The transatlantic meaning of Donald Trump: a US-EU Power Audit

Press release

A post-American Europe is possible, but unlikely

The election of Donald Trump has changed everything except European attitudes toward American security.  Member states still clearly prefer the old security bargain with Washington that has served them well.

The European Union has historically relied on the United States for its security. But now Donald Trump is President of the United States and he shows no commitment to the transatlantic alliance.  His rhetoric on Germany, NATO and Russia implies that the U.S. commitment to Europe is now uncertain. Worse, his challenge comes at a time in which the US has been scaling down its global commitments, and particularly those in Europe, for several years. As of today, it has fewer troops stationed abroad than at any time since it started tracking such data in 1957.

A new report from the European Council on Foreign Relations asks whether we will soon witness a ‘post-American Europe’, in which increased European defence integration will replace American security guarantees, and in which European states will take stronger stances in opposition to unpopular US policies. 

To answer this question, ECFR’s EU-US Power Audit surveyed reactions to the Trump presidency across Europe and found that they fall into three categories.

A handful of countries represent the ‘Antichrist effect’, where concerns about President Trump – and of the potential appearance of Trump-like actors in Europe – have given new energy to moderate, pro-European political forces, best exemplified by France’s new President Emmanuel Macron.

Conversely, for a small number of member states, Trump’s election has spurred the ‘Messiah effect’, whereby Trump’s election has emboldened illiberal forces. This is particularly visible in Hungary and Poland, whose governments’ opposition to immigration and democracy promotion has noticeably increased since the US election.

But the dominant reaction across the EU to President Trump has been the ‘Regency effect’ – the expectation that Trump, much like the ‘mad king’ George III of England, will be governed by his advisers, the Congress, and American civil society – and that normality will ultimately reassert itself in US policy and transatlantic relations. Despite Angela Merkel’s famous Beer Hall speech, this instinct runs deep in Germany in particular.

For this reason, though Donald Trump is even more unpopular than Vladimir Putin, European countries have thus far shown even less policy opposition to Trump than the famously supine Republican-controlled Congress. “There have been some tough words, but Europeans have not appreciably altered their approach towards the US. Most have not even used the tough words”, said report author Jeremy Shapiro.  Overall, the ECFR survey shows that a majority of EU member states prefer the old bargain with Washington over the unknown risks of independence.

If this inertia is to be overcome, the solution must begin with Germany. But there is deep mistrust of German leadership in much of Europe. Berlin must therefore forge a coalition of member states – beginning with Macron’s France - that see its leadership as benefiting them directly. It must also find a mechanism for exercising that leadership that will convince its partners that Germany will not abuse its position. “A German-led Europe is possible,” says Shapiro, “but not likely, because Europeans fear it and Germans don’t really want it.”

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