The 1020 - Transatlantic relations in the Trump era: trouble in paradise?

For its second episode, The Ten-Twenty had the opportunity to interview Jeremy Shapiro, Research Director at the European Council on Foreign Relations (ECFR). Previously, Shapiro was Advisor to the U.S. Secretary of State on matters related to the situation in North Africa and the Levant, and also worked as Senior Advisor to the Assistant Secretary of State for Europe and Eurasian Affairs. Listen to the podcast on Soundcloud by visiting this link.

Since the end of WWII, the transatlantic couple has seen its share of highs and lows. This peculiar relationship was institutionalised through NATO, an unprecedented security arrangement that was – and still is – perceived very differently on both sides of the Atlantic. Drawing a crucial lesson from the wreckage of WWII, the U.S. realised that it needed an effective alliance system to face the direct threat emanating from the Soviet Union. Cooperating with Europe, therefore, seemed like the logical thing to do. For Europe, however, NATO was going to accomplish much more than that. As famously put by its first Secretary General, Lord Hastings Lionel Ismay, the alliance system was created to “keep the Soviet Union out, the Americans in, and the Germans down.” Shapiro explains that, at the time of NATO’s inception, Europe was still recovering from the massive losses of the war and was in no way capable of ensuring its own security. Nowadays, the situation is entirely different, as Europe has the means to defend itself. It is clear though that most European countries do not want to call this security arrangement into question, and why should they?

Shapiro outlines that the ECFR has conducted several studies over the years, consistently showing that European countries are quite pleased with this security deal. On the American front, however, dissatisfaction is mounting as this arrangement is taking an increasingly heavy toll on the country’s limited resources. What’s more, the U.S. has “a lot of more pressing interests in other parts of the world, particularly in East-Asia and the Middle-East.” Hence, the message it has been sending to its European counterparts these last decades is crystal clear: it is time for Europe to step up and take its share of the burden. Trump is certainly not the first U.S. President to make that claim, but he is the first to make the case that the U.S. can just “walk away” from the transatlantic partnership. Some European countries, notably France and Germany, have recognised this reality and pushed for more cooperation and investment in the defence and security sector. Shapiro believes that the “baby steps” taken thus far in that direction have been insufficient. Moreover, he argues that several EU Member States actually do not want an autonomous European Union. Instead, they hope that Trump’s presidency is an aberration and, when it is all over, things can just go back to the way they were. This is mainly because they prefer to leave their protection in the hands of a distant power that does not represent a direct threat to their interests and is not likely to infringe upon their sovereignty. Indeed, a European security arrangement led by President Macron or Angela Merkel would seem far more dangerous to Poland or Hungary, for example, then one headed by President Trump.

In May, Shapiro published an article in Foreign Affairs in which he argued that Trump could safely ignore Europe in its decision to withdraw from JCPOA, the Iran nuclear deal, and emphasised the asymmetrical nature of the transatlantic relationship . It seems that, since then, Europe has been desperately trying to salvage what was left of the deal. However, Shapiro deems such an endeavour “a little bit nonsensical”. He explains that it is not the first time Europe adopts such a decoupling approach vis-à-vis the U.S., but that it usually does not amount to much. He cites, as an example, the fact that the U.S. never became party to the International Criminal Court (ICC) and, as a result, this instrument has never performed anywhere near what people had hoped. In the same fashion, a JCPOA without the United States does not seem to make much sense. From the moment the U.S. can pressurise Europe, economically by imposing sanctions, but more importantly politically by putting into question the transatlantic security guarantees, Europe may bark a lot, but the chances it will actually bite seem pretty slim.

As far as trade is concerned, Trump has recently decided to impose a 25 per cent tariff on steel and aluminium imported from Canada, Mexico and the European Union, three major allies which are not responsible for worldwide overcapacities in that sector. Shapiro explains that, while the President has been consistent on very little in the course of his career, he has systematically been making the case that Europe was abusing the international trading system and taking advantage of the U.S. Another reason explaining this catastrophic policy is that it will help him win votes back home, as it was one of his major presidential campaign promises. Protectionism is an old recipe that always plays well with the domestic electorate. Finally, this policy was a way of letting his rivals know that he was not afraid to cross all the red lines. Trump is pretty adamant that he can win this trade war. To Shapiro, however, it is clear that every party involved will end up losing, as there is nothing to be gained from such a disastrous policy. Trump is putting Europe in an impossible position: caving to his demands would set a dangerous precedent and retaliating might put the whole international order at risk. Shapiro concludes by saying that “the very sad result of this is that we seem to be embarking on a potentially very damaging spiral.”

-The Ten-Twenty team

[1] Shapiro, Jeremy. "Why Trump Can Safely Ignore Europe." Foreign Affairs. 30 June 2018. Web. 30 June 2018.