The annual Munich Security Conference is usually a somnolent affair, a ritual renewal of vows between the United States and its European allies. This year, though, was different.
Germany’s outgoing Chancellor, Angela Merkel, finally said what she thinks of US President Donald Trump. Without using Trump’s name, she described his “America first” foreign policy as one of ignoring allies and promoting nationalism — and noted that Germany tried that before the Second World War with catastrophic results. “Pieces of the classic, familiar order ... are falling apart,” she said. “We cannot just smash it. We need to cooperate.” The best course, she said, is to “stick with multilateralism — which was the lesson of the Second World War.”
The mostly European audience gave her a standing ovation. Ivanka Trump, Trump’s daughter, who listened stone-faced, did not stand.
Merkel had specific complaints, too.
She said Trump was wrong to withdraw from the 2015 nuclear accord with Iran (“depressing”). She warned that Trump’s plan to withdraw US troops from Syria could “strengthen Iran’s and Russia’s hand”. And she derided Trump’s threat to declare imported cars a national security threat so he could raise tariffs. “BMW’s largest plant is in South Carolina,” Merkel pointed out.
For the first two years of Trump’s presidency, Merkel tried to persuade him to accept the traditional pattern of US-European relations: Periodic disputes over trade, or military policy, papered over with soothing words about transatlantic friendship and mutual interests.
No longer. The post-war relationship, which kept the peace and brought prosperity to Europe through the Cold War and in the decades since, is under threat from Washington.
Alarms are ringing in western Europe over Trump’s unilateral, transactional foreign policy. And for good reason: The Trump administration has taken direct aim at the European Union (EU), a centerpiece of European statecraft since 1957.
If the EU collapses, some Europeans fear a new catastrophe: A fragmented Europe of feuding states, like the one that existed before the Second World War.
Europeans admit they helped create some of their problems. They haven’t spent as much on defence as they promised. Trump is right about that. The EU also hasn’t delivered its promise of prosperity to southern tier countries such as Spain, Italy and Greece. The influx of millions of refugees and economic migrants has caused a populist backlash, and even helped elect authoritarian governments in Hungary and Poland.
But the Trump administration is making those challenges worse.
In addition to questioning the need for the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (Nato), Trump has attacked the EU as a threat to US interests. Asked last year who he viewed as America’s global adversaries, the first name on Trump’s list — before Russia, China, North Korea or Iran — was the EU. “I think the European Union is a foe, what they do to us in trade,” he said. He has even charged that the EU was founded principally to harm the US. “They formed in order to take advantage of us,” he said at a political rally last year.
European diplomats charge privately that Trump’s stance is mostly a strategy to gain the upper hand in trade negotiations. “He’d rather negotiate one-on-one with small countries than with a large group that’s a peer competitor,” one explained.
But the EU isn’t only about trade. It wasn’t founded to sabotage US exports. It was founded to stop Germany and France from going to war again, as they did three times between 1871 and 1945. “The EU is the peacekeeping organisation for Europe,” a European official told me.
So when Trump and his aides wade into Europe’s internal affairs and try to boost politicians who want to shatter the EU, that’s not just a rough-and-tumble negotiating tactic. It’s an existential threat to a project that European governments have been working on for more than 60 years.
“With friends like that, who needs enemies?” Donald Tusk, the Polish-born president of the European Council, tweeted last year.
Even as Trump works to undermine the EU, he’s asking the Europeans to do more for him and his priorities. He has pressed them, without success, to also quit the Iran nuclear deal, although most are honouring the new US sanctions.
He wants them to send more troops to Syria, even though he’s withdrawing US forces. He wants Germany to cancel a long-standing contract for a natural gas pipeline from Russia, and buy American gas instead.
And when they object — when the Europeans say an alliance ought to be a two-way street — US administration officials have sometimes threatened retaliation through economic sanctions or tariffs. It’s becoming a vicious cycle: The Trump administration pushes. The Europeans resist. The effect is to make it harder for old allies to cooperate in areas where they mostly agree.
It looks like a marriage on the rocks — without a marriage counsellor. Unless you count former US vice-president Joe Biden, who went to the Munich conference and advised the Europeans just to wait Trump out.
Until then, Trump’s “America first” foreign policy is producing an outcome the president insists he doesn’t want: America alone.
Doyle McManus is a Washington columnist for the Los Angeles Times and director of the journalism programme at Georgetown University.