US can ill afford to ostracize its Europe allies

US can ill afford to ostracize its Europe allies

The close relationship between the US and Western European powers has been central to the post-war international system. Following the collapse of the Soviet Union, Central and Eastern European countries also came into the American sphere of influence after parting from Moscow. This week, Europe hit back at the US after President Donald Trump slapped tough tariffs on European steel and aluminum imports. The tariffs followed a diplomatic rupture the week before as the two sides clashed over the Iran nuclear deal. In the face of unprecedented threats and a Russian leadership only too keen to exploit division, it is imperative that US policy-makers avoid a further deterioration of ties.

It was only last month that the US president lauded his close relationship with French counterpart Emmanuel Macron. However, following the imposition of tariffs on European goods, this relationship has suffered greatly. Sources noted that a call between the two leaders was “terrible,” a reaction which has come to symbolize how US policies are harming long-standing alliances. 

A statement released by the Elysee Palace said the French president “regrets” the US tariffs, deeming them not only illegal but “a mistake because it responds to a worldwide unbalance that exists in the worst ways through fragmentations and economic nationalism.” Following a similarly tough conversation with UK Prime Minister Theresa May, there are growing concerns that populist American policies will have far-reaching diplomatic consequences. 

With the EU in a state of turmoil following the Brexit vote and the election of far-right elements in Italy, the world’s largest trading bloc can ill afford further disintegration. Though Brussels has presented a united front in the wake of the US tariffs, retaliatory policies could have huge ramifications for economic growth in the long term. Given that the US Treasury report published last month particularly highlighted the trade surplus with Germany, there is a very real possibility that the rest of the EU will single out Germany for having caused a trade war with the US. The Trump administration has a particular issue with countries that run a trade surplus with the US and, as financial experts have warned of the consequences of a trade war on the EU, Berlin’s pre-eminent role within the organization could itself be at stake. 

Trump's first 500 days as president have shown that the US cannot pursue isolationist policies if it hopes to live in a secure world.

Zaid M. Belbagi

Given growing military threats, the US can ill afford to ostracize its European allies. Just this week, as Brussels reacted to the US tariff decision, the Trump administration called for its NATO allies to bolster their defenses to prepare for a potential attack by Russia. Indeed, US Secretary of Defense James Mattis is expected to meet with NATO allies this week to discuss plans to prepare for combat with Russia. Within this context, the US should be working to keep its European partners onside, as opposed to damaging long-standing relationships. The administration’s official National Security Strategy, released last December, singled out Russia as a key national security threat. Therefore, in order to counter what Secretary of State Mike Pompeo referred to as its “malign influence,” European alliances are critical. 

Central to containing Russia is, of course, Germany. The US has already proposed the idea of installing advanced missile defense systems there, though in reality the relationship between the two countries is becoming ever more fraught. Meetings between German Chancellor Angela Merkel and Trump have ranged from awkward to entirely dysfunctional. Earlier in his presidency, aides squirmed as he insisted on a bilateral trade deal with Germany despite Merkel explaining twice that such a relationship would have to extend to all EU member states. 

Most recently, a mere hour after officially accepting his new role, Trump’s Ambassador to Germany, Richard Grenell, caused controversy when he tweeted that German companies should “wind down operations immediately” in Iran. Such crude interference in the internal politics of a host country is not befitting of a newly appointed envoy. Now, a month later, Grenell has caused further uproar in stating his intention to “empower other conservatives throughout Europe” because of “the failed policies of the left.”

The ambassador’s comments are symptomatic of the divisive short-term policy-making that the Trump White House has pursued to maintain its populist credentials. Internationally, however, such thinking will have marked diplomatic consequences. In the European context, the stakes are much higher and the US will gain little from upsetting ruling governments, while also seeking their support in combatting the very real threats posed by Russia, North Korea and Iran. 

As a presidential candidate, Trump lashed out at NATO allies, promising to focus on domestic policy. However, his first 500 days as president have shown that the US cannot pursue isolationist policies if it hopes to live in a secure world. As the G7 leaders meet on Friday and Saturday, Trump can expect a reality check from his peers.

  • Zaid M. Belbagi is a political commentator, and an adviser to private clients between London and the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC). Twitter: @Moulay_Zaid

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