Strategic Europe continues its Capitals Series exploring how EU foreign policy is viewed by major non-European countries. We have asked each of our contributors to give a frank assessment of their country’s relations with the EU and rank five key issues in order of their importance in those relations. This week, the spotlight is on the United States.
The United States has traditionally been a strong proponent and active supporter of the European project. Much of this role is now called into question by the election of Donald Trump—probably the most Euroskeptic U.S. president in generations. Trump has openly advocated Britain’s exit from the EU, dismissed the union as “a vehicle for Germany,” and endorsed anti-EU candidate Marine Le Pen in the 2017 French presidential election.
Yet, while these and other positions are shocking to most European leaders—even prompting European Council President Donald Tusk in January to refer to Trump as a “threat” alongside China, Russia, and terrorism—the underlying sentiment they represent is not unique. About a quarter of Americans have a negative view of the EU, but among Republicans, the number is far higher. The dominant view of the EU in Washington typically ranges from dispassionate interest to dismissal to outright contempt in some cases. Sentiments in the U.S. Congress are more favorable than in the Trump White House, with a bipartisan consensus in support of the EU. (Earlier this year, a pro-EU caucus was even set up in the House of Representatives.)
Trump’s complaints about the lack of European defense spending and transatlantic burden sharing follow a long-standing U.S. tradition. But unlike during the Cold War, when Europe served as an essential bulwark against Soviet expansionism, Washington has grown increasingly weary of the old continent’s perceived complacency and perpetual dependence. Furthermore, divergent strategic cultures mean that Europe’s emphasis on soft power and its reluctance to deploy force are often met with scorn or indifference by Americans. As a result, the EU is absent from most foreign policy discussions in Washington. U.S. policymakers frequently hear Europeans complain about Washington doing either too much or too little while seldom offering any real alternative strategies.
This sentiment is further reinforced by shifting U.S. strategic priorities elsewhere in the world. The attempt by the administration of former U.S. president Barack Obama to pivot to the Asia-Pacific region was not a one-off but is expected to continue under Trump, as containing a rising China becomes the top U.S. strategic objective. It is easy for Europeans to forget that the United States is both an Atlantic and a Pacific power. Europe’s perceived weakness and inability to sort out its own crises—along with long-term generational and demographic shifts in the United States—further underscore the move away from Europe toward the Pacific and Latin America. According to Pew, while 53 percent of Americans still think relations with Europe are more important than those with Asia, only 46 percent of millennials think so.
Although the Trump administration has offered mixed reassurances that it will continue to honor the decades-old U.S. commitment to NATO, there is generally little appreciation in Washington of the EU’s security and defense role. Nevertheless, at a practical level, EU-U.S. security cooperation continues to operate as usual on a range of issues. The joint sanctions against Russia over its aggression in Ukraine and the Iran nuclear negotiations are two recent examples of successful EU-U.S. cooperation. Even under Trump, Washington would likely welcome a stronger European foreign policy that can more equitably share the burden of protecting transatlantic security. Gone are the concerns in the 1990s and early 2000s that the EU would one day develop into a rival power able to balance U.S. hegemony. Today, the concern is the opposite—that Europe is too weak, crisis ridden, and parochial.
On trade, EU-U.S. ties remain second to none. The two blocs represent each other’s most important markets, with transatlantic exchanges accounting for 30 percent of global trade in goods and 40 percent of world trade in services. But attempts to further strengthen and deepen this relationship in the form of the proposed Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP) have stalled and are now in limbo. If the Trump administration chooses to let TTIP lay fallow, it may instead eventually turn its attention to a bilateral free-trade agreement with the UK, a priority that Trump has mentioned both before and since his election.
Meanwhile, Trump’s threats to impose new taxes on imported goods and to single out Germany as a currency manipulator alongside China could put a damper on transatlantic relations over the next four years. There is a perception, especially among conservatives, that the European market is too restrictive due to burdensome regulations, rules, and institutions. The EU’s inability to address persistent eurozone problems is also noted.
However, given Trump’s strong emphasis on boosting domestic jobs and the manufacturing sector through exports, trade with Europe will undoubtedly keep the United States tied to Europe. Apart from bilateral trade, EU-U.S. cooperation is also crucial for upholding the multilateral economic order, although much uncertainty surrounds the Trump administration’s position in this regard.
Europe and the United States are close partners when it comes to addressing global emergencies and disasters. Together, the United States, the EU institutions, and EU member states account for two-thirds of the total global humanitarian budget. While there are divergent approaches and principles to humanitarian work, transatlantic coordination is widespread, especially on the ground in disaster zones. Both sides participate in and are major donors to various multilateral institutions and forums.
Yet the Trump administration’s proposed cuts to U.S. development efforts and funding for multilateral institutions could force European donor nations to have to do more on their own. The same goes for democracy and governance efforts. The message from Washington these days is that the traditional emphasis on values such as democracy and human rights may not be as important going forward.
On climate and energy, Trump has threatened to reverse policies on reducing emissions at home and begun to walk away from international commitments. The United States is divided internally, with many Republicans questioning climate change and the economics of efforts to curtail emissions while several states such as New York and California have progressive emissions targets similar to Europe’s. Trump’s America First energy policy includes deregulation and investments in infrastructure at home and a push to boost energy exports overseas, including to Europe. How actively the Trump administration will support European energy security efforts, a high priority for the Obama administration, is still unclear.
In sum, Trump has demonstrated little appreciation of the EU’s crucial role in ensuring peace and prosperity in modern Europe. Europeans must thus be prepared for a less romantic and more transactional view of the EU from Washington, with the White House downplaying the importance of the traditional transatlantic relationship under the banner of America First. Most likely, Trump will keep paying lip service to the European project but approach it with dispassion, preferring instead to deal with individual EU capitals, especially Berlin, on a strictly bilateral basis. In other words, he may be not too different from the administrations of Bill Clinton, George W. Bush, and Obama, who were all initially skeptical of Europe but still found ways to work together.
Erik Brattberg is the director of the Europe Program and a fellow at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.