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Commentary | 26 January 2017

Trump’s “deal-making” strategy and opportunities for Europe

The elections of Donald Trump to the office of President of the United States comes as Europe is set to face increased uncertainty in a fragile world, where violent conflicts increase in number and intensity and, following the peace dividend of the 1990s, geopolitical thinking is making a comeback. The US is the only superpower with close cultural, economic and security policy ties with Europe, and these should be maintained. Positive scenarios such as the stabilization of Iraq and Syria through reconciliation, civil-military engagements to enable North African countries to cope with terrorism, or finding a stable balance in the Middle East by trust building between Teheran and Riyadh, will require deep cooperation between Europe and the US. To put it bluntly: America’s involvement is needed more than it was to make our influence count for sustainable peacebuilding worldwide.

Yet, Trump’s statements so far have clearly proven that the use of nationalism as a foreign policy tool has reached the USA. It seems that the image of Trump as irrational and a risk-prone bargainer serves to extract a high price from his partners in deal making.

Moreover, Trump’s policies will target the core policies of Obama, if only to satisfy his voters. Congressional polarisation and divided positions within the government in the past caused Obama to use executive orders to bring some progress in energy policy, migration policies and so forth. To prove that he is capable of governing, Trump will likely use executive orders in the same manner to roll back Obama’s policies and to gain a certain momentum of public approval.

Trump’s “America first” approach calls for protectionist measures aimed at stimulating the economy. Thus, as part of the initial diplomatic outreach by Europe, the Trump administration and the experienced Republicans in Congress should be reminded about the value of a transatlantic economic free trade zone. His confrontational behaviour towards China could also affect trade relations with close allies.

Europe should not to be victimised by such “deal-making-strategy”. By pointing to the risks of such an approach in terms of potential trade wars, damage to the international financial system and economic shocks for developing countries, Europe has to signal to the new administration that it is not susceptible to blackmail. Furthermore, the principle of “America first” seems to suggest a counter to multilateralism and trustful, rule-based international diplomacy.

As a mid-term consequence, Europe must accelerate its efforts to design a Defence and Security Union. Even Hillary Clinton as US president would have asked Europe to take more responsibility in its neighbourhood. Under president Trump, it becomes a necessity.

Trump’s foreign and security policy ambitions as well as core beliefs are vague and bring unpredictability, for instance in terms of US-Russia relations. A priority should lie in convincing the new administration to keep a common policy towards Russia. Making deals does not serve the security of Eastern Europe: creating regional zones of differing security conditions is neither in American nor European interests. Trust-building by military-to-military communication, diplomatic pressure to fulfil the Minsk agreement, reducing the risk of an arms race through transparency should be parts of a policy agenda that does not invite Putin to undertake further adventures. Recent comments of Trump nevertheless point to a strategy of cross-issue bargaining: effective collaboration on the fight against terrorism for lifting sanctions linked to cyberattacks by Russia during the US election campaign. Such an approach will put Europe’s overall strategy towards Russia to the test.

If, against all odds, Trump put into practice his proposal that all, especially Baltic States, have to share higher financial costs to enjoy security under the nuclear umbrella, Europe must re-think some formerly taboo issues. Following this line of argumentation, Europe would have to verify if alternative models of nuclear protection are possible – not by building new nuclear capabilities, but in terms of increasing, modernising and commonly financing existing arsenals.

The US must remain a close ally, especially to organise a framework of cooperation between NATO and the EU leading to synergies with regard to cyber threats and military capacity-building initiatives. While respecting NATO’s role and functions, the EU has to increase its value as security policy actor. More interoperability and standardisation of national armies will make NATO more effective and enable Europe to be an attractive partner in surrounding regions. A strong Europe is in US interests.

Europe has to form a single voice vis à vis the new administration, convincing it that multilateral cooperation is the best tool to deal with the hegemonic ambitions of rising powers and bring stability to fragile countries.

In a wider foreign policy perspective, Europe should expect more US retrenchment in core regions of instability, notably on the African continent. Europe’s interdependency with neighbouring countries, as well as the effects of refugee flows and economic migration on origin countries, transit countries and target countries lead to the conclusion that Europe has to invest more effectively in its own capabilities. Changing its role from a soft power actor to a global actor with crisis reaction capabilities and instruments serving strategic objectives as outlined in the EU Global Strategy is now at the top of the political agenda.

In the Middle East, Europe should expect rising hegemonic conflict. The track of diplomatic involvement to reduce proxy wars between Iran and Saudi Arabia has to be intensified. The announcement by Trump what he would want to roll back the nuclear agreement with Iran is alarming for the EU. The EU can play a moderating role in the implementation of the JCPOA, to pressure sides for more preciseness of certain areas of the agreement and reach out to other NPT treaty parties in the region to allay their concerns. The agreement was necessary to stop the development of Iran’s military nuclear capabilities, but is not sufficient to stabilise the region. The US should stop retreating from the region and move to a light foot print strategy, but instead bring regional powers into a dialogue for regional stability.

Europe will struggle to find a common approach to international problems with the US. This should finally lead to the recognition that it has to invest more in diplomatic resources and take the initiative in stabilising its neighbouring regions. For the future of transatlantic cooperation, much will depend on the new administration’s ability to adjust its deal-making approach to cope with the interdependent and complex challenges of today’s world.


The opinions articulated above represent the views of the author(s), and do not necessarily reflect the position of the European Leadership Network or any of its members. The ELN’s aim is to encourage debates that will help develop Europe’s capacity to address the pressing foreign, defence, and security challenges of our time.