After last week’s meeting of the leaders of the G7 nations, in Sicily, German Chancellor Angela Merkel must have needed a drink. The leader of the country with the largest economy in the Eurozone retreated to a beer hall in Munich on Sunday for a rally where she hefted a massive stein full of lager and assessed, as she sees it, the grim new reality facing Europe.
After several days interacting with Donald Trump in the U.S. president’s first overseas trip, her takeaway was ominous: We’re on our own.
“The times in which we could rely fully on others — they are somewhat over,” she said. “This is what I experienced in the last few days.”
There was no question what Merkel was referencing. She had seen Trump at a meeting of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization berate his fellow heads of state for not spending enough money on defense and then fail to commit to the treaty’s mutual defense provisions — something every U.S. president since Truman has done explicitly. That came after his presidential campaign, in which he called the alliance obsolete and questioned whether the U.S. should come to the defense of other members.
Trump also demanded that NATO focus primarily on fighting terrorism and controlling immigration, relegating the issue most concerning to the alliance’s Eastern European members, an increasingly aggressive Russia, to a single mention in an address to his fellow heads of state.
She learned that behind closed doors at the NATO meeting, in news that quickly leaked out, Trump had attacked Germany as “very bad” on trade, and promised to crack down on the sale of German cars in the U.S. (the majority of which, ironically, are built by Americans in U.S. plants).
She had seen him at the G7 meeting, where it became even clearer that his administration wants to restructure international trade deals in line with an “America first” zero-sum philosophy and is leaning toward removing the U.S. from the Paris Agreement, a global accord on fighting climate change.
The United States, she implied, is no longer the reliable partner it once was. And with the United Kingdom poised to break off from the European Union in the near future following last year’s “Brexit” vote, the ground has fundamentally shifted under the feet of the nations remaining in the EU.
“We have to know that we must fight for our future on our own, for our destiny as Europeans,” she told a crowd of supporters.
“I can only say that we Europeans must really take our fate into our own hands — of course in friendship with the United States of America, in friendship with Great Britain and as good neighbors wherever that is possible also with other countries, even with Russia.”
Make no mistake, leaving the de facto leader of Europe staring into a half-empty beer stein and reassessing everything she and her fellow Europeans thought they knew about the world order and America’s role in it was a major victory for Trump. The question is whether that victory will be shared with anyone outside a small coterie of nationalist advisers and sycophants inside the White House.
It was a victory for Trump because it achieved at least three things that he and White House advisers like Steve Bannon, the self-styled “economic nationalist” who used to run the Alt-right Breitbart News organization, have been pressing for more than a year.
First, it defined the United States’ security interests much more narrowly than other administrations have done. Since World War II ended, there has been no question, regardless of which party held the Oval Office, that the United States viewed a peaceful and democratic Europe as an essential element of U.S. national security.
Over the years, defending that interest has not been cheap. The U.S. has kept tens of thousands of troops, as well as advanced weaponry, in bases throughout Europe as a means of reflecting its commitment to provide a stable foundation for mutual defense against aggression — presumably Russian — against its allies. Trump’s ambivalence toward NATO’s Article 5 and his demand that the alliance retool itself as an anti-terrorism, immigration-enforcement agency took a sledgehammer to that foundation.
Trump wants Europe to foot more of the bill for its own security. Last week, he made it clear that European nations no longer have any choice in the matter.
Second, on trade, Trump’s not-at-all-veiled threat against German car companies was another step toward his larger determination to restructure the prevailing rules under which the U.S. trades with other advanced economies. The Bannonite wing of the Trump White House has a very particular idea of how U.S. policy should mesh with the U.S. economy.
Specifically, in this view, it is not the job of the U.S. government to create an environment in which the economy helps drive a vibrant global marketplace, even if that means medium-term disruptions in the U.S. On the contrary, in Bannon’s view, the economy should be subservient to larger national interests as defined by the administration — more manufacturing jobs in the U.S., even if it is more economically efficient to manufacture elsewhere; more domestic oil and coal jobs in the U.S., even if the global trend is toward renewables.
Threatening to “stop” the sale of German cars in the U.S., as Trump reportedly did Thursday, is by itself an empty threat. (Trump himself has owned several.) But by signaling a willingness to undermine one of the major industries of America’s largest ally in Europe, he left no doubt about a desire to rewrite trade rules in a narrowly pro-America sense.
Third, on the environment, Trump moved further in the direction of abandoning the U.S. commitment to fighting global climate change, which, despite all scientific consensus to the contrary, he has in the past, derided as a “hoax.”
Fighting climate change is a classic collective action problem. Without broad global cooperation, nothing can happen to slow global warming. But taking action to reduce carbon emissions is expensive and burdensome. A country that doesn’t agree to fight climate change through regulations on pollution and carbon emissions could give its industries a significant economic advantage over those who agree to absorb those additional costs.
Withdrawing the U.S. from its commitments to fight climate change would have two negative impacts on the effort to slow global warming.
It would force all the other Paris Agreement signatories to decide whether or not to continue their emissions-reduction efforts, knowing that by doing so they place their domestic businesses at a disadvantage to those in the U.S., which remains the world’s single largest economy.
Additionally, because the U.S. is such a large producer of carbon emissions, it would call into question whether the collective efforts of the rest of the world could actually make enough of a difference to avoid climate disaster without U.S. participation.
Again, this was a win, in a narrow sense, for Trump. He had a message to deliver, and it was received. The U.S. no longer values the fight against climate change as a national priority, and the rest of the planet should adjust its policies accordingly.
The aftermath of Trump’s visit to Europe will play out over months and years, as European leaders reassess their place in a world where the U.S. emphatically refuses to play the leadership role it once occupied.
And that change, if not permanent, will be at a minimum generational. Even if Americans elect a new president who swears to return the U.S. level of global engagement to its pre-Trump levels three and a half years from now, European leaders won’t be able to ignore the fact that if U.S. voters elected Trump once, they could elect a similar figure again.
Trump’s trip to Europe was a victory for his White House. It may turn out to have been a huge loss for everyone else.