In 1991, I arrived in Detroit for my first-ever visit to the United States. My hosts, from the now-defunct United States Information Agency, were determined to show me and the other Bulgarians in my group not only the American dream but also America’s underbelly. Before we could tour the city, we received instructions on how to comport ourselves in supposedly dangerous places. Our American hosts were clear that if we didn’t want to become victims, we shouldn’t behave like one. Walking in the middle of the street and looking around nervously in the hope of spotting a police officer would only increase the likelihood of getting mugged. Keep your bearings, they stressed.
Ever since President Trump’s election in 2016, we Europeans have been following that same advice when it comes to international politics. We are preoccupied with not allowing ourselves to look like a victim, in the hope that this will prevent us from being mugged in a world abandoned by its once-trusted sheriff.
As Mr Trump has insulted international institutions and abandoned allies from Syria to the Korean Peninsula, policymakers on this side of the Atlantic have found themselves trying to walk a fine line: on the one hand, they want to hedge against Washington turning its back on Europe; on the other, they want to ensure that their hedging doesn’t push the Trump administration even farther away.
Consequently, European policies towards the US have been oscillating between grandstanding about our ability to do everything on our own and panicked pretending that everything is as it used to be. See, for example, when President Emmanuel Macron of France recently proclaimed that NATO was experiencing “brain death” and Chancellor Angela Merkel of Germany quickly responded by insisting that “NATO remains vital to our security.”
As the leaders of NATO countries meet this week in London, much attention will focus on the disagreements between Mr Macron and Ms Merkel. But beneath the surface, a new European consensus on trans-Atlantic relations is emerging and it represents a huge change. Until recently, most European leaders’ hopes were bound up with the outcome of America’s presidential elections. If Mr Trump were to lose in 2020, they believed, the world would somehow return to normalcy.
All of that has changed. While Trump-friendly governments in Europe, like Poland’s and Hungary’s, still follow the polls and cross their fingers that Mr Trump will get four more years in office, European liberals are giving up hope. It is not that they are no longer passionate about American politics. On the contrary, they religiously follow Congress’s impeachment hearings and pray for Mr. Trump’s defeat. But they have finally started to realise that a proper European Union foreign policy cannot be based on who is in the White House.
What explains this shift? It is plausible that European liberals are unconvinced by the foreign policy visions of Democratic hopefuls and detect isolationist tendencies in the party as well. Europeans are still struggling to understand how it was that Barack Obama – probably the most European-minded American president and one most loved by Europeans – was also the one least interested in Europe. (At least until Mr Trump came along.)
Europeans are also scared by the prospect of a cold war-style clash between the US and China. A recent poll by the European Council on Foreign Relations found that in conflicts between the US and China, a majority of European voters want to remain neutral, finding a middle way between the superpowers. There’s good reason for this: Europe remains economically tied to China in ways that Washington doesn’t seem to appreciate, as evidenced by the recent spat over the Chinese telecom giant Huawei’s plans to build 5G networks across the continent.
But putting that aside, I believe there is a more fundamental change: European liberals have come to understand that American democracy no longer produces a consensual politics with a predictable foreign policy. The change of president means not only a new figure in the White House but also, in fact, a new regime. Were the Democrats to triumph in 2020 and a Europe-friendly president to take the helm, there is no guarantee that in 2024 Americans will not elect a president who, like Mr Trump, will see the European Union as an enemy and will actively try to destabilise relations with Europe.
The self-destruction of the American foreign policy consensus was powerfully demonstrated not only during the recent impeachment hearings, which have seen the politicisation of policy towards Ukraine, but also by the fact that the spectre of Russian subversion did not provoke a bipartisan allergic reaction. When Trump voters were told that President Vladimir Putin of Russia supported their candidate, they started admiring Mr Putin rather than abandoning Mr Trump.
For the past 70 years, Europeans have known that, no matter who occupies the White House, America’s foreign policy and strategic priorities will be consistent. Today, all bets are off. Although most European leaders were appalled by Mr Macron’s derisive comments about NATO and the US, many still agree with him that Europe needs more foreign policy independence. They want Europe to develop its own technological capabilities and to develop the capacity for military operations outside of NATO.
Could this week’s NATO summit change Europe’s current state of mind when it comes to the future of trans-Atlantic relations? It is easier to hope for than to bet on. In the aftermath of the cold war, Vice-President Dan Quayle promised Europeans that “the future will be better tomorrow.” He was wrong. And Europe’s leaders are coming to realise that the future was actually better yesterday.
Ivan Krastev is a contributing opinion writer, the chairman of the Center for Liberal Strategies, a permanent fellow at the Institute for Human Sciences in Vienna and the author, most recently, of “The Light That Failed: A Reckoning,” with Stephen Holmes.
The article was originally published in the New York Times.
The European Council on Foreign Relations does not take collective positions. ECFR publications only represent the views of their individual authors.