A selection of experts answer a new question from Judy Dempsey on the foreign and security policy challenges shaping Europe’s role in the world.
Rosa BalfourSenior fellow and acting director of the Europe program at the German Marshal Fund of the United States, and member of the steering committee of Women in International Security (WIIS)-Brussels
Perhaps British Prime Minister Theresa May thought that U.S. President Donald Trump could do with some sound advice from the old continent. That hope was quickly proven as wishful thinking last week: just as May was warning of the need to abide by values, Trump was signing executive orders to allow waterboarding and to shut borders to religiously identified migrants and refugees. May’s recent White House visit was a disgrace for Britain, and Trump has demonstrated that he certainly does not think he needs Europe—in fact, he seems to despise it.
Yet the United States needs a strong, stable, and inspiring Europe more than ever. Whatever Trump and his associates may think, the transatlantic relationship has not been a matter of the United States providing unilateral support to a fledgling Europe; it has supported American economic growth and its stability has provided security in areas of prime U.S. interest for decades.
Europe has no choice but to limit the chaos that Trump is unleashing, first and foremost by preventing the entire transatlantic relationship from falling apart under the dual centrifugal forces of Brexit and the new U.S. administration’s divisive policy toward the EU. And the rest of the world will need Europe to pick up the pieces of the reckless political choices being made across the Atlantic.
Piotr BurasHead of the Warsaw office of the European Council on Foreign Relations
No, he does not. If you take Trump’s foreign policy views seriously, which one definitely should do, Europe emerges as either a spoiler or—at best—a neutral factor rather than an actor whose interests should be taken into account.
President Trump does not need Europe to introduce a protectionist trade policy, or to stop immigration, or to strike deals with authoritarian regimes. And the lack of EU strategic leverage in the Middle East and Southeast Asia doesn’t make the old continent very useful in terms of regional bargaining.
But the relative uselessness of Europe in Trump’s view results from a massive political paradigm shift that he is bringing about. Europe used to be useful for America not because of its hard power or economic clout but because its unity and support were key to America’s fundamental interest after 1945: maintaining the liberal international order. This is why the European integration was a genuinely transatlantic project.
The new paradigm that we are entering is a post-Atlanticist Europe. And as long as the U.S. president does not believe that the defense of the liberal order is worthwhile, then the EU as we know it cannot do much to become useful again.
Fraser CameronDirector of the EU-Russia Centre
It depends on his agenda. If U.S. President Donald Trump wants to follow a narrow nationalist, protectionist, anti-Muslim, anti-Iran deal, anti-climate change agenda then he will get no support from the EU. And if he seriously tries to undermine the EU and its institutions (as his designated EU ambassador has advocated) then we are in dangerous territory.
But if Trump were to moderate his stance there could be potential for a transactional EU-U.S. relationship on some issues. The most obvious is on security policy, where U.S. Secretary of Defence James Mattis and U.S. Secretary of State-designate Rex Tillerson seem to have talked some sense into Trump on alliance issues—NATO and East Asia.
But Trump’s move into the White House should be a loud wake-up call for the EU to get its act together on its foreign and security policy. At some point, whether under Trump or a successor, Washington will return to a more “normal” foreign policy agenda and the EU will again be America’s partner of choice—assuming that Europe can seize the opportunity to play a more visible and coherent global role.
Alexandra de Hoop SchefferSenior transatlantic fellow and director of the Paris Office of the German Marshall Fund of the United States
Yes, Trump needs a united Europe. However, the U.S. president’s preference toward alliances with nation states in the EU rather than a transatlantic alliance is further undermining European cohesion. The U.S.-German special relationship, which had helped preserve the EU’s internal cohesion on sanctions since 2014, has been hastily replaced by the return of the U.S.-UK special relationship at a time when Britain is disentangling itself from Europe. This plays directly into the hands of Putin, who seeks to divide the EU and NATO.
