In Europe, as in America, there is a morbid fascination with the US presidential election. For 2016, the principal attraction has been Donald Trump and the spectacle of a man leading the Republican field with a unique blend of celebrity megalomania and nativist xenophobia. It has all made for a very good show.
But after the first two primary contests, it may be time to take the whole thing somewhat more seriously. The Iowa and New Hampshire election contests have not brought much clarity to the race, but they do demonstrate that Donald Trump is for real. It seems that the Republican Party establishment will not be coalescing around a single standard-bearer any time soon, and Hillary Clinton has once again demonstrated her perennial weaknesses as a candidate. We need to imagine the unimaginable: what if Donald Trump becomes President of the United States? More specifically, what would that mean for Europe?
It is of course hard to know what a president Trump would really do. He has abhorred specifics throughout the campaign, and on foreign policy especially he has embraced a level of inconsistency that celebrates the idea that the dictates of logic end at the nation’s shores. So with one breath he can declare a profound disinterest in using force abroad, but with the next propose to “bomb the shit” out of ISIS-controlled oil fields in Iraq and Syria and surround them with a “ring” of American troops.
But, as my Brookings colleague Thomas Wright, has demonstrated, a core consistency has animated Trump’s understanding of foreign policy for decades: America is getting a raw deal. America, in his view, has been stuck with the bill for global security for generations and gotten precious little in return. It secures Europe and Japan, yet is forced to pay for the privilege. It liberated Kuwait and Iraq, yet gave the oil wealth there to others who stood by and watched American soldiers die in their defense.
This sense of a bad bargain makes Trump angrier at America’s allies than at its enemies. America’s enemies strike hard deals, but at least you know where you stand. So he can imagine that Russian President Vladimir Putin is someone he “would get along with very well”. But America’s allies are like poor relatives, who play on your sympathies to borrow money and then spend all day frolicking in your gold-plated swimming pool. So when it comes to Angela Merkel all he sees is someone who is “sitting back” and “accepting all the oil and gas that they can get from Russia” while the United States is “leading Ukraine”.
The central idea of Trump’s foreign policy is that he is going to get a better deal from US allies. In Trump’s version of the transatlantic alliance, a better deal means European allies like Germany will have to pay for American protection. More than that, it means that they should not need American protection at all. He will expect Europe to shoulder the burden for dealing with conflicts that are European not American problems, such as the war in Ukraine and the refugee crisis.
Of course, the need for more equitable burden sharing has been present in American policy for decades. President Obama’s pivot to Asia reflected the idea that Europe was capable of dealing with its own problems and that the excessive American military presence in Europe had enabled Europeans to neglect their own forces. US Secretary of Defense Bob Gates ended his tenure in office in 2011 with a blistering attack on European irresponsibility in defense.
But the difference between Obama and Trump highlights what is new about Trump. Previous US efforts to equalize the burden, including Obama’s, have always been based on the idea that Europe’s security and prosperity are a core American interest and therefore must be protected—by Europe if possible, and by the United States if necessary. Previous American presidents have explicitly looked for a more equitable partnership with Europe when it comes to protecting both Europe and its neighborhood, but they have not sought to abandon Europe and leave it to its own devices.
Along these lines, the Obama administration has made the case that the European refugee crisis is America’s problem too. It has supported a NATO mission to cut off smuggling routes into Europe through the Eastern Mediterranean, but pushed Europeans to lead it. Similarly, the administration has looked find a balance in its response to the Russian aggression in Ukraine that both puts principal responsibility on the Europeans but also supports them with American power. Toward that end, US Secretary of Defense Ashton Carter recently announced that US would quadruple its military spending in Europe in 2017 to counter Russian aggression in the East.
The bipartisan American idea that Europe must be protected, as Trump has no doubt noticed, weakens US bargaining leverage with Europe because it implies that the United States will take up whatever slack Europe leaves behind. But it also reflects an historically sound belief that the United States cannot ultimately stand aside from European conflicts.
Trump, in contrast, believes in walls and in oceans. In this view, America can stand aside from problems in other regions and should not help on the European refugee crisis, for example, because “we have our own problems”. This type of thinking would strengthen his bargaining power with Europe and other US allies considerably. But in the process it might destroy the transatlantic partnership that has made both sides of the Atlantic so secure and prosperous.
If this seems like a bad deal for Europe (and for America), that’s because it is. But Trump’s view of allies represents only an extreme version of a growing feeling in the United States that, in a time of relative decline, the country is getting a raw deal from its allies. Trump will probably not be president in 2017 and the transatlantic alliance will likely endure the next US president in something like its current form. But the partnership cannot persist along the current lines for too much longer. Europeans would be wise to take more proactive measures to visibly increase the defence burden they bear under the next president, no matter who she is. Otherwise, they won’t be ready when Ivanka Trump runs in 2024.
The European Council on Foreign Relations does not take collective positions. ECFR publications only represent the views of its individual authors.