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For Europe, Trump Is a Blessing in Disguise

Walter Russell Mead

The Trump administration is turning out to be a blessing in disguise for the European Union. While many of the president’s rhetorical statements offend European sensibilities, and while dramatic acts like the withdrawal from the Paris climate accord prompt talk of a “crisis” in trans-Atlantic relations, the actual consequences of the administration’s policies are shoring up Europe’s foundations in surprising ways.

A year ago, fears that an allegedly pro-Russia Trump administration would ditch the North Atlantic Treaty Organization and throw Europe to the wolves had delicate Europeans trembling. These days those fears seem quaint. But few in Europe have yet grasped how anti-Russian and pro-European the Trump foreign policy is at its core.

This is partly because European reflexes, especially German ones, are so often nonstrategic. Fine words and noble resolutions are mistaken for hard facts, and the wrapping paper matters more than the gift.

When many Europeans—and more than a few Americans—hear the word “fracking,” for example, they don’t think of the spear tip of an American energy offensive that limits Russia’s geopolitical ambitions while creating the conditions for renewed European prosperity. And when they hear about American plans to rearm and modernize its nuclear arsenal, they instinctively think about the dangers of American militarism—overlooking Moscow’s hostile military buildup that endangers the European countries closest to Russia.

Energy is the place to begin. The vast American oil and gas resources being unlocked by unconventional (and rapidly improving) techniques like fracking are more than a domestic economic bonanza. They are a key instrument of American foreign policy. These resources will not only deprive Middle Eastern countries of the financial capacity too many have used to underwrite radicalism and terrorism; they force Russia, whose economy is greatly dependent on oil exports, to count the cost of every bullet fired in Ukraine and every mercenary deployed to Syria.

Fracking frustrates Vladimir Putin more than sanctions, and much more than harsh rhetoric at the United Nations. When the price of oil is $150 a barrel and every country in Europe is desperate for energy, Russia casts a long shadow over the EU. When oil is at $60 a barrel and supplies are plentiful, Russian leverage is dramatically diminished.

But there is another way in which fracking helps the EU. The EU is a net importer and consumer of energy; high oil and gas prices dampen European growth. The high monopoly prices that characterized the age of the Organization of the Petroleum Exporting Countries acted as a deadening tax on European economic activity. The lower prices delivered in part by fracking amount to a giant tax cut for the European economy, one that is especially welcome in southern European countries like Greece and Italy that are still struggling with the aftermath of the euro crisis.

Environmentalists wince, but Mr. Trump’s pedal-to-the-metal approach to energy production is better calculated to promote growth and cohesion in the eurozone than anything else the U.S. could do, because faster economic growth will reduce the political strains that corrode the legitimacy of EU institutions. If next month’s Italian election results in a pro-Europe government, Brussels should send champagne to the White House.

There’s more. Over time, the Trump administration’s proposed military buildup and nuclear modernization will deter Russian aggression and reduce Moscow’s ability to intimidate its neighbors. A stronger America means a stronger NATO and a more stable eastern Europe. If the U.S. were, as some wish, to reduce military spending while focusing more on Asia, European security would suffer regardless of the number of supportive speeches delivered by American diplomats.

Not everyone in Europe hates the administration. Paris, which traditionally has a less sentimental view of geopolitics than Berlin, sees a historic opportunity. Key Trump policies like promoting European self-reliance in defense, a tougher anti-Iran approach to the Middle East, and an emphasis on military power and security mesh better with French priorities than with German ones. While Berlin wrings its hands over the administration’s evident skepticism about Germany’s values agenda, President Emmanuel Macron hopes to replace a weakened Chancellor Angela Merkel as America’s key European partner.

For the French, even Mr. Trump’s vices have their uses; his unpopularity in Europe and apparent retreat from world leadership create vacuums France can help fill. Here again, the Trump administration may be solving an important European problem. Germany’s growing power and France’s weakness threatened the Franco-German balance to which the EU owes much of its strength.

Mr. Trump is not about to become a European hero, but he offers Europe a historic opportunity.

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