To avoid falling into this trap, the best attitude Europe can adopt toward the United States is one of greater policy independence, a posture that was described by former French minister of Foreign Affairs Hubert Védrine as, “amie, alliée, mais pas alignée”, or “friend, allied, but not aligned,” with U.S. policy.
If transatlantic unity becomes less obvious under the Trump administration, at the EU level unity will become an absolute necessity. EU member states will have to step up efforts to meet NATO members’ commitment to devote 2 percent of their GDP NATO to defense; better coordinate refugee flows at the EU level; and seize the U.S. withdrawal from TPP as an opportunity to enter into an economic relationship with China.
Roland FreudensteinPolicy director at the Wilfried Martens Centre for European Studies
Yes, he does—but he probably doesn’t know it yet. If America is to return to greatness, it needs friends and allies. These alliances are built on the trust that comes with shared values. The problem is that the new U.S. president seems to believe that America’s contractual relationships can be treated as bargaining chips for the most profitable deal possible, regardless of values.
For Europe that means two things. First, we need to honestly admit that in his complaints about the status quo of transatlantic relations, Trump has a point. Europeans have been free-riding on U.S. deployments and security guarantees for too long. We need to urgently and decisively increase military spending, thereby strengthening Europe’s role in NATO—which should remain the only organization defending Europe. The EU’s role will be to improve its capacity to intervene in the union’s neighborhood.
Second, Europe needs to engage with Trump and his people and argue that a reformed transatlantic alliance—based on trust—is in the best economic and security interests of both sides. We still have important advocates on this within the U.S. administration, and especially in Congress.
As for Trump’s fiddling with the constitution: American democracy is old and strong. It’s not the EU’s business to intervene here. Our business is to make Europe relevant again in the eyes of the whole Trump administration.
Andrew FoxallDirector of the Russia Studies Centre at the Henry Jackson Society
Ever since Donald Trump launched his U.S. presidential election campaign, he has been vague on most issues of foreign policy. On Europe, however, he has been clear: there will be a tempering of America’s leading role in guaranteeing Europe’s defense and security.
Such a policy would be dangerous: the United States needs strong allies in Europe, just as Europe needs a strong ally in the United States.
The United States relies on Europe’s economic, military, and political strength to promote world order and uphold democratic values. It is this same order and these same values upon which President Trump’s pledge to “make America great again” relies. For all of Trump’s rhetoric, the United States cannot just go it alone in the world.
America’s worldview and policy prescriptions have traditionally been much stronger when unified with those of Europe. Both the United States and Europe are able to achieve far more when they work together than when they work alone. Yes, President Trump needs Europe. But the question that really matters is: does he realize this?
Marc PieriniVisiting fellow at Carnegie Europe
Judging by the flurry of decisions taken by U.S. President Donald Trump during his first few days in office, the “no” answer is a tempting one, especially considering Trump’s clearly protectionist tendencies and his intention to craft a trade deal with the UK as soon as it leaves the EU.
Yet, in a globalized and interdependent world, economic and legal realities are a bit more complex than just putting “America first.”
Take the aircraft industry as an example: EU-based Airbus is a major competitor for the American Boeing company. Yet Airbus has sold some 1,900 aircraft to 20 U.S. airlines and leasing companies, many of which are assembled on American soil. In addition, every single Airbus aircraft includes U.S.-made equipment on board—in particular avionics and, in some cases, jet engines—amounting to 42% of its aircraft procurement value. This means that if, in an extreme version of the “America first” emerging commercial doctrine, the Trump administration was to penalize Airbus in favor of Boeing, the policy would hurt its own airline and aerospace industries. Not to mention that such a move could also trigger retaliatory measures.
Once the initial frenzy of executive orders is over and a full administration is in place in the United States, a more sober look at the economics of the U.S.-EU relationship will be in order.
Fabrice PothierSenior associate and director of the Ukraine project at Rasmussen Global
The real question is whether the United States and Europe can go it alone? All ingredients put both sides of the Atlantic on a collision course. Trump could not be further apart from Europe on core policies like climate and trade, but also potentially on how to deal with Iran and engage Russia. Added to that is what many in Europe see as a toxic, reactionary agenda on minorities and religions. Europe is not necessarily wrong about wanting to stay on the right side of liberal values and principles. But the reality is that Europe is deeply divided itself and uncertain about its own liberal project.
