Shortly before President Trump departed Washington to attend the G20 Summit in Japan, he proclaimed that “Europe treats us worse than China” during a television interview. Yet the existence of the summit itself, and especially the president’s meeting tomorrow with China’s leader, Xi Jinping, is a reminder that the United States and Europe still need each other and will continue to in the future.
To understand how the modern transatlantic alliance arrived at its current juncture, it is worth remembering its origins. European powers were laid in ruins after the Second World War. Their leaders, faced with the task of rebuilding their continent in the shadow of the Soviet Communist threat, were determined to do everything they could to prevent another global conflict. To achieve peace and prosperity, they allowed the United States to take a leading role in the post-war political organization of the continent.
Today, both the Second World War and the Soviet Union are just hazy memories. Europe is the world’s largest economy and the risk of war is minimal. The United States, meanwhile, no longer faces the challenge of containing the Soviet Union. Instead, it has to manage the economic rise of China and Beijing’s increasing assertiveness. It is no surprise that the transatlantic alliance has lost some of its cohesion.
Like President Obama’s attempted pivot to Asia, the Trump administration’s current focus on China is grounded in a sound strategic intuition. However, President Trump makes the mistake of lumping China and the EU together as America’s adversaries. In reality, the United States needs Europe to confront China. Americans and Europeans would be better able to hold China to account through existing multilateral trade structures and coordinated responses, rather than one-off bilateral “deals.”
If European countries continue to welcome Chinese investment and are unconcerned by the growth of Chinese influence, America’s job will be much harder. The ongoing argument about allowing China to build much of Europe’s next-generation 5G telecommunications network exemplifies the risks. It is not only Trump’s rhetoric that needs to stop in order to get Europe on the side of the U.S.. The United States has to present its allies with a coherent, intelligible strategy that Western governments can rally behind.
For decades, Europeans not only have relied on America’s military might but have also taken geopolitical cues from Washington. In spite of its being an economic superpower, the EU’s hard power remains underdeveloped. For all the talk of “strategic autonomy,” especially after Trump’s election, the continent lacks the strategic culture needed to operate independently of the United States. More than halfway through Trump’s term, Germany is hesitant to lead, and the U.K. has eroded its standing in the world by using all of its policymaking bandwidth to solve the Brexit conundrum.
Whether they like it or not, Europeans and Americans have to find a common language. In the present political environment the two sides of the Atlantic have a shared interest in ensuring the international rule set they created after World War II — and extended in the greater European space after the Cold War — are not revised in the coming decades by an authoritarian and economically powerful China. On the European side, the obstacles include the casual anti-Americanism exacerbated by Donald Trump’s bluster. Almost as many Germans, according to a recent poll, see the United States as a threat to world peace as Russia. Moreover, 72 percent of respondents want German foreign policy to be more independent of that of the United States.
Yet by far the biggest obstacle to a renewed transatlantic partnership is the knee-jerk distrust of the European project in American foreign-policy circles. The attempts to go behind the back of Brussels and strike deals with individual countries adds to the current distrust of the United States in Europe. Similarly, the expressions of support to Europe’s populist disrupters, such as the leader of the U.K.’s Brexit party, Nigel Farage, are not helping either.
Contrary to what many U.S. conservatives seem to believe, European nations are genuinely committed to the project of European integration. The EU may seem an oddity to many Americans, but it fulfills a role that even its most vocal critics on the European continent recognize as important. Nobody expects the United States to learn to love the EU. A good first step would be simply to accept that the occasional efforts by this administration to force Europeans into a choice between Brussels and Washington are invariably counterproductive.
The transatlantic partnership has never been perfect, and there have always been differences of opinion. However, that does not mean that Europeans and Americans do not need each other. They do — and politicians on both sides of the Atlantic would be well-advised to behave accordingly.