The U.S. is like a lonely sheriff who is tired of defending the town against gangs of gunslingers. He can throw away the badge and set up his own gang – Donald Trump chose this path.
Even before the Berlin Wall collapsed, Americans offered the divided German state a partnership in leadership, and envisioned a Europe whole and free. When President George Bush said words along these lines in Mainz in May 1989, preparations for the first partially free elections were taking place in Poland, Gustáv Husák was President of Czechoslovakia, and in Bucharest construction of the monumental House of the People, according to the vision of the dictator Nicolae Ceaușescu, was in full swing.
The American President could not have predicted that over the following months history would accelerate so incredibly that less than a year and a half later he would be able to repeat similar phrases in a speech celebrating German unification.
When formulating his message, Bush could invoke the tradition of American global leadership. Since Harry Truman’s presidency, the United States had been the guarantor of the liberal international order, which it had built on the ruins of the Second World War. Thanks to a system of agreements and institutions supported by American power, it had created the conditions for the economic development and political stability of American allies.
A pillar of a period of prosperity and peace
Americans were prepared to bear the costs of maintaining this order for the sake of the greater good and for their own interests. In return they received a more stable world, a world in which problems were solved at the negotiating table and not on the battlefield, onto which the United States would sooner or later also be drawn – as during the First and Second World Wars. The key place in the new system was therefore occupied by the powers defeated in 1945: Japan and Germany.
Pax Americana became the pillar of an unprecedented period of prosperity and peace for Europe. Without this political and military umbrella which first spread over Western Europe, and after 1989 also over some of the former Eastern Bloc countries, it is difficult to imagine the process of Euro-pean integration.
In contrast, almost two years after Donald Trump moved into the White House, few would question the fact that the 45th President of the United States is seeking to bury this order. In his view, multilateralism only hinders America and prevents it from becoming great again. The liberal paradigm, the vision of a world based on mutually beneficial cooperation, is becoming a thing of the past.
The liberal paradigm, the vision of a world based on mutually beneficial cooperation, is becoming a thing of the past.
“The return of great nation competition is the defining geopolitical fact of our time”, the Assistant Secretary of State for Europe and Eurasia A. Wess Mitchell recently said. This is a fact which the West did not take seriously for too long, he added. This is why Trump’s administration carries out a kind of audit and review of its relations, not only with global rivals such as China and Russia, but also – or perhaps above all – with its allies.
Trumps expects compliance with Washington’s interests
In the newly defined reality, there is less and less room for a partnership which allowed for disputes, disagreements and pursuing your own interests, not necessarily fully consistent with the interests of the great patron. Now it is to be replaced by absolute loyalty to American leadership. Under Trump’s rule, the United States expects an unambiguous commitment to the American position, compliance with Washington’s interests and refraining from asking unnecessary questions.
Donald Trump, therefore, had no qualms about calling the European Union, which is, after all, the most successful political child of Pax Americana, one of the greatest commercial enemies of the United States.
Donald Trump therefore had no qualms about calling the European Union, which is after all the most successful political child of Pax Americana, one of the greatest commercial enemies of the United States, or about threatening to impose tariffs on European products because of an alleged threat to US national security.
In Trump’s opinion, the times when Americans were “jerks” who paid for the security of the Old Continent, allegedly without receiving anything in return, are also gone. After years of free riding, the time has come for Europeans to justify themselves and pay the many-billion-dollar bill for US security guarantees.
The US President also brushed off Europe’s objections to Washington’s unilateral termination of the nuclear agreement with Iran (JCPOA). In addition, by threatening to impose sanctions on companies trading with Tehran, he enforced business obedience – despite the political protests of European capitals. The blow is all the more painful as the JCPOA had been perceived as one of the greatest successes of EU diplomacy. In the end, the life of the agreement was not much longer than the negotiations which had led to its signing.
Europe’s strategic autonomy
So what to do when America, as Robert Kagan writes, becomes a rogue superpower? You can surrender or rebel.
In Warsaw, they chose the first option and enthusiastically jumped on the bandwagon pulled by Trump. This is hardly surprising. Poland, like few other countries in Europe, relies on American security guarantees. Contrary to widespread fears, the current administration not only has not withdrawn its soldiers from Poland, but is also increasing American involvement on the eastern flank of NATO initiated by Obama.
The Pentagon budget for 2019 earmarked $6.5 billion for this purpose – $1.7 billion more than the year be- fore. In addition, Washington is imposing further sanctions on Russia and is putting pressure on it to halt the construction of the Russian-German Nord Stream 2 gas pipeline.
The Polish government is also striving for a permanent American military base, offering the U.S. President payment in two currencies, both of which appeal to his imagination – money (2 billion dollars) and cheap flattery (“Fort Trump”). Further west the tone is quite different. “Being an ally does not mean being a vassal state,” said Emmanuel Macron.
“We Europeans must take our destiny into our own hands”, said Angela Merkel. The political response to Trump is strategic autonomy, which Europe should finally achieve. And this reaction is hardly surprising. After all, if Germany or France were to significantly increase armaments spending, it would not be with the intention of taking orders from the White House and buying American weapons, but in order to pursue their own interests and at least have the right to consult with the Americans.
The changing situation requires a response
However, should the change in Washington’s strategy, to which politicians in Western Europe and liberal elites on both sides of the Atlantic have react- ed with indignation and fear, come as a surprise? After all, the changing international situation requires an adequate response.
