The United States has long played a key role in the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, but President Trump has called NATO “obsolete” and criticized other members for not paying their fair share in military spending. The future of NATO and U.S. alliances in the region could hang in the balance as the Trump administration shifts focus to the “America first” agenda. At the same time, elections in France, the Netherlands, and Germany are also putting a strain on the EU as populist candidates gain more ground among voters. While European heads of state have expressed hope that key players like U.S. Secretary of Defense James Mattis will help preserve the transatlantic alliance, China could potentially benefit from a U.S. retreat. It is promoting its Belt and Road Initiative, and some European countries have thus far been receptive to the deals offered. 

Just two days after the French presidential election, the Carnegie–Tsinghua Center’s Paul Haenle moderated a discussion with renowned experts on the future of the EU and transatlantic relations during the Trump era and how China could advance its engagement in the region. Carnegie experts Tomáš Valášek and Stefan Lehne assessed the outlook for EU integration and the NATO alliance, and Chinese scholars Ding Yifan and Li Weiwei reflected on China’s growing role in Europe. 

This was the final panel of the Carnegie Global Dialogue Series 2016-2017. This discussion was off the record.

Discussion Highlights

  • What “America First” Entails: One panelist explained that “America First” is a four-fold policy that includes economic nationalism and protectionism, increasing homeland security, improving military capacities, and clever deal-making in light of President Trump’s background. In general, they added, Trump sees alliances as a drain on valuable U.S. resources. One panelist noted Trump is showing a worrying level of disengagement with regards to NATO and the EU. Notably, Trump praised Brexit while declaring that NATO was obsolete before reaffirming his commitment to it. A panelist argued that not only do these developments fail to clarify the administration’s overarching strategy, they also create a strong sense of uncertainty among European allies. The panelist warned that U.S. decisionmaking is centralized enough that even though Trump surrounds himself with advisers who value alliances, Trump himself has the last say in policymaking.
  • “America First” and Transatlantic Alliances: The discussants agreed that “America First” is unlikely to significantly alter the status quo with Europe, arguing that the policy seems to be a political construct as opposed to a real, transformative policy. Yet one panelist noted that Trump has a tendency to favor bilateral agreements, notably with Germany, over engagements with institutions, such as the EU and NATO. Ultimately, one panelist asserted, Trump’s success depends on his domestic policies—his foreign policy and international engagements are of secondary importance. This may mean, the panelist continued, that European countries and European institutions will need to rely less on U.S. presence and influence and strengthen their own positions.
  • Anti-Globalization and Populism: Many panelists agreed that populism and anti-globalization sentiments in Europe have not been suppressed, although one panelist argued that domino theories in this regard have been proven wrong by Emmanuel Macron’s victory in France. However, one panelist said that it is important to remember that Marine le Pen’s National Front party received a sizeable amount of support. The specter of populism and protectionism still looms over European countries, with Italy hosting the next important round of elections.
  • Reforming the European Union: Reforming the European Union and its thinking is crucial in order to maintain the current world order, panelists agreed. Particularly if Trump intends to further disengage with transatlantic allies, the discussants said the EU must muster the strength to face global issues, such as extremism, protectionism, and populism. One panelist added that the upcoming NATO summit is unlikely to lead to tangible results. In light of this, the EU should build up and improve its military and diplomatic capacity, thereby taking a larger share of responsibilities in creating safeguards to protect its multilateralism, one panelist advised. Pursuing globalization and economic cooperation will yield long-term benefits, but only if a deliberate effort is made to engage with and include those countries and populations that feel left behind, the panelist concluded.
  • Globalization and China: One panelist pointed out that it may be easier for China to see globalization as a win-win game, since the situation for European countries is complicated by resentment against China’s rise in parallel with the significant loss of domestic employment opportunities.
  • Stability Through Cooperation with China: Through the Belt and Road Initiative, one panelist expected that China and Europe will carry out mutually beneficial projects that promote trade and investment and spur growth, which could support the current world order. Another panelist agreed that economic cooperation is of paramount importance in order to counter instability and conflicts. In this area, one panelist remarked, China offers the most opportunities, citing the example of Boeing which estimated China’s need for aircrafts and seized the opening with the construction of its overseas plant in China. Given that China seems committed to preserving the current world order, many panelists called for a shift in perceptions, from China as a common enemy or scapegoat to a valuable partner with real opportunities.

Li Weiwei

Li Weiwei is an associate research fellow at the China Institute of International Studies (CIIS) and the deputy director of the Department for European Studies at CIIS.

Tomáš Valášek

Tomáš Valášek is the director of Carnegie Europe, where his research focuses on security and defense, transatlantic relations, and Europe’s Eastern neighborhood.

Ding Yifan

Ding Yifan is vice-chairman of the China Society for World Economics and vice-chairman of the China Society for French studies.

Stefan Lehne

Stefan Lehne is a visiting scholar at Carnegie Europe in Brussels, where he researches the post–Lisbon Treaty development of the European Union’s foreign policy with a specific focus on relations between the EU and member states.

Paul Haenle

Paul Haenle is the director of the Carnegie–Tsinghua Center for Global Policy based at Tsinghua University in Beijing. Haenle’s research focuses on Chinese foreign policy and U.S.-China relations.