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Why Trump Clashes With Europe

Walter Russell Mead

Donald Trump’s America-first diplomacy has shaken the foundations of many global institutions and alliances, but its most damaging effects so far have been on the trans-Atlantic relationship. The community of North American and European nations forming the nucleus of the alliance that won the Cold War for the West is closer to breaking up now than at any time since the 1940s.

Europe’s Trump problem is threefold. Temperamentally, Mr. Trump’s impulsive nature puts him at odds with the low-key norms of statesmanship upon which the European Union depends. Stylistically, his theatrical approach to politics strikes Europeans as both dangerous and unserious. But it is the deep ideological opposition between Mr. Trump’s worldview and the postwar European conception of statesmanship that converts this friction into a conflict threatening the Western alliance.

For some of Mr. Trump’s critics, it is absurd to speak of a Trumpian “ideology.” They see Mr. Trump’s foreign policy as a bundle of narcissistic impulses, transactional greediness, and knee-jerk reflex. Winston Churchill had written great works of history before becoming prime minister; both Harry Truman and Ronald Reagan, though derided as lightweights in their time, filled their journals with carefully considered reflections about big ideas. The author of “The Art of the Deal”is not in that league. President Trump has no master project, many critics say, no fleshed-out political philosophy he seeks to impose on the world.

Still, one can speak of ideas basic to the European project that Mr. Trump categorically rejects. Mr. Trump doesn’t believe the future will be one of interdependent, postnationalist states engaged in win-win trade. He doesn’t believe military power will become less relevant as progress marches on. He doesn’t think international law and international institutions can, should or will dominate international life. Individual nation-states will remain, in Mr. Trump’s view, the dominant geopolitical force.

Mr. Trump therefore thinks the EU’s political establishment is just as blind and misguided as they believe he is. He thinks Europe is making itself steadily weaker and less relevant in international life, and that Vladimir Putin’s view of the world is almost infinitely more clear-eyed and rational than Angela Merkel’s.

When Mr. Trump looks at Germany today, he may not see much of an ally. Germany benefits immensely, the president believes, from America’s investments in NATO and more generally in Europe. But it responds with selfish trade policies, moral lectures, and security free-riding. Believing, as Mr. Trump does, that Russia isn’t a threat to the U.S., he feels no need to bury U.S.-German differences for the sake of anti-Russian unity.

Mr. Trump thinks Israel is a smarter and better ally than Germany. He listens to Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu more than he does to Mrs. Merkel because he thinks Israel’s aggressive defense of its national interests reflects a better understanding of the world, and because he thinks cooperating with Bibi brings more political benefit at home and more effective assistance abroad than anything the Germans are willing to provide.

Even worse from a European perspective, Mr. Trump believes international relations are driven by need and self-interest—and by Mr. Trump’s measure, Europe needs the U.S. much more than the U.S. needs Europe. Mr. Putin wants to break the EU’s unity so he can reassert Russian influence across the Continent. China’s industrial plans envision, among other things, the overthrow of German supremacy in automobile and machine-tool manufacturing. Europe lacks the military might and unified leadership to overcome the enormous security and migration challenges in North Africa and the Middle East, and the fracturing facade of European unity can’t conceal the deepening divides between East and West, North and South.

A perfect storm is brewing in the Atlantic. In personality and in style, Mr. Trump represents almost everything Europeans dislike most about American life. He is even more abrasive when it comes to matters of substance. The Trumpian mix of zero-sum trade policy, hard-nosed foreign-policy realism, and skepticism about Europe’s future leads him to think of Europe as both a weak partner and an unreliable one. Small wonder, then, that virtually every encounter between Mr. Trump and his European counterparts leaves the relationship under greater strain.

That Mr. Trump wants to renegotiate elements of America’s trade and security relationship with Europe is not, in itself, a bad or a destructive thing. And it is no tragedy that this weekend’s Group of 7 attendees failed to agree on yet another platitudinous, instantly forgotten communiqué. But given the poisonous nature of U.S.-European relations at the moment, the White House should consider the benefits of turning down the heat. For all its flaws, the trans-Atlantic community remains a vital asset for American influence in the world. Neither history nor, one suspects, the electorate will reward a president on whose watch it suffers irreparable harm.

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