During my three and a half decades as a career American diplomat, I served as ambassador to Russia and Jordan. Every year, I was responsible for thousands of cables back to the State Department and other readers in the U.S. government, reporting on the efforts of diplomats in our embassy to promote American interests and on developments in the country where we were posted.
On relatively rare occasions—maybe five or six times a year—I would send a first-person message directly to the secretary of state, highlighting my personal concerns, analysis, and recommendations on a particular issue or set of trends. One such occasion would be an annual end-of-year assessment—a reflection on where relations were headed and how best to navigate the period ahead.
In the imagined cable that follows, I try to put myself in the shoes of an ambassador in Washington, D.C., from one of our small European allies, and suggest what that lucky diplomat—in the target-rich reporting environment of the Donald Trump era—might write home at the end of 2019.
Confidential/For the Minister’s Eyes Only
December 31, 2019
1. Dear Madam Foreign Minister: Following as you requested are a few quick end-of-year reflections on the troubling drift in transatlantic relations and where we go from here. I wish I could be more uplifting, but my job is to offer you my unvarnished views, however inconvenient. I only hope our colleagues will be more discreet in protecting them than was the case with my insightful former British counterpart.
2. President Donald Trump was in relatively mellow form at this month’s NATO summit in London—fitfully mindful of the value of looking “presidential” abroad as the impeachment drama thickens at home. But we should expect no epiphanies in the new year. He remains dismissive of traditional allies and enamored of autocrats. He is still convinced that we’ve played the Americans for suckers for far too long, and remains disdainful of the bureaucracy in which we so often entangle ourselves. If Trump is reelected—a 50–50 proposition, according to most American political analysts I’ve talked with—we can expect only more corrosion and disarray in the alliance that has been so central to both of our fortunes for so long. We don’t trust each other much these days, and another four years could break that trust beyond repair.
3. My broader concern, however, is that Trump is more accelerator than inventor of the problems in relations across the Atlantic. I fear that the divergence between us is structural, not just personal, and it won’t simply disappear with the departure of Donald Trump.
4. The Washington establishment is habitually optimistic about its capacity to reset and restore relationships. We eventually bounced back from searing differences over Iraq 15 years ago, and French fries eventually regained their place on American menus. This time feels different, however, with simultaneous political nervous breakdowns on both sides of the ocean exposing shared anxieties and aspirations but diverging visions for international order.
5. I’ve traveled a lot over the past year, far outside Washington and across the places that become household names every election cycle. I’ve clogged my arteries with caramel-dipped pecan pie on a stick at the Iowa State Fair and talked with local leaders from Nevada to New Hampshire. My judgment is that some version of “America first” is here to stay. Its “Trump first” variant—the toxic mix of narcissistic diplomacy, destructive disruption, and blustery unilateralism—may fade with its namesake, but the core tenets will remain in place. Trump has struck a chord with many Americans who believe that the United States has overreached in foreign policy, spending too much and taking too many risks overseas for too little tangible gain. Barack Obama sensed much the same mood, and much the same preoccupation with nation building at home.
6. The preachers continue to preach, but the pews in the Church of American Global Leadership grow emptier by the day. Most Americans still support NATO in the abstract. But when pressed about their willingness to go to war to defend small, vulnerable allies against Russian aggression, the poll numbers distressingly mirror those on our continent. As each decade passes beyond the Cold War, and as China’s rise looms larger, Europe is too often a strategic afterthought here, a continent of familiar but unserious allies, whose politics are confusing and whose relevance is dimming.
7. We’re not helping ourselves. Too often, we let schadenfreude about Trump’s America blind us to our own growing vulnerabilities. We run the risk of becoming the grass on which the great-power elephants trample, caught among an erratic America, an ambitious China, and a revisionist Russia.
8. As seen from Washington, our bigger European neighbors are mostly adding to the problem right now. In the aftermath of Boris Johnson’s election victory, the British are even more consumed by Brexit. They once saw themselves as playing Greece to America’s Rome. Today the two of them bear little resemblance to their ancient exemplars, and Trump and Johnson are not likely to be confused with Roosevelt and Churchill.
9. Angela Merkel’s slow political fade is another complication. And then there is Emmanuel Macron, whose ambitions and candor sometimes outstrip his capacity to deliver. His recent comments about NATO’s “brain death” did not endear him to the White House. The administration believes that Macron is “all hat and no cattle,” which is the politest way in Texas of saying that someone is irritatingly long on rhetoric and short on action.
10. From my perspective, that’s not entirely fair, and a number of my American friends agree that Macron was right to criticize Trump’s betrayal in Syria and raise fundamental questions about political cohesion in NATO, as opposed to its enduring military efficiency. But the disquiet at the very top of the administration was palpable, even if it had the ironic and perhaps unintended effect of making President Trump a temporarily passionate defender of the alliance.
11. The challenges before transatlantic partnership are not going to recede in 2020. A risen China dominates the horizon for both Americans and Europeans, although not always in identical ways. The Washington establishment is leaning more and more in the direction of a new cold war with China—embracing the quintessentially American notion that anything worth doing is worth overdoing. If China becomes the prism through which the rest of American strategy is seen, we will find ourselves on the receiving end of an uncomfortable zero-sum frame, with the recent tensions on Huawei and 5G a sign of what’s to come. And even on issues where U.S. and European views are more closely aligned, such as Beijing’s predatory trade and investment practices, the Trump White House rarely goes out of its way to make common cause, and relishes second- and third-front tariff conflicts with the European Union and its member states.
12. As you’ve instructed, I’ve made clear to my American counterparts that we have no doubt that China is an economic competitor and systemic rival. Europe and America ought to be natural partners in competing with China in many areas. We do, however, have growing doubts about the priorities, rhetoric, and tools Washington is bringing to the task. So far, I’ve had minimal impact.
