The bonds between the United States and Europe were forged in the fires of two world wars and an ideological struggle of global political movements, each armed with nuclear arsenals capable of extinguishing humanity forever. Those bonds could well be broken by one Donald J. Trump, whose narcissism runs so deep, he cannot bear to concede that our allies during those struggles may have more to offer us than a former intelligence officer of our Cold War adversary. Unfortunately, it is becoming increasingly clear that President-elect Donald Trump will risk ruining relationships with America's oldest allies for the sake of defending Vladimir Putin, an adversary of the United States and a despot.
Recently, President-elect Trump told the European press that the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) - America's most important military alliance - has become "obsolete." European leaders, who keenly recall Vladimir Putin's 2008 invasion of Georgia and 2014 invasion of Ukraine, condemned the remark swiftly. Trump's statements on NATO during the campaign were even more troubling, as he suggested America's treaty commitment to defend its NATO allies would only be honored if those countries first paid the United States for the effort. If he keeps up this rhetoric while occupying the White House, Trump risks seriously diminishing the alliance's credibility. If the President of the United States of America cannot commit to defending NATO's vulnerable Eastern European members from external invasion, the alliance will exist in name only, and a century of American military sacrifices in Europe will be called into question. This is sadly not hyperbole: Putin has long toyed with the possibility of intervening in NATO's Baltic countries with justifications similar to those he used when invading both Georgia and Ukraine.
President-elect Trump has also sought to undermine the European Union (EU), the growth and expansion of which has been an American priority for decades. Both Democratic and Republican presidents have seen the EU's growth as a positive outcome for Washington, as former communist states from Estonia to Croatia have transformed their societies in order to gain membership and officially join the democratic West. Perhaps more cynically, the EU has also made diplomacy easier for Washington to manage. It's simply more practical to interface with the EU and its leading members than call twenty-eight national capitals whenever an issue emerges in Europe. Nonetheless, Trump has said that the United Kingdom was "so smart" to leave the EU and his team reportedly asked its officials which country would leave next. The career "Eurocrats" took the question as an insult, and the outgoing American ambassador to the EU felt compelled to reiterate that the Obama Administration continues to view its further dissolution as "the height of folly."
Trump's bluster likely will not be enough to bring about the EU's demise, but his election does make EU expansion less likely. Eastern and Southeastern European nations have been engaged in membership negotiations with Brussels for years, often against the backdrop of competing pressure from Moscow. Many potential candidates for EU membership have required support from Washington to undertake the difficult process of opening their economies, and their political systems, to true competition. Predicting an end to America's commitments in the region, Europe's most fragile nations are already soliciting competing offers from Vladimir Putin. In Bosnia-Herzegovina, which the United States and Europe fought a war to keep together not three decades ago, would-be separatists are hoping that Trump will deliver for them what war could not. The Balkan wars of the 1990's proved that peace in Europe cannot be taken for granted, but that European integration could make future conflict less likely. The EU's founding ethos of free trade and international cooperation may not align well with Trump's ideology, but he would be foolish to abandon it regardless.
What is strange is that some of President-elect Trump's actions come at the expense of governments that may otherwise have greeted his election with optimism. In the United Kingdom, the new Prime Minister Theresa May is embarking on an unpopular plan to sever all ties between her country and the EU, including popular benefits like Britain's access to the European Single Market. Much of Prime Minister May's case rests on her ability to deliver new trade agreements that will save the British economy from isolation. Rather than leverage the promise of an expedited trade deal in exchange for May's support on his priorities, President-elect Trump almost instantly damaged their relationship by publicly suggesting she appoint Nigel Farage as Ambassador to the United States. Farage is a bitter political rival of May's Conservative Party, is incredibly unpopular in his own country, and has notably sung Vladimir Putin's praises. It would be hard to imagine someone less likely to serve in such a role, or someone less likely to diffuse concerns that Trump is too deferential to Moscow.
Nonetheless, Farage and Trump are obvious bedfellows, as both have staked their political careers on xenophobia and anxiety toward globalization. Desperate to demonstrate support for Trump abroad, his campaign repeatedly brought Farage on stage to speak at campaign rallies, angering not just London, but other European allies who despise Farage. In this case, as in many others, Trump appeared to employ very little strategic thinking and instead promoted a marginal former politician at the expense of a sitting Prime Minister who could easily deliver him some much needed diplomatic credibility.
The irony is even stronger in Poland, whose right-wing Eurosceptic government would appear at first glance to be a natural ally for Trump. Poland's Law and Justice Party echoes much of Trump's rhetoric promoting nationalism and opposing globalization. However, Trump's coziness with Putin and threats to abandon military commitments in Europe have made Poland's leaders nervous. Despite having a similar political ideology to Putin's own party, Poland's leaders look only to history to conclude that a strong, American-led NATO is in their national interest. Again, Trump threatens to abandon these concerns, if for no other reason than to reward Vladimir Putin for his support.
President-elect Trump's relationship with Germany's Angela Merkel is much more complicated, and potentially consequential for the United States. While not a natural ally for Trump, Germany is nonetheless a critical partner when it comes to advancing American interests in Europe and beyond. Early in President Obama's first term, the success of the global economy rested on Merkel's ability to sell painful fiscal austerity policies to struggling European nations. The politics of the issue were toxic within Europe, so Germany relied heavily on pressure from the United States to achieve a plan to save the Euro and avoid an even deeper global recession. The Obama Administration recognized that it would be beneficial to maintain strong ties with allies, and employed those relationships to great effect when American interests were at stake in Brussels.
Following his election, President-elect Trump appears hell-bent on destroying any goodwill between himself and Merkel. He took to the German press to criticize Germany's refugee policy and issued a curiously timed threat against German automakers. Finally, Trump endorsed a popular theory among Europe's far-right that the EU has become "a tool of Germany" to advance a globalist agenda. It was in this same interview that President-elect Trump declared America's most important military alliance "obsolete." The far-right news organization Breitbart, whose former chairman helped run Trump's campaign and is now taking a high-powered White House job, has already begun to undermine Merkel as she seeks reelection.
Merkel, for her part, took the high road, saying that she would not address any diplomatic issues with Trump until he takes office, but did notably say that she expects Europe must take its fate "in our own hands." Such a statement is shocking to longtime observers of European politics, which have long balanced a desire for independence with the need to maintain friendship with the United States. It is only a matter of time until the incoming Trump Administration requires Germany's assistance on a diplomatic matter (both Iran and Syria come to mind), and the President-elect is burning those bridges before they even appear on the horizon.
This all begs the question: why exactly does President-elect Trump feel the need to attack our European allies while running interference for Moscow in the American press? Regardless of the reports alleging Russian malfeasance as a factor in building public opposition against his opponent, Trump has gone out of his way to defend Putin. The incoming President has criticized everything from Saturday Night Live, to the governments of North Korea and China, but has yet to utter a word of criticism concerning Putin or Russia as they have dominated the headlines. It could very well be the case that Trump is a simple narcissist who cannot bring it upon himself to criticize a world leader who has showered him with flattery. However, given his campaign's known ties to Russia, and with allegations outstanding that Putin holds leverage over Trump, the President-elect will not easily shake the notion that something more ominous is at play.