Trump and Europe: The NASCAR Summit?

Regardless of Trump's visit to Europe, serious questions about the Trump administration should persist for Europe.

Donald Trump arrives this week in Europe for his first visit as U.S. president. The visit has a certain NASCAR quality to it: Everybody claims they are interested in the outcome, but most really show up to see the fiery crashes. And at the scheduled meeting of NATO leaders, a volatile Trump could easily careen the car of state into the guardrail and cause an epic 28-car pile-up. But it is more likely that the Europeans will appeal to Trump’s ego, and he will return the favor with effusive charm. Trump will give an ordinary speech, make various extravagant promises, and the meeting will pass with neither incident nor substance. Everyone but the journalists will go home happy.

Regardless of that non-event, serious questions about the Trump administration should persist for Europe. Four endless months into his tenure, a few points about his presidency have already become abundantly clear to reasonably attentive European observers:

  • Trump is more of a clown than an ideologue — he is basically uninterested in most aspects of policy and in any case incapable of carrying through complex policy initiatives such as health care or immigration.
  • He is more of a bully than a savvy negotiator – he has backed down or given up on almost everything so far including declaring China a currency manipulator, dumping the Iran deal, and getting Mexico to pay for the wall. Like most bullies, he gives up easily when actually challenged. 
  • He is more of an egotist than a strategist. He values symbolic “quick win” actions like bombing Syria that make him look decisive more than he cares for consistency or coherence. His policy therefore changes at the speed of a tweet. 

All of this means that the essence of Trump’s policy is its incoherence and unpredictability. Nonetheless, in Europe, many policymakers have a certain complacency about his presidency. They note that the nastier elements of his campaign rhetoric — the hostility toward NATO, the indifference to the European Union, and the support for populist forces in Europe — have largely disappeared. 

To their relief, Trump has put into a place a foreign policy team that fits well within the bounds of normal Republican parameters. Beneath the daily tumult of Trump-induced chaos, people like Secretary of Defense James Mattis, National Security Advisor H.R. McMaster, and U.N. Ambassador Nikki Haley are working assiduously to reassure allies and to fashion a foreign policy that, while distinct from that of former U.S. President Barack Obama, is hardly revolutionary. In stark opposition to candidate Trump, his administration’s foreign policy seeks to continue American leadership in the world, and indeed signals greater involvement in the Middle East and a greater willingness overall to commit American power to regional stability around the world.

This is not ideal from the perspective of many Europeans who remember the travails of the Bush administration, but it is quite familiar. It does not represent a collapse of world order. All the Europeans need to do is appeal to Trump’s ego at ceremonial occasions, be especially nice to Ivanka, and then do the serious business with the grownups in the next room. This is the emerging Trump management strategy around the world, from Japan to Saudi Arabia to Germany. People are gaining confidence in it.

This confidence is an illusion. Trump’s (lack of) character traits have already sunk his domestic agenda and even endangered his presidency. To the extent that Trump’s foreign policy has worked at all so far, it is because he has not been very interested or involved.

Yet American presidencies have a certain trajectory. They begin with a president committed to a domestic agenda — health care, immigration, taxes, etc. Usually within a year or so, they confront the fact that presidential power is very limited on domestic issues, and the U.S. Congress is a gridlocked mess. Looking to remain relevant and proactive, the president naturally turns to an area where he has greater power to take decisive action. Unfortunately for Europe and the world, that area is foreign policy.

As in domestic policy, the coherence of the Trump administration’s foreign policy will not survive the intervention of the president. The office of the presidency is central to U.S. foreign policy — Trump can with an errant tweet or an impulsive missile strike undo months or years of careful planning.

And he might at any time. On a host of issues, the president is not on the same page as his national security team. On Russia, particularly, he seems completely at odds with his team’s own policy, even as Russia-related scandals engulf his administration. It is folly to believe that the United States and Europe can construct a long-term transatlantic policy to deal with a growing Russian challenge while the president divulges top-secret intelligence to the Russians in the Oval Office. 

European complacency risks tying Europe’s fate to an unstable and unpredictable U.S. president. European policymakers hope that he will listen to his team, live up to their promises, and not destroy the NATO alliance or the European Union in a fit of pique. They would be wiser to hedge against his predictable unpredictability and seek their own means of securing their position in the world. This means developing a European defense capability and a European policy on Russia that doesn’t depend on the United States and its mercurial president.

This commentary was originally published on on 24 May 2017.

The European Council on Foreign Relations does not take collective positions. ECFR publications only represent the views of their individual authors.


Research Director
Director, US Programme

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