United States policy toward Europe has centered on NATO and the European Union since the end of World War II. NATO provided a bedrock defense relationship, first as an alliance to counter the Soviet Union and later to protect all of its growing membership from any external threat.
This was evidenced by the 2001 decision to invoke Article 5 (an attack on one is considered an attack on all) following the terrorist action against the U.S. on 9/11.
At the same time, the EU evolved into an enormous trading block that helped establish stability and build prosperity on a continent that suffered two horrendous wars in the last century. With the U.S. leading the way, this transatlantic partnership not only protected and greatly enriched its citizens, but advanced shared global priorities, from fostering democracy and human rights to combating terrorism and mitigating climate change.
This tradition of intense cooperation — between like-minded, democratic, free-market economies — has clashed with Trump’s “America First” positions. During the campaign, Trump called for unilateral trade deals, denigrated the EU, and hailed Britain’s pending exit from the bloc. He declared NATO “obsolete,” and even hinted the U.S. might not defend allies that had not met recommended spending targets.
During his first trip as president, in Brussels, Trump publicly chastised NATO countries for not paying more for defense and failed to explicitly endorse Article 5. How to deal with Russia, the policy that originally bound both sides of the Atlantic in common cause, was low-balled and is now a sticking point.
At the G7 Summit Trump was regarded as “spoiler-in-chief,” as sharp splits emerged over trade and climate change.
The public optics of many of Trump’s encounters with these longtime allies were bad. Some private meetings, especially the Brussels meeting with EU officials and the NATO dinner with allied leaders, were worse.
The impact of Washington’s new worldview was swift. German Chancellor Angela Merkel declared that “the times when Europe could fully rely on others are over.” Canada’s foreign minister said the U.S. could no longer be relied upon for global leadership: “International relationships that seemed immutable for 70 years are being called into question.”
The rift that became apparent with Trump’s visit to Europe widened further with his announcement on climate change and subsequent spat with London Mayor Sadiq Khan following the London Bridge terrorist attack. Trump’s planned visit to Britain (America’s closest ally) may be indefinitely postponed.
While Trump did declare June 9 that he would commit to NATO Article 5, the damage had already been done. The U.S. formalized our climate change policy June 12, saying we won’t join other nations in reaffirming the Paris Agreement, but will henceforth engage with key partners “in a manner consistent with our domestic priorities.”
Putin welcomes this discord. Russia has resented NATO and EU enlargement as former Eastern European satellite states became members, followed by the former Soviet Baltic republics. Russia felt the sting of sanctions following Moscow’s aggression in Georgia and Ukraine.
The emerging divisions among these historic allies, and America’s retreat from its long-standing leadership role can only strengthen Russian influence.
Trump’s second international trip next month, with stops planned in Poland and Germany (to participate in the G20 Summit), should signal whether this transatlantic unraveling and U.S. global disengagement will continue.
Unfortunately, the theme of the Hamburg gathering — “Shaping an interconnected world,” which is symbolized by a knot — appears decidedly at odds with Trump’s current approach.
Retired U.S. ambassador Carey Cavanaugh is a professor and former director of the University of Kentucky’s Patterson School of Diplomacy and International Commerce.