Skip to content
Commentary | 1 June 2017

What Trump Sees in Europe

Image of Marcin Zaborowski

Marcin Zaborowski |Former Executive Director of the Polish Institute of International Affairs (PISM)

EU Europe NATO Transatlantic relations United States Euro-Atlantic Security

Trump’s approach to Europe has been unenthusiastic, but unexpectedly reassuring. It has been argued that Trump’s undeniably anti-European statements were mostly made on the campaign trail and, as such, were no more than electioneering. Once he took up the reins of government some of his past statements were corrected or moderated, for example, when he admitted that NATO was not obsolete after all. As far as actual policies are concerned, Trump’s approach to Europe shows continuity from the previous administration. The deployments of US and other Allied presence to NATO’s Eastern flank took place on schedule and NATO’s Eastern member states now have the largest Allied presence since they joined NATO.

The prevailing view is that the business of government and the checks and balances of the American system have pushed Trump towards continuity. With his Presidency mired in controversy and weak approval ratings, it is more likely than ever that he will stick to continuity and allow US foreign policy to be run by the professionals. However, this view may be overly optimistic. True, Trump does not prioritise foreign policy and is less interested in Europe than he is in other parts of the world, but his approach towards Europe is fundamentally different from his predecessors on at least three major counts.

First, Trump is the first US President in post-war history who does not support European integration. In fact, he has been openly supportive of anti-European forces within the European Union. It is not often remembered today that European integration would never have come about had it not been for the support of the United States, pushing Germany and France to co-operate. Since then, there have been periods when US-EU relations were uneasy, such as during the war in Iraq, but all US presidents until Trump have always supported and endorsed the rationale for the existence of the EU. This President is different. He was jubilant about the UK’s decision to leave the EU and predicted that more states would follow. He openly sympathised with far-right anti-European politicians including Nigel Farage and Marine Le Pen.

Second, Trump does not understand the value of alliances, whether it is NATO, the EU or the World Trade Organisation. For him, alliances and international organisations are vehicles for the exercise of power. If alliances do not do what he expects them to do, he turns against them, calling them ‘obsolete’. Trump’s ‘win-win’ logic is clearly absent from his world outlook. He will continue to show limited support for Western institutions.

Third, Trump vehemently rejects values as a rationale for policies. He was prepared to do deals with Assad and Putin and has famously shown no warm sentiments towards democratically elected leaders. Democracy promotion is ridiculed now by today’s White House. Humanitarian missions are off-the-agenda, for which the White House is unapologetic. The only ideology is transactionalism, the cult of the deal, which offers quick, measurable benefits, such as Trump’s proposed massive arms deal with Saudi Arabia.

All these features distinguish Trump from his predecessors and lay the ground for a very different kind of transatlantic relationship. Up until now, US leadership might have been resented in some quarters in Europe, but, nevertheless, it was seen as fundamentally beneficial for Europe and for Europe’s survival. This time around, America has a President who not only does not care about Europe but also does not ‘get it’. The European method of consensus building is clearly an anathema to Trump.

None of this is to say that the transatlantic relationship will break down under Trump, or that he would create a lasting split. As Trump remains distracted by various probes and questions about his fitness for office, the odds are clearly in favour of continuity in foreign policy. It is also not beyond the realms of possibility that Trump will not even last until the end of his term.

However, the Presidential election reminded us again that a considerable part of US electorate is tired of American leadership in world affairs. Trump ran his campaign on a strongly protectionist ticket, arguing against free trade and migration. His campaign had racist and sexist undertones, yet proved successful enough to win the Electoral College. Once elected, Trump did not retreat from some of his most extreme promises. To China’s delight, he pulled America out of the almost complete Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP). Re-negotiations of the NAFTA agreement have been launched and, of course, the Trans-Atlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP) with Europe is effectively dead before negotiations even start. In a nutshell, under Trump, America is becoming an anti-globalisation, introverted power.

Europeans would be wise to draw lessons from this. The era of relying on the US security umbrella is coming to an end, regardless of the fate of this Presidency, which was, in fact, stated in remarkably strong words by Chancellor Angela Merkel following Trump’s first visit to Europe. America’s moral leadership of the western hemisphere is also weakening, which has major implications for the EU. Europe’s security is becoming increasingly tenuous, while the world is becoming leaderless and less stable.

In order to survive and prosper in the world with declining US leadership, Europeans will have to redouble their defence effort, move forward with European integration and become more creative in forging relations with other major powers. Trump’s lecturing of the Europeans at the NATO meeting in Brussels was bad form and probably counter-productive, but he had a point in his criticism of Europeans’ weak investment in defence. If this does not change, the survival of Europe, or at least some parts of it, may be at stake. Europe must integrate more, not less, in order to play effectively on the international stage. Otherwise, it will appear divided and ineffective. There is little doubt that future integration efforts will focus around the Eurozone. Finally, Europe must learn to forge its relations with China, Russia and other powers without assuming that the US will always be supportive, ready to come to its rescue, as this may prove to be a false assumption.


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.