Contrary to widespread fears, the current administration not only has not withdrawn its soldiers from Poland, but is also increasing American involvement on the eastern flank of NATO initiated by Obama.
After the “unipolar moment” and the “end of history” after the victorious Cold War, Americans finally realized that their power was diminishing in relative terms. The numbers do not lie: in 1945 the American economy accounted for as much as 1/2 of the world economy, in 1990 it was 1/4, and today it is less than 1/6 of the global economy.
In light of this fact, it is hardly to be expected that the USA would continue to be the guardian of the global order on its own. In any case, clear warnings to Europe had already been sent by representatives of the previous administration. As early as 2011, Secretary of defense Robert Gates warned that if the European allies did not seriously invest in their defense capabilities, the next generation of American politicians might find U.S. involvement in NATO too expensive. In Europe, this warning was ignored.
Meanwhile, Beijing, taking advantage of the benefits of the international order created by Washington, began to increasingly throw its weight around on the global chessboard and make more and more vocal claims to take over the world leadership badge from the Americans.
As for Moscow, after the chaos of the 1990s and despite limited economic resources, it began to pursue an increasingly bold revisionist policy and did not even hesitate to use military force to push through border changes in Europe.
The weakening of the liberal order began long before Trump
The decline in U.S. power, the rise of the revisionist powers, the unfulfilled expectation that American allies would take over part of the responsibility – each of these factors had been present long before Donald Trump became president. And each of them poses no less of a challenge to the existence of the liberal order than the policy of an uncouth businessman from New York. Taking a leap into the future and having a hand in the work of destruction, as Trump does, was not a historical necessity, however, but a political choice.
His predecessor at the White House, Barack Obama, followed a dif- ferent path. He tried to manage the declining power of the United States in a way which would guarantee the survival of the liberal order. Behind Oba- ma’s catchphrases, there was an attempt to allocate American resources to strategic regions and at the same time transfer part of the responsibility to the allies. The reset in relations with Russia was supposed to neutralize the threat in Eastern Europe.
After the “unipolar moment” and the “end of history” after the victorious Cold War, Americans finally realized that their power was diminishing in relative terms. The numbers do not lie.
The “pivot to Asia” signaled a shift in the focus of U.S. interest towards the Pacific and China. It was accompanied by the hope, formulated under George W. Bush’s presidency, that China would become a “responsible stakeholder” in the liberal world order. “Leading from be- hind” meant wanting to transfer some of the responsibility for conflict resolution in Europe’s neighborhood, such as Libya or Ukraine, to NATO allies.
In the Middle East, military power was to be gradually replaced by diplomacy, as in the case of the nuclear agreement with Iran or the U.S.-Russian agreement on the destruction of the Syrian arsenal of chemical weapons.
There are alternatives to the “America first” approach
Many of these ideas did not pass the test of reality, of course, and Obama corrected his course, sometimes radically. His first term in office actually began with the announcement of a reset with Russia, and the second ended with sending American troops to the eastern flank. In the Chinese context, Obama, like his predecessors, wanted to curb Beijing by involving it in cooperation.
It is highly likely that he would revise his course today by adopting a tougher stance – including the imposition of tariffs on Chinese products. At the same time, Obama sought to limit Beijing’s influence by tightening ties with American allies, as expressed in the Transpacific Partnership. The Trump administration not only chose open confrontation with China, but also withdrew from the TPP.
It is hardly to be expected that the USA would continue to be the guardian of the global order on its own. In any case, clear warnings to Europe had already been sent by representatives of the previous administration.
The most important conclusion, from comparing Trump’s policy with Obama’s era, is that there are alternatives to the egoistic “America first” approach, that this approach does not result directly from some inviolable laws of nature or geopolitics and that it is not an inevitable consequence of objective long-term trends. “America first” is simply one of the possible political responses to the challenges posed by the changing world.
That is why, when considering the future of the transatlantic community, we Europeans, should reject the temptation of determinism, which can lead us to hasty conclusions and narrow down the room for maneuver when – perhaps in two years’ time – someone else takes over the helm of American politics from Trump.
Using a metaphor from the Wild West: the U.S. is like a lonely sheriff who is tired of defending the town against gangs of gunslingers. He can mount a horse and ride away into the sunset, leaving the town on its own – which is what isolationists would do.
Or he can throw away the badge and set up his own gang by choosing a life full of risk, but also of hope for a big win, which can also include racketeering the inhabitants of his hometown – Donald Trump chose this path. Or he can call up all the inhabitants and ask them to support him in maintaining order, as Obama did, but he was largely ignored, which is the cause of today’s European hiccups.
We Europeans, should reject the temptation of determinism, which can lead us to hasty conclusions and narrow down the room for maneuver when someone else takes over the helm of American politics from Trump.
The sheriff’s decision on which path to take will, of course, be made in Washington, but in Europe we should do everything we can to create the conditions for an agreement. This means defending the liberal Western order where possible and agreeing to its correction where necessary.
We can take initiatives without America, but we should not act against America, as Thom- as Kleine-Brockhoff rightly points out. All the more so as there is no shortage of people on the other side of the Atlantic – also in the current administration – convinced of the need to continue close relations based on partnership. It is ultimately in the interests of both the United States and Europe to find a new balance in transatlantic relations.
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