It is widely commented that transatlantic relations under the U.S. presidency of Donald Trump are strained, though progressing in certain areas, like defense and security.
Most recently, president Trump and European allies have diverged on trade, Iran policy, and climate change. In May, the Trump administration announced it will impose new duties on steel and aluminum imports from the EU, along with Canada and Mexico. This will amount to a 25 percent duty on steel and 10 percent on aluminum. The EU – as well as Canada and Mexico – was previously given a temporary exemption; and though talks with the EU made some progress, U.S. Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross said there was not enough progress to warrant a permanent exemption or another temporary one. The EU, for its part, is responding, by planning to levy duties on $7.1 billion worth of U.S. exports, aiming to collect about $1.6 billion in tariff revenue.
Also in May, President Trump announced his plan to withdraw from the Iran nuclear deal (Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action – JCPOC), an agreement between seven countries signed in 2015 to limit Iran’s nuclear ability for more than a decade in exchange for the lifting of international oil and financial sanctions. The U.S. will now reimpose stringent sanctions on Iran, while considering new penalties. The U.S. may also impose sanctions on European countries who do business with Iran. France, Germany, and the United Kingdom – the three European signatories to the deal – have all said they will uphold the agreement, and they regret the U.S. Withdrawal.
In an earlier move of disagreement with Europe, president Trump in June 2017 withdrew the United States from the Paris climate accord, a 2015 pact signed by 196 parties, including the EU, that aims to combat global warming. President Trump said the agreement imposed unfair standards on American businesses and workers, and he would like to negotiate a better deal for the United States. Within minutes of the president’s remarks, the leaders of France, Germany, and Italy issued a joint statement saying the Paris climate agreement was “irreversible” and could not be renegotiated.
On defense and security, president Trump initially sowed discontent within the EU nations who are also NATO members, with his bellicose rhetoric on the transatlantic security alliance. President Trump, before and after assuming office, consistently stated that all NATO member states must meet the organization’s two percent of GDP defense spending target, lest the U.S. leave the alliance. Gradually, his tone shifted from, ‘meet the spending target or else,’ to ‘all must commit to increased defense spending in the name of transatlantic security, which the U.S. is committed to.’ In a cabinet meeting with NATO secretary general Jens Stoltenberg in May, president Trump reaffirmed the U.S. commitment to NATO, saying, “NATO has been working very closely with the United States. Our relationship is really good.”
Thus, the conclusion seems to be that while transatlantic relations are not at a high, they are also not at a low, and there is room for continued negotiation and cooperation, especially in defense and security.
That being said, the definition of “transatlantic” is changing, as the European Union increasingly appears less a single bloc and more a collection of states with varying ideologies and, therefore, policy positions. The ‘authoritarian bloc’ of Hungary led by Prime Minister Viktor Orban, Poland under the rule of the Law and Justice party, and the Czech Republic and Slovakia (which are heading down authoritarian paths), also known as the Visegrad Group, diverges from Western Europe on governance structure and major policy areas, like immigration and climate change.
At the same time, Western European countries are dealing with their own internal divides on ideology and policy: Italy is currently forming a far-right, populist coalition government between the League and the Five Star Movement; Germany’s far-right Alternative for Germany (AfD) became the third-largest party and the main opposition parliamentary group in the Bundestag after the 2017 federal election; and Spain is dealing with a separatist movement in the northeastern Catalonia region. Finally, the United Kingdom became the first State to decide to leave the EU in the June 2016 ‘Brexit’ referendum.
President Trump, who espouses isolationism and authoritarianism in many ways, appears more aligned with the far-right and populist leaders of Europe than the traditional liberal democratic bloc, the category in which the EU as an institution falls. Hence, it could be argued that while transatlantic relations are strained with a certain segment of Europe, they are better than ever with the other(s).
It is intriguing to note that in security and defense matters, the separation between ideologies and policies within Europe appears lesser: most countries agree that they need to devote more resources and attention to defense, a position that president Trump strongly supports. But this trend is not limited to transatlantic relations. Many countries across the world – including Russia, China, and Venezuela – are placing emphasis on the importance of the military and the need to strengthen defenses. For when it comes to security and defense, no country wants to be left behind.
Kaitlin Lavinder is a national security and transatlantic relations analyst based in Washington, DC. She holds an MA in International Economics and European Studies from Johns Hopkins University School of Advanced International Studies (SAIS). She previously worked as a national security reporter and European affairs analyst at the Cipher Brief and for the U.S. Department of State at the U.S. Embassy in Berlin. Twitter: @KaitLavinder
Photo 1: President Donald Trump (L) during a joint U.S.-France press conference with French President Emmanuel Macron (R), 13/07/2017 (Source: NBC News).
Photo 2: Iran’s Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif (2L) met with Britain’s Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson (R), France’s Foreign Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian (C), Germany Foreign Minister Heiko Maas (2nd R) and EU High Representative for Foreign Affairs Federica Mogherini (L) in Brussels, 15/05/2018 (Source: AFP).
Photo 3: NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg met with US President Donald Trump and members of the U.S. national security team, including Vice President Mike Pence, Secretary of State Michael R. Pompeo, Secretary of Defense James Mattis, Assistant to the President for National Security Affairs John Bolton, among others, in Washington, 17/05/2018 (Source: NATO website).