This article first appeared in The Financial Times.
The recent European tour of Mike Pompeo, US secretary of state, included visits to the Czech Republic, Austria and Slovenia. It concluded with the inking of a bilateral US-Polish military agreement. It was as if President Donald Trump’s administration had decided to resurrect the once-powerful Habsburg Empire in the hope of keeping Germany down and Russia out of Europe. Consolidating a strategic bloc of countries within the European Union that are suspicious of Russia and Germany seems to be at the heart of this administration’s policy on Europe.
As Wess Mitchell, a former US assistant secretary of state and gifted Republican strategist, has observed, a German-led Europe would most probably mean a Russia-friendly Europe. The European hope of retiring from history would turn into a nightmare because, as he remarked, “irrelevance … is not a luxury that a strategically sandwiched, geopolitically declining, multinational great power can afford”.
If, as seems probable, Trump believes that the EU’s disintegration is in the United States’ interest, the more subtle view of Pompeo and Mitchell is that neither the EU’s implosion nor its strategic autonomy would be. What may be in America’s interest, however, is the consolidation of a distinct group of EU states which derive their security guarantees and influence from their special relationship with the US.
Illiberal governments in Central Europe view Trump as an ideological ally, and some admire Vladimir Putin, Russia’s president.
In America’s new foreign policy thinking around a post-Brexit EU, such allies are the best hedge against the decline of US influence on the old continent. Pompeo believes that Central Europeans are America’s natural allies. Vienna should replace Berlin as the political capital of Central Europe. Sebastian Kurz, the conservative Austrian chancellor, who is sometimes critical of Angela Merkel, his German counterpart, appears a more promising leader of a US-friendly, ex-Habsburg bloc.
Were Trump to be re-elected, Washington would probably hew to this strategy as relations with countries such as Poland and Hungary flourished. For this US administration, to visit Central Europe is as inspiring as to campaign in the Midwest. Illiberal governments in Central Europe view Trump as an ideological ally, and some admire Vladimir Putin, Russia’s president. But can the US Habsburg strategy survive if Trump loses? Can a pro-US bloc in the EU, constructed in Trump’s time, outlast him?
My hunch is: probably not. Paradoxically, Trump’s electoral defeat might become the best chance for realising the Berlin-Paris dream of a sovereign Europe. Not only would a Joe Biden victory improve relations between Washington and Berlin, and Washington and Paris, but it would impel illiberal governments in Warsaw and Budapest to seek reconciliation with Brussels.
Three factors will define this post-Trump dynamic between the US and the EU, and internal European relations.
A recent survey commissioned by the European Council on Foreign Relations revealed that Washington’s response to covid-19 has badly damaged America’s image in Europe. Seventy-one per cent of Danes, 68 per cent of French citizens, 65 per cent of Germans, and 38 per cent of Poles say that their view of the US has grown worse. Many Europeans started to question America’s capability even after Trump sought to play the part of a global leader. Deep concern that domestic problems will bog down the US forces many Atlanticists to seek a stronger role for the EU in the world.
Secondly, the increasing reality of US-Chinese confrontation will change transatlantic relations. The US will need an EU strong enough to take care of itself against threats originating from its region. Neither a new administration’s anticipated focus on climate change nor Washington’s search for a common front against China, justifies putting the former Habsburg states at the centre of US relations with Europe. Weakening Germany cannot be the primary objective of any US administration that genuinely wants to co-operate with the EU.
Thirdly, and most significantly, illiberal democracies such as Poland and Hungary, which have been unabashed backers of Trump’s populist revolution, and which openly or tacitly opposed the idea of EU strategic autonomy, would view a Biden administration as an a priori political threat. A Trump defeat in November would empower liberal forces in Central Europe at a time when recent events in Belarus are a clear sign that ageing is the worst enemy of populist strongmen such as Viktor Orbán, Hungary’s prime minister since 2010.
Trump’s victory in 2016 made many liberal Europeans fantasise about the possibility of EU strategic autonomy. Ironically, it could be Trump’s electoral defeat that persuades his populist backers in Central Europe to endorse the Franco-German demand for the same objective.
Ivan Krastev is ECFR co-chair, chairman of the Centre for Liberal Strategies in Sofia, and a fellow at the Institute for Human Sciences, IWM Vienna.
The European Council on Foreign Relations does not take collective positions. ECFR publications only represent the views of their individual authors.