13. The mood in Washington on that other cranky authoritarian state, Vladimir Putin’s Russia, is also an article of bipartisan conviction. Despite Trump’s own strange affinity for Putin, I see little prospect that widespread (and understandable) suspicion of Russia, born of its aggression in Ukraine and its meddling in American politics, is going to ease anytime soon.
14. It would certainly be a welcome step if Trump and Putin extended the New START treaty—the last remaining pillar in U.S.-Russian arms control, and an important guardrail in a combustible major-power relationship. Over time, Americans and Europeans may both see some space for artful diplomacy with Moscow, as Russians chafe at being China’s junior partner and realize that the Belt and Road Initiative is meant in part to subordinate their influence in Eurasia. But that won’t happen in 2020, or for some time to come.
15. In the Middle East, our frictions with the Trump administration are nearly as numerous as the dysfunctions of the region itself. The Iranian nuclear agreement, briefly a reminder of what Americans and Europeans can accomplish together, is on life support. If Trump’s “deal of the century” between Israelis and Palestinians is finally unveiled in 2020, its one-sidedness will likely bury what little is left of the two-state solution, and deepen U.S.-European differences. Trump’s not-so-benign neglect of Africa also matters to us—and not in a good way—given the consequences for Europe of insecurity on a continent exploding demographically.
16. Trump will continue to plow stubbornly backwards from the Paris Agreement, doing more existential harm to all of us. There will remain over the coming year the risk of more trade conflicts with EU states—and little likelihood of serious progress toward the U.S.-U.K. bilateral trade pact that Trump has dangled before Brexiteers. We’re also likely to continue to spin our wheels in discussions with the Americans about how best to maximize the benefits and minimize the dislocations of the technology revolution, a huge missed opportunity, since the Chinese are not sitting idly by while we get our act together.
17. So it’s hard to be much of an optimist about where we’re headed with the Americans, but I realize that gloom is not a strategy; 2020 will be another year of containing the damage. If Trump is reelected, we’ll have to manage as best we can, playing to his vanity and coping with his impulsiveness and dismissiveness of alliances and institutions. But I fear a mutually destructive uncoupling between the United States and Europe, leaving both of us less capable of dealing with a very unforgiving and competitive international landscape.
18. If Trump loses next November, wounded by the impeachment process and a gradually slowing economy, having worn out voters beyond his defiantly loyal base, we’ll face a much more welcome but still complicated challenge. The natural reaction if a Democrat replaces Trump will be a sigh of relief audible across the Atlantic, and an early round of self-congratulatory visits and restorationist rhetoric. We’ll be tempted to think that we can quickly turn the clock back, tinker around the edges of the transatlantic alliance, and sail merrily ahead.
19. That is an illusion, not anywhere near as risky as four more years of Trump, but still an illusion. Macron may have been annoying and grandiose (living up to our expectations for the French), and yet his basic point was right: Europeans and Americans do need to form a new bargain. Our partnership will be no less important in the decades ahead, but it will have to be different. On both sides of the Atlantic, we have to look honestly at how we’re eroding democratic values and failing at governance. And in our political and security partnership, we’ll need a new balance, with Europe taking more initiative, more risks, and more responsibility, and America taking a more accommodating (and less paternalistic) view of a more assertive European voice in NATO and the EU. Otherwise, that early, self-congratulatory flurry will fade fast.
20. I don’t have the wit to supply a pithy update of Lord Ismay’s famous formula for the transatlantic alliance: “to keep the Americans in, the Germans down, and the Russians out.” Maybe our aim ought to be “to keep the Americans sane, the Europeans pulling their weight, and the Chinese and Russians at bay.” That doesn’t exactly roll off the tongue, but that’s the direction we have to take, as daunting as it seems.
21. The Americans have lost their way. And if we’re honest, so have we. Having first lived in the U.S. as a university exchange student 40 years ago, I haven’t lost my faith in American resilience or in our ability to help each other recover our footing. But we shouldn’t kid ourselves either. Even if we can’t stand Trump, and even if a Democratic successor would be pulled to focus more on China and domestic priorities, we still need America to help defend us against more immediate threats, such as terrorism or Russia. We have to adapt our alliance, and make it more of a two-way street, but that’s going to require more initiative from us to keep the U.S. engaged—no matter who is in the White House. We’ll have to swallow our pride at times and work hard to sustain the commitment of ever less attentive American presidents.
22. As a middle-level player in Europe, we’re going to have to work especially hard. We’ll of course remain devoted to European unity, but always conscious of our stake in the constant bidding war for American favor among our neighbors, and of the importance of good bilateral ties as a hedge against troubles in the broader alliance. I’ll send you a separate message with some ideas for the year ahead on how to use high-level visits, modest investments in the U.S. market, and joint military training to enhance our ties with Washington. Drawing on my service at our embassy in China a decade ago, I’ve also organized a series of dinners with congressional and administration leaders to try to get across that Europe and America can succeed in competition with Beijing with complementary, but not necessarily identical, approaches. And I’ll continue to keep our social profile high here—although I opted earlier this month not to ask Rudy Giuliani to lead our annual holiday party in caroling, as he did last year with the same enthusiasm and tone deafness he has brought to the Ukraine fiasco.
23. I apologize for the length of this message. American diplomats are usually the only ones immodest enough to write long telegrams. But I hope this has been useful.
24. Charles Dickens’s Ghost of Christmas Future offered a sober vision of what lay ahead, and this is a moment when we should be equally mindful of the transatlantic futures before us, and how best to transform our approach. My staff and I look forward to continuing to do all we can to help. With best holiday wishes, Your Ambassador in Washington.