We can expect an attempt to part ways in the coming years. The United States will pursue a transactional bilateralism in which there is no friend or foe but just negotiating partners. Europe will be divided: some will resist and potentially retrench into a self-righteous introspection; others will embrace the new Trumpian world. China and Russia will be the big winners, establishing new friends and markets in Europe. The West will be a bit more fragmented and a bit weaker to solve some of the thorniest issues out there—until both sides realize that going it alone is no option and they need each other.
Gianni RiottaMember of the Council on Foreign Relations
President Trump and his main advisor Stephen Bannon think they do not need allies or partners. Trump sees geopolitics as a real estate feud in Queens: a zero sum game where you huff and puff until you win the contract and make fun of your opponents. Bannon takes the ideologue’s approach: he views world affairs as an American football match, hoping to inflict as many concussions as he can. Eventually, this strange couple will need both Europe and the UK.
Even though Europeans are doing their best to become irrelevant as possible—look at the efforts of Brexit, Le Pen, Grillo, Orbán, Kaczyński—and have yet to face Putin and China, the U.S. president will be placing a risky bet by not working with America’s allies.
Trump has yet to deal with a real crisis, from a terrorist attack to financial fallout to international friction to war. As soon as does, he will realize that macho posturing amount to nothing in the real world. And—if reality sobers him up—Trump may look to Europe as a partner, or at least a friendly face in a cold planet. Will Europe be able to respond with a valid answer? This is an entire different, and very tricky, question.
Marietje SchaakeMember of the European Parliament
President Trump seems to be convinced he does not need others: not experts, nor allies, nor partners. Reality will prove him wrong. American leadership has hardly taken place in a vacuum. In fact, economic and political isolation have led to dark days. On the contrary, when Europeans and Americans have worked together, we have shared the success.
The transatlantic relationship is rooted in a set of shared values that—until recently—seemed non-negotiable. It is up to us in Europe to stand firm for open society, open economies, open internet, and open minds and I am convinced many Americans will support us.
While practice and promise are not always in line, the aspiration to moral leadership and the desire to create a more just and free world must not be squandered. The EU must step up its defence of liberal, open, tolerant societies and the rules-based international order.
German Chancellor Angela Merkel spoke for many people around the world when she condemned Trump's executive order on refugees. The open character of the Unites States is not an “Obama policy,” but a foundation of the American dream and the core of its melting pot culture.
In the end, the question is not so much whether Trump needs Europe, but whether Americans and Europeans need each other. To that, the answer is an emphatic “yes.”
Eugeniusz SmolarMember of the board at the Centre for International Relations, Warsaw
Donald Trump’s first decisions as U.S. president have considerably squandered America’s invaluable soft power. In just one week, his particular “America first” policy has taken hold. It will hardly be seen as a source of inspiration or influence, especially for those who are living in fear of predatory powers or are looking to build some modicum of safety, stabilization, and predictability across the globe. All this will force the United States to rely on naked force, or the threat to use it, even more than before—unless the Unites States abandons its international responsibilities altogether.
Europe is a great power economically, politically, and militarily. Yet lack of political will prevents the EU from using these tools in a coordinated and effective manner.
American politicians, diplomats, business, and the military know that they need Europe for its combined security, influence, and money, including an effective fight against terrorism and the so-called Islamic State. Trump seems to disregard all that, but will learn the tough way. It is enough to note that American investments in Europe are incomparably greater than investments in China. Any destabilization in Europe will hit the U.S. economy immediately.
Europe needs the United States for exactly the same reasons. Europe will have to adapt and change by investing more in defence and more resources for NATO.
Europe will (hopefully) emerge from this unpleasant experience stronger, more united, and with a greater sense of purpose. Out of fear of Russia, Poland might choose Trumpian security guarantees at the expense of EU integration. If so, it will be isolated in Europe and will pay the price.
