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Sam Seitz

On November 1, 2018, I attended a BMW Center Event titled “A New Era for Transatlantic Relations? Perceptions from Europe and the U.S.” Unfortunately, given the length of the event, I was able to attend only the panel examining perceptions from the United States. The panel itself was composed of two academics and a former practitioner. However, both academics teach at public policy schools – Georgetown’s School of Foreign Service and Johns Hopkins’ School of Advanced International Studies – which ensured that the discussion remained grounded in contemporary policy concerns without becoming bogged down in overly-stylized theory. While the discussion was wide-ranging, two topics received the preponderance of attention: Europe’s military weakness and the impact of President Trump on transatlantic relations. There was broad agreement among the panelists that European military capacity is woefully inadequate and extremely frustrating for American policymakers and citizens alike. However, this consensus did not extend to the other question of interest, as the panel did not agree on whether Trump would generate a permanent rift in the alliance or merely short-term consternation.

Professor Daniel Hamilton of Johns Hopkins kicked off the discussion by examining the impact of domestic politics on European strategic capabilities. According to Hamilton, the European political elite naively believed in the post-Cold War “peace dividend” and the inexorability of European integration post-Maastricht. This Pollyannaish view proved disastrously wrong, especially in the military domain, as industry protectionism and prioritization of national, rather than Union, interests prevented the level of integration and cooperation necessary to construct a capable European military force. He argued that these impediments have only become magnified in recent years due to increased Euroscepticism and increasingly fractious and extreme politics within E.U. member states. Dr. Hamilton then linked this circumstance to the U.S. by highlighting how frustrating it is for Americans that Europe consistently punches below its weight, and he posited this as a partial explanation for Trump’s transactional view of the alliance. While he believed a decoupling of the U.S. and E.U. to be unlikely due to continued shared interests and weak European capacity, he did acknowledge a change in European rhetoric, with Heiko Maas and Emanuel Macron calling for more “strategic autonomy” and Christian Hacke urging Berlin to acquire nuclear weapons. He also remarked that the U.S. has gone from a “European power” to a “power in Europe,” which I found to be an interesting turn of phrase.

Professor Robert Lieber of Georgetown largely concurred. He noted that the transatlantic relationship has been strained at many points throughout its history – including the Vietnam War, the end of Bretton Woods, the deployment of Pershing missiles to Europe in the early 1980s, and the Iraq War – and that European leaders have sought strategic autonomy before. Nevertheless, the transatlantic alliance has been successfully maintained in spite of all these challenges and strains. According to Dr. Lieber, there is no reason to believe that Trump will result in an irrevocable change in relations either, as Europe is simply incapable of providing for its own security and will become increasingly feeble as its population ages and its budgets are consumed by welfare spending. Given that Europe’s centrist political parties are struggling, he cautioned against an attempt to fundamentally alter the transatlantic relationship, as this would only increase uncertainty.

Michael Smith offered a somewhat alternative perspective, having served in the State Department during both the Obama and Trump presidencies. While he generally concurred with the assessment of European weakness, he was much more focused on and concerned about the damage being wrought by President Trump. This, I believe, was in large part due to his close interaction with European counterparts over the past few years. I’m not sure this makes his position more correct, but it certainly provides him with privileged insight worthy of close examination. One of his two core concerns was that Trump is pursuing relatively trivial short-term gains at long-term expense. For example, while Trump has succeeded in pushing European countries to raise defense spending by a few tenths of a percentage point, the heckling and disruptive tactics which he has employed to achieve this end have greatly undermined trust between the U.S. and its allies. Voicing his second concern, Smith suggested that Trump’s vituperative treatment of European leaders and repugnant views and comments are forcing European governments to keep the U.S. at arm’s length lest they incur their voters’ wrath at the ballot box. As a result, areas of potentially fruitful cooperation are being closed off simply because nobody wants to associate with the American president. Smith’s comments were not all gloom and doom, as he noted that the U.S. ambassador to NATO and Europe-related undersecretaries at the State Department and National Security Council are all imminently qualified and conscientious diplomats. He nevertheless cautioned that unless Trump is reigned in and begins to look at the big picture instead of trivial indicators like European defense spending as a percentage of GDP, there very well could be permanent damage to transatlantic relations.

I found all three speakers to be cogent and highly informative, and I believe the discussion, while far from path-breaking, helped many in the audience (including myself) to distill their thoughts on Trump and transatlanticism. My one criticism would be that the discussion was focused too heavily on military and defense-related issues to the exclusion of other areas of cooperation. Given the central role of NATO in transatlantic relations, though, this is somewhat understandable. Nevertheless, I appreciated that all the speakers put the conversation in perspective and did not simply revert to “Trump-bashing” or excessive criticism of the E.U. Both sides of the Atlantic are experiencing very difficult challenges, and this is putting the relationship between them at risk. If we take Smith’s admonition to look at the big picture to heart, though, and recognize the value in Professor Hamilton’s call to burden-share rather than to burden-shed, there seems to be good reason to believe that this current unfortunate period in which we find ourselves can be overcome with only minimal lasting damage.

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