By Jeremy Shapiro
The new U.S. ambassador to Germany, Richard Grenell, is quickly becoming Europe’s favorite bête noire. He seems to share his boss’ uncanny ability to offend people with a potent combination of professional incompetence and personal arrogance. Within hours of taking up his post in early May, he had tweeted out a demand that Europeans disinvest from Iran, essentially commanding his hosts to heed President Donald Trump’s decision to end the Iranian nuclear deal. Then last week, he gave an interview with Breitbart, a right-wing website that operates in both Europe and the United States, announcing his intention to “empower” conservative parties within Europe. The message to the German government was clear: the new U.S. ambassador intended to back its domestic political opponents.
In combination with a disastrously divisive G-7 meeting last week, these remarks have rekindled fears in Europe that the Trump administration will seek to stoke the populist wave that is shaking European politics. European establishment politicians fear that the United States’ support for their illiberal opponents will give these groups ever more strength in their struggles against Brussels. But the problem for Europe is not an American campaign to empower European populists; it is that the United States no longer sees the value in having a strategic vision for Europe at all.
AMERICA THE SELF-INTERESTED
European fears about Trumpian interference in European domestic politics have a legitimate basis. Early in the administration, Steve Bannon, Trump’s chief strategist and former executive chairman of Breitbart, seemed intent on empowering populists as he reached out to anti-establishment politicians in Europe and as Breitbart established outlets in Europe. But then Bannon was unceremoniously ejected from the White House, and the Trump administration seemed to drift toward a more conventional Republican foreign policy. In the first year of the Trump administration, populist European leaders, such as Hungary’s Viktor Orban, saw Trump as a potential weapon in their struggle with the EU establishment and were disappointed by his lack of support.
Grenell’s remarks do not signal, however, the Trump administration’s return to Bannonism. The American ambassador to Germany does not make European policy and there remain a welter of contradictory views from more senior U.S. officials that visit Europe, many of whom insist that the United States is still committed to its traditional European partners. Indeed, in the midst of the Grenell flap, Trump’s assistant secretary of state for Europe, A. Wess Mitchell, gave a speech recommitting the United States to the defense of eastern and southern Europe (even as his boss tweeted out his view that NATO is a rip-off for the American taxpayer.)
The only thing this cacophony of conflicting voices really shows is that the Trump administration doesn’t have a strategic or ideological purpose in Europe and probably doesn’t want one. Overall, the Trump administration’s European policy seems less a vision of a populist internationale than a residual of Trump’s efforts to put America first and of his domestic political needs. His foreign policy priorities are trade, immigration, and terrorism. Europe is only interesting to the extent that it matters for those issues. His policy toward NATO is driven more by his views on trade than by an idea of European security. His approach to Russia seems propelled by the scandal over Russian interference in the U.S. election more than by any idea of how to protect Europe or manage the Russian threat.
As Thomas Wright of Brookings has noted, “With rogue ambassadors, a president who praises Vladimir Putin, a bureaucracy that supports NATO, and an ongoing trade war, nobody really understands Trump’s policy on Europe.” This probably includes Trump himself, who has elevated inconsistency in foreign policy to an art form.
But even if the Trump administration’s approach to Europe is too confused to constitute a strategic vision, his policies can still make Europe’s internal woes much worse. After all, the United States is a presence in European domestic politics, whether it wants to be or not. As the security provider of last resort and the key geopolitical ally for most European states, the United States exerts a certain gravitational pull on Europe regardless of its (lack of) strategic intent.
For 70 years, a critical piece of the American approach to Europe has revolved around European integration. Even if it is not polite to say so, the United States was essential to the development of a Europe unified and strong enough to defend itself and to take its place as the United States’ best and strongest ally. Europe is arguably the United States’ greatest foreign policy accomplishment. But now the Trump administration has been fairly clear that it has little interest in this project. Trump views the European Union as “worse than China” on trade and little more than a German vehicle for extracting unfair deals from the United States. Trump’s administration has paid little attention to the EU except to demand trade concessions from it.
A TOXIC INTERACTION
It is, alas, surpassingly easy for Washington to destroy what it has created. Nearly every European country depends on the United States for its security and that gives Washington enormous leverage, even as Trump has outraged many European leaders with his policies on trade, climate, and Iran.
Trump’s malign neglect of the EU comes at an inopportune moment of weakness for the European project. With the recent installation of a Euroskeptic government in Italy, at least five EU governments (Greece, Hungary, Italy, Poland, and the United Kingdom) are now avowedly anti-Brussels. Across the EU, populists are gaining political strength in part with the message that Brussels is responsible for their problems. Voters in the south blame European monetary policy for a decade of austerity and anemic growth; voters in the east blame European immigration policies for threatening their identity and independence. And, of course, there is the United Kingdom, which is trying to get out of the EU altogether. All of this threatens to make the EU ungovernable, particularly if the European Parliamentary election next year delivers what Mark Leonard has called “a self-hating parliament”—that is, a parliament whose majority wants to secure its own abolition.
Supporters of the EU have hardly given up the struggle. France and Germany are at the center of a broad and ambitious effort to reinvigorate the European project and demonstrate its worth to voters. They are seeking to launch new European defense initiatives to demonstrate that Europe can protect its citizens and manage immigration. They are seeking to reform eurozone governance to make the euro better able to promote prosperity and stability. And they are looking for a formula to rein in the most illiberal tendencies of EU governments to show that the EU remains committed to democracy and protecting human rights.
All of these initiatives face considerable internal obstacles and their fate is far from certain. The integrationists would under normal circumstances get U.S. support, at least behind the scenes. But in the Trump administration they are hardly noticed. So even as the EU is struggling to maintain its cohesion, the Trump administration is, according to Reuters, sending diplomats to the EU’s most recalcitrant members in the east to break European unity on the Iran nuclear deal. The Trump administration has already peeled off Romania and the Czech Republic from the European consensus, which opposed Trump’s decision to move the U.S. embassy to Jerusalem, supposedly in return for assurances of U.S. support in those countries’ struggles against Brussels.
Populists in Europe now seem to understand that, although they won’t get American support just for acting like European Trumps, they can get support in their internal struggle if they appeal to U.S. priorities. The new Italian prime minister, Giuseppe Conte, for example, was the only leader at the G-7 meeting in Canada to support Trump’s call to include Russia, and he was rewarded by a Trump tweet praising his election and inviting him to the White House.
Of course, previous U.S. administrations at times succumbed to the temptation of trying to divide Europe when it suited. But they also valued European unity and ultimately sought to limit the damage they did to the overall process of European integration. After President George W. Bush successfully divided Europe over Iraq in 2003, for example, he began his second term with a symbolic visit to EU headquarters in Brussels to send a message that the United States still stood behind European integration.
By contrast, the Trump administration’s stance of indifference to European integration and hostility to the EU’s trade policy gives hope to populists throughout Europe that they can and will have the support of the United States even in struggles that threaten the integrity of EU. It is this toxic interaction between the Trump administration’s strategic indifference to Europe and the populists’ effort to undermine the EU that threatens the United States’ most enduring strategic accomplishment in Europe.
This article was originally published on ForeignAffairs.com.