Ulrich SpeckSenior research fellow at the Brussels Office of the Elcano Royal Institute
The problem with the transatlantic relationship is its asymmetry: Europe needs America more than the other way around. Economically, the United States is as interconnected and interdependent as Europe and both are globalized economic spaces. But on security, Europe is dependent and America is not.
For many years, this didn’t seem to matter. The Cold War was over and Russia wasn’t a threat. But with Putin’s use of military force coupled with nuclear intimidation, defense has moved to the forefront again—and with it, the reality of Europe’s dependency on the United States.
If Washington suddenly cares more about working with Moscow than about pushing back against Russian aggression in Europe, there is not much that Europe can do. There is no plan B for European security. The Trump shock may change that, but only slowly and only if European powers can find agreement amongst themselves, which is far from certain.
For many European countries, NATO at its core is an American defense guarantee. Without the United States, Europeans would have to devise and implement an entirely new system of collective security, which would result in a new balance among them. This is rather unlikely at a time of geopolitical shifts, rising nationalism, and anti-establishment furor.
Stephen SzaboExecutive director of the Transatlantic Academy
Trump needs Europe because the United States needs Europe. Unfortunately, the new American president seems to consider Europe, like the rest of the world, as a place of free riders who take advantage of American largess and protection while winning in a zero sum game in trade. He has a purely geoeconomic and nationalist view of a world in which the strong persevere and the weak are crushed.
To Trump, it is all about making deals, a transactional world of a real estate wheeler and dealer. He will be the first U.S. president who actively will seek to undermine not only European unity but the European project. He believes in the nation state and will oppose all forms of multilateral or multinational institutions as weakening national identity and national will. It is not surprising that President Trump has an affinity for President Putin; they have the same world view.
Europe will only be taken seriously if it takes itself seriously, both in defense and in defending its values and open societies. In a sense, Europe will have to apply the old Harmel Doctrine of NATO toward the Soviet Union, détente and defense, but this time toward Washington.
Tessa SzyszkowitzAustrian UK correspondent
Donald Trump does not think much of the European Union. He might not even realize that his current wife, Melania, comes from Slovenia, one of the small states that were happy to join the EU in 2004 and be part of a continent unified in democracy, freedom, and prosperity.
As this historic project of peace and security has come under pressure through recent internal and external developments, the U.S. president and his British advisor Nigel Farage are already celebrating the EU’s demise. But I would advise Donald Trump not to be too quick to dismiss what the EU has to offer.
He may find himself in a situation in which he might appreciate the soft power approach of EU leaders. They hesitate to build walls, move borders, or send armies against each other. Instead, they try to engage in the complex task of constructing commonly shared institutions, in which the rights of all citizens are carefully weighed against national interests.
When civil war erupts in the United States because of Trump’s continued racist policies, he might need Europe after all. He will be very glad to learn that the EU will uphold one of its founding principles: the right to offer refuge to strangers when they are being threatened by a lynchmob at home. Luckily for Donald Trump, the EU does not treat asylum seekers differently according to their religion or the color of their hair.
Pierre VimontSenior fellow at Carnegie Europe
The short answer is yes, Trump needs Europe—but he does not seem to be aware of it. This is the traditional struggle between gut feelings and reality checks. Isolationism in the 1930s, trade protectionist measures during the same period, and lessons learned from the Cold War have clearly shown that even an “exceptional nation” like America needs allies. Moreover, in today’s multipolar world the pushback against the Western camp from many global and regional powers requires solidarity among transatlantic allies.
These arguments fall short when facing the harsh reality of the new conservative ideology. As the embodiment of all the values this school of thought despises, the EU cannot be perceived as a natural partner, let alone a credible actor on the international scene.
Can Europe convince the new U.S. administration of the contrary? Probably not, for the time being. But if Europe is able to stand firm and united around its common interests, its relevance may gradually find its way into the Trump administration’s mindset.