has snubbed an invitation from European Council President Donald Tusk to attend an EU-U.S. summit, advocated for Britain’s exit from the union, and initially floated the idea of appointing a Brexit supporter as U.S. ambassador to the EU (although no name has formally been proposed). Trump has tacitly endorsed Euroskeptic candidate Marine Le Pen in the 2017 French presidential election.
At the same time, the Trump administration has sent signals it will continue to work with the EU. During his visit to Brussels in February, Pence pledged a “strong commitment” to the EU. And Trump said during a press conference with the Italian prime minister in the White House on April 20 that a strong Europe was “very important to me as President of the United States.” At a practical level, EU-U.S. cooperation is the status quo for now. This includes planning for an EU-U.S. Energy Council meeting in Brussels in May.
Although the Trump administration may continue working with the EU, its emphasis will be on bilateral relations with key European capitals, especially Berlin. Yet Merkel has reportedly explained to Trump on several occasions that trade negotiations with the EU are bilateral between Washington and Brussels, not multilateral with the EU’s various national capitals.
No Russia Reset Yet
Trump has not sought to hide his affinity for Russian President Vladimir Putin and his desire for a diplomatic opening toward Moscow. He repeatedly said he would like to “get along” with the Russian leader. In Putin, Trump and some of his closest advisers saw a capable and willing partner on issues like fighting the self-proclaimed Islamic State in Syria, rather than a geopolitical foe. It is unknown how extensively the Trump transition team gamed out this calculus.
However, no new reset with Russia has so far been attempted. Early concerns that Trump would lift some of the sanctions imposed on Moscow after its military interference in eastern Ukraine have not materialized. Even though sanctions are still in place, it is uncertain whether the Trump administration will actively lobby EU states to maintain their own measures against Russia, as the administration of former U.S. president Barack Obama did.
On Syria, U.S. and Russian positions seem farther away than ever. Trump said on April 12 that the United States was “not getting along with Russia at all” and that relations “may be at an all-time low.” Yet, Trump appears to be easily swayable, as his positive remarks following his meeting with Chinese President Xi Jinping on April 7 suggested. His first in-person encounter with Putin is expected to occur on the margins of the G20 summit in July.
A coming transatlantic rift on Russia policy is still a possibility, but the prospect that Trump would strike a backroom deal with Putin over Europe seems less likely today than only a few months ago. Trump’s national security team—including the new Russia director in the National Security Council, the well-respected Russia expert Fiona Hill—is not naive about Putin. Another constraining factor is domestic political pressure from the U.S. Congress and media over Trump’s alleged ties to Russia during the presidential campaign.
Still Willing to Uphold Some International Norms
Running on a platform of America First, Trump has frequently advocated a narrower definition of U.S. interests and called for the United States to reduce its traditional leadership role as the bulwark of the international order and norms. However, signs that Trump is backtracking from such radical views are already apparent.
In explaining his administration’s decision to launch strikes against military targets in Syria on April 7 in response to the Assad regime’s use of chemical weapons against civilians, Trump cited both humanitarian and international law. He referenced Assad’s violations of the Chemical Weapons Convention as well as the regime’s failure to heed urgent appeals from the UN Security Council.
And despite suggesting on the campaign trail that he would tolerate Japan and South Korea developing nuclear weapons, Trump has made clear in his handling of the North Korean crisis that his administration is serious about nonproliferation. Although Trump has threatened to deploy preemptive force against North Korea (including some embarrassing bluster about fleets in the Pacific), his administration has simultaneously reached out to Beijing diplomatically, including by committing to honor the One China policy.
Additionally, despite previously toying with the idea of recognizing Crimea, which Russia annexed in 2014, as Russian territory, the Trump administration has made clear its support for Ukraine’s sovereignty and territorial integrity. The administration has endorsed the Minsk agreements aimed at ending the fighting in the country’s east. And U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson has pledged—most recently during a telephone call with Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko—to keep sanctions against Russia in place until Moscow returns Crimea to Ukraine and fully implements its commitments under the Minsk accords.
America First will continue to be the Trump administration’s foreign policy lodestar—with a starkly different tone from previous U.S. administrations. But the departure of former national security adviser Michael Flynn and the removal of Bannon from the National Security Council mean that the administration’s foreign policy is now less ideologically driven. Uncertainties remain, however, especially over the administration’s commitments to democracy and human rights. (Trump is still talking tough on immigration, for instance.) Trump’s favorable comments about autocratic strongmen are also problematic, as were his congratulations to Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan on winning a controversial constitutional referendum on April 16 to increase his powers.
A Crucial Time for Transatlantic Engagement
The first one hundred days of the Trump administration offer few conclusive takeaways about the overall direction of U.S. foreign policy today and over the next four years. Most foreign policy decisions made so far have been either personality driven or ad hoc reactions to events and crises. This is hardly surprising given the few appointments made to key national security positions. As a result, the Trump administration is still sending mixed signals to both allies and adversaries around the world.
While one should therefore avoid generalizations, the experience so far offers both encouraging and concerning trends for Europe. On the one hand, Trump has backtracked on several issues that European leaders care deeply about—including NATO, the EU, Russia, trade, and multilateralism. On the other, ambiguity regarding specific administration policy positions and priorities remains widespread. Trump has also demonstrated he is serious about pursuing a narrower definition of U.S. national interests and taking a more transactional view of alliances and partnerships.
Where does this leave Europe? No doubt it will take time to repair the deep mistrust and reservations many Europeans feel about Trump himself, his controversial declarations during the presidential campaign, and his erratic behavior since the election. European diplomats, keen to receive reassurances from the new U.S. administration, struggle with the lack of counterparts in many quarters of the Washington bureaucracy who are available to speak with.
For the time being, confusion and misunderstandings across the Atlantic seem unavoidable. Yet, European leaders should not be complacent or revert to nitpicking or hysteria, but rather use the time they have now to actively engage the U.S. administration. Several recent national security appointments mean that even among Trump’s advisers, Europeans will find receptive ears for their perspectives and policy ideas.
The next few months, which include pivotal visits by Trump to Europe, will be crucial for determining the future direction of U.S. foreign policy and its effects on Europe and the transatlantic relationship. Given the current lack of trust and predictability, Europeans will be looking for deeds more than words from the Trump administration to feel fully confident about the U.S. commitment to the transatlantic relationship.