As the US Retreats from the World, Europeans Start Looking Elsewhere

Leslie Vinjamuri

This article first appeared on the Chatham House site.

A refugee crisis, populist challengers, terrorism, Brexit − these are the things that have transfixed leaders and their constituents across Europe.

In the face of America’s new brand of politics, this may sometimes have come as a welcome distraction from what has at times seemed like an impending crisis of a different kind.

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The election of Donald Trump ushered in a wave of presidential attacks on transatlanticism, calling into question America’s commitment to Article 5 of the NATO treaty, the premise of postwar order in Europe.

An assertive nationalism now dominates diplomatic thinking in America, offering little by way of reassurance to allies. Yet, despite numerous threats to undo America’s longstanding international commitments, the vast majority remain intact. Indeed, if this trend continues, then things may eventually normalize.

But gambling on policy continuity is risky in the contemporary climate. And, if diplomacy matters, and especially if words matter, then the survival of the existing international order may be more at risk than many assume.

Policy-makers in allied countries face a key question: can anything take the place of  American power?

So far Europe has failed to devise a clear strategy for engaging Trump’s America. National leaders have tried a variety of tactics, rushing to Washington to secure first-mover advantage as Theresa May did, maintaining a healthy distance as Angela Merkel chose to do, or some combination of both, but on home turf, as in the case of Emmanuel Macron.

The dominant strategic response seems to have evolved by default rather than design, and is pitched at waiting it out, working sometimes with, but often around the White House, and turning the absence of American leadership into a window of opportunity for courting new partners, further afield. For Europe, this means Asia, and especially, China.  

But much of the impulse and conviction for European engagement abroad is shaped not only by interest, but by shared values. Power − both economic and military − is necessary but it will never be sufficient, which makes it difficult to imagine China replacing America as an essential partner for Europe.


French President Emmanuel Macron, German Chancellor Angela Merkel and Donald Trump at the start of the first working session of the G20 meeting in Hamburg, northern Germany, on July 7, 2017. JOHN MACDOUGALL/AFP/Getty

All bets are off when it comes to the future of America’s engagement in the world. Many globalists remain convinced that America’s internationalism is secured by the institutional frameworks and alliances that have deep roots in the postwar order.

Since January, there has been enough evidence to draw on for those who are inclined to believe that America will continue to engage beyond its shores. After some rhetorical misgivings, it reaffirmed its commitment to traditional allies and is sending more troops to Afghanistan.

In April the United States fired off Tomahawk missiles at an airfield in Syria in response to the regime’s use of chemical weapons. This tactic did little to tame Assad’s war efforts, but it won immediate support from America’s allies in Europe.

Despite these seeming successes for internationalism, the past nine months have generated grave uncertainty and insecurity about America’s future. This is compounded by domestic politics. Trump’s America is uniquely divided and this extends far beyond Capitol Hill’s partisan politics.

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To Washington’s European partners, there appears to be little in the way of a moral compass in the White House. Those more attuned to America’s nationalist impulse assume that the nature of America’s interventions abroad will change, and probably for good.

So far, the threat of rapid moral descent at home has been tempered by a robust liberal backlash which is bolstered by the domestic courts. It remains to be seen how this contest will unfold and with what implications for America’s leading role in the world. Even if the US remains engaged, an unvarnished nationalist impulse appears to have hijacked the nation’s capital.

Trump and Trumpism

Trump’s foreign policy seems as if it were designed to disrupt. Frequent reversals have also contributed to uncertainty about the future. Trump’s America harks back to the 1930s, when economic nationalism, restrictive immigration policies, and isolationism defined the country’s orientation.

From the outset, America’s 45th president has shunned two fundamental principles of the postwar liberal order, that collective defence is essential for peace and stability in Europe, and that free trade, especially among allies, is not only good economics, it is the bedrock of peace.

The president’s first visit to Europe was most notable for his refusal to endorse Article 5 of the NATO treaty. Instead, he used the occasion to attack Angela Merkel, the German chancellor, for Germany’s trade surplus. Trump has also paid little heed to shared transatlantic security initiatives, repeatedly casting doubt on the Iran nuclear deal and demonstrating little concern for Russia’s failure to implement the Minsk agreements which were supposed to halt the war in eastern Ukraine.

Rather than leaning in to Europe, the president has set his sights on courting strongmen, choosing Saudi Arabia as his first international port of call and fitting in a meeting with Egypt’s President Sisi while there.

When President Erdogan of Turkey won a constitutional referendum to strengthen his own powers and curb democratic restraints, Trump was the first foreign leader to ring and congratulate him. Even after European election monitors challenged the integrity of the referendum process, Trump did not reassess his views.

Neither of these moves appears to have reaped much benefit. In fact, shortly after taking Trump’s call, Turkey intervened in Syria against US-backed forces fighting ISIS. Despite the president’s generosity, Erdogan gave the US no advance notification of his military deployment.

Sisi leveraged his meeting with Trump by cracking down even further on public protest in Egypt, which prompted the US later to respond by restricting its foreign aid to Egypt.

Trump’s trampling of norms is unique, and may prove to be the gravest threat to America’s democracy. But many of the policy changes that Trump has sought reflect the more immediate interests of a powerful nation confronted by changed circumstances. Structural changes have opened the way for a rethinking of America’s role abroad. They may even have required it.

To begin with, decline in America’s relative economic power has led many recent US leaders to seek a new international accommodation. Trump is not the first US president to ask that America’s NATO allies contribute more to their own defence, nor will he be the last.

