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A year after: Trump and transatlantic relations in a time of risk

Ian O. Lesser
Vice President

Almost a year into the Trump administration, uncertainty remains a hallmark of American foreign policy. Relations with Europe have yet to experience major change, but wider shifts in US global engagement hold risks of their own for transatlantic relations.


America’s international policy has been strongly affected by the President’s tendency to project his distinct personality and Twitter based commentary onto a world stage where every word from Washington is parsed for meaning. It is a sharp departure from the recent norm. But it draws on a long tradition of leaders reaching over the heads of governments, and their own diplomats. Allowing for changes in technology – social media rather than telegrams — Lenin would have recognized the practice. The problem is that foreign policy pronouncements are uniquely capable of producing chaos, or worse, if misunderstood. Diplomats are there for a reason, and this Administration has been notably slow to appoint them. Roughly a year into the Administration there is still no American ambassador to the European Union in place.

Still, transatlantic relations may well be the area of greatest continuity in American policy today. After a rough start, Washington has reaffirmed its NATO commitments. The push for European allies to spend more on defence is nothing new, even if the language is now more strident. Certainly, compared to the turmoil in relations with Canada and Mexico, or the hawkish rhetoric on North Korea and Iran, transatlantic relations seem to be on autopilot. Trade may be a leading exception, although the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP) was already in trouble before the Trump Administration abandoned it. Ironically, as the administration’s Europe policy appears static, the American business community is focusing intently on Brussels as the place where key regulatory battles are being fought.

Transatlantic relations may well be the area of greatest continuity in American policy today.

The real source of stress in transatlantic relations may well be the Trump administration’s approach to bigger picture global questions. Here, a long list of issues is contributing to transatlantic drift. The decision to withdraw from the Paris agreement on climate change is emblematic of a series of policy choices at odds with European inclinations. Others include attitudes toward the global trading system (although to be sure, there is no shortage of European critics on this score), willingness to contemplate a re-nuclearisation of security strategies, skepticism over the nuclear deal with Tehran, and a general preference for national over multilateral approaches to global challenges.

The Trump Administration’s attitude toward a range of social and domestic policy questions has set the US on a different course from most European allies, but clearly not all. Ruling parties in Poland, Hungary and elsewhere are on the same page on many issues. The risks in this will become more obvious as nationalist perspectives clash. The current crisis in US-Turkish relations is a clear example of what can go wrong when interests collide without the flywheel of shared values and multilateral instincts. As in the presidential campaign, the Trump administration in office has been most dynamic on international issues that touch directly on domestic political debates, including terrorism, migration and trade.

Uncertainty, and outright concern about the direction of American policy has already encouraged Europe to contemplate European alternatives as a hedge against unpredictability in Washington. Quite apart from lingering doubts about the US commitment to European security, this reflects a broader concern about the risk of American disengagement on a global level. More tangibly, European strategists are rightly worried about the potential for demanding crises in Asia to produce a dramatic reduction in America’s role as a security guarantor in and around Europe. The discourse from Washington has not been reassuring on these fronts. Little wonder that European leaders in various sectors are looking beyond the Administration, very often outside Washington, on a range of concerns. Congress, state governors, mayors, the private sector and the wider policy community have become more important to transatlantic relations. Interest in this sub-national dimension of diplomacy has been strongly reinforced by contentious and unpredictable relations across the Atlantic. But the trend itself has been underway for some time, and is likely to persist, whatever the result of the next US presidential election.


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