Strategic Review

Frayed Friendships: Exploring US-Europe Relations in the Trump Era

September 2019 | Author: Dr Brad Nelson, Saint Xavier University


US President Donald Trump has taken a metaphorical wrecking ball to America’s relations with EU/NATO member nations. He has criticized the EU, NATO, European governments, and various European leaders, including Theresa May, Emmanuel Macron, and Angela Merkel. Trump has repeatedly complained that European countries are not contributing a “fair share” to their NATO partnership with the US and that NATO is increasingly “obsolete.” He has openly questioned whether upholding Article 5 of the North Atlantic Treaty is in America’s interest. Trump imposed tariffs on European steel and aluminium in 2018, and further tariffs could be on the way. Trump disparaged Denmark and cancelled a visit there after Danish Prime Minister Mette Frederiksen refused to sell Greenland to the US. And there have been widespread and deep policy disagreements on climate change, Iran, Brexit, and protectionism, among other things. These developments have alarmed politicians, scholars, and analysts in Europe and the US, causing them to grapple with what has happened in transatlantic ties since 2017. It is easy to view the swift and consequential changes in this relationship as solely a product of the egotistical, capricious Donald Trump.

To be sure, Trump is part of the problem. But the whole story of the Europe-US fissures is larger and more complex than the rise of one singular populist leader in the US. Moreover, equally complicated is Europe’s response to Trump and his machinations. At this moment, EU/NATO nations are wrestling with the monumental decision to alter how they relate to and interact with the US. Hence, the foreign policy status quo on both sides, for Europe and the US, is tenuous, buckling under the weight of various internal and external pressures. At bottom, there are three issues here. First, does the US still maintain a high level of commitment and importance to Europe? Second, should EU/NATO countries begin to prepare for the day when America no longer has their back? Third, what might restore the coherence and tranquillity of the transatlantic alliance? These three questions are at the heart of contemporary US-European relations and drive this paper’s analytical focus.

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