The end of the Cold War created the clearest imperative for a recasting of the international order. Those making the case for the US to commit to sustained international engagement have been under constant pressure from sceptics, many of whom argued for selective engagement, offshore balancing or even restraint.

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Structural shifts at home have also paved the way for a new kind of leader. The 2008 financial crisis revealed a level of inequality that left many Americans ripe for political mobilization. This, in combination with a recasting of the Democratic Party around a form of identity politics that has been perceived as excluding white Americans, has made many voters receptive to a new nationalist politics.

These three factors, relative economic decline, shifting geopolitical imperatives and a marked increase in alienation and inequality at home, are trends that preceded Trump. Taken in combination, these make it all the more tempting to assume a sort of inevitability to Trumpism.

After all, disaffection and division are rarely constructed out of thin air. But while there is an impulse in US society to retreat, there is also an impulse to engage – 37 per cent of Americans still believe that the US should help other countries deal with their problems, according to Pew research last year.

And Trump is not simply a vessel. Demographic and especially geopolitical shifts do not bind the hands of politicians; they create a great deal of latitude for leadership. A skilled and committed leader would seek to renegotiate the terms of America’s partnerships, leveraging the capabilities of key state and non-state partners, and providing social structures to ease the costs to some Americans of economic adjustment, while maintaining America’s leadership role.

There are very good reasons to do so. Not least is the ability to shape and influence regional norms. There is also the looming threat that if America retreats, the vacuum it creates will quickly be filled. Already, Europe is seeking to strengthen its ties to Asia.

The UK is focusing on Japan. In the run-up to the G20 meetings in Hamburg, Germany looked to China. In Asia, America’s abandoning of the proposed regional trade agreement, the TPP, is a missed opportunity that is likely to hinder its capacity to shape developments in the region.

Trump does not see internationalism as his future, at least not in electoral terms. Even as he has backtracked on some of his more incendiary threats, his appeals to a nationalist base at home risk alienating many Europeans, if not Europe as a whole, and undermining the foundations of transatlanticism.

America’s European partners have had an ambivalent response. At times, they have appeared to be aghast. Those more pragmatic among them, most especially the British prime minster, have sought to court the president.

Theresa May’s rush to Washington shortly after Trump’s inauguration was surely designed to shore up her own domestic weakness by allying herself firmly to the US. This strategy backfired as, shortly after May’s US visit, crowds of protesters at home set back the possibility of a state visit for the new American president. Britain’s preoccupation with Brexit also dampens the prospect for the UK to draw the US out and secure its steady support for the liberal international order.

For many committed globalists, Germany is the great white hope, holding the promise of a sound, stable, prosperous and liberal leadership − one that might even manage to re-introduce an element of moral authority into international affairs.

Very early on, when Merkel distanced herself from the president’s hyper-nationalist rhetoric, stressing that cooperation with Germany and with Europe could not come at the expense of shared liberal values, she was quickly touted as the next leader of the free world. But, Merkel remains highly constrained at home, not least by the German constitution.

Macron’s France has vacillated between turning a cold shoulder and playing host to the president during the annual Bastille Day celebrations. Yet within weeks of ascending to the top of French politics, Macron has faced his own domestic battles as he seeks labor market reforms.

In the absence of any obvious strategy for engaging Trump’s White House, or any real alternative to US leadership, a series of “workarounds” are emerging. These are predicated, in part, on the belief that ultimately the system will work, and America will stay in the game of transatlantic relations so long as those most invested in this happening remain vigilant.

At home in America, civil society activism, federal courts, executive branch institutions and even Congress have mobilized to push back against many of Trump’s anti-internationalist proposals.

In some cases, workarounds have been designed specifically to steady America’s international commitments. When Trump announced that the US would withdraw from the Paris climate accord, the former New York mayor Michael Bloomberg mobilized a coalition of state governors, mayors, university presidents, and chief executives actively committed to maintaining the targets set by the US for reducing its emissions. John Kerry, the former secretary of state, launched the Live by Paris movement with a similar goal.

Some workarounds aim to establish new partnerships, leaving the US behind. In Hamburg at the G20 meeting, all eyes were on Merkel’s meeting with President Xi. But while a pragmatic partnership built on shared economic interest may generate gains, it is not likely to fill the void.

For now, the workaround strategy may be the best game in town, but it is a hedging one.

Those more optimistic about the future point to the deep history of cooperation between Europe and America. Despite Trump’s various provocations, eight months into his presidency, America’s security and defence policies remain largely unchanged and Trump has retreated from some of the more incendiary of his campaign pledges.

But Trump has willingly abandoned America’s claim to moral authority, boldly asserting “America First.” At times, he has taken international diplomacy into the realm of playground politics, courting bullies and bullying friends. One of the most disconcerting facets of Trump’s presidency may be his choice of words, more than a few of which have been expressed in 140 characters.

What this means for Europe is less certain. Guilt by association is a fact of political life and so, on matters of moral standing and diplomacy, America may find itself increasingly alienated from its friends and allies. But America’s new politics are creating a vacuum that cannot simply be worked around.

America’s power remains essential, not least because it is so deeply embedded in liberal structures. The question for now, though, is how to square the circle.

Trump has opened up an opportunity for creative leadership which Europe needs to seize.

Leslie Vinjamuri is an associate fellow with the US and the Americas Programme, serves on the council of Chatham House, and is an adjunct faculty member with the institute's Academy for Leadership in International Affairs. She is director of the Centre on Conflict, Rights and Justice and associate professor of International Relations at SOAS, University of London.

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