The Europeans are still grieving the election of Donald Trump. But at this weekend’s Munich Security Conference, where the world’s security policymakers meet for an annual discourse on foreign affairs, there were some signs of acceptance of Trump as president, though they aren’t happy about it. The administration deployed its top assets to Munich on a reassurance mission. Defense Secretary James Mattis emphatically endorsed NATO. Vice President Mike Pence, whom the Europeans hope will be a “prime minister for foreign affairs,” insisted that the U.S. will stand by NATO and Europe “every day.” Still, the Europeans wondered if the secretary and the vice president had cleared their remarks with the boss. It was a little like planning a ski trip with your buddies only to be suddenly asked, are you sure your wife is good with this?
The Europeans are still grappling with Trump’s organizing principle of “America First.” They are touchy about the health of the European Union and worried that France will succumb to populism in its coming presidential election. And citing Trump’s campaign skepticism of NATO, many profess shock at the “withdrawal of the U.S. as supporter of world order.” Trump will never please the global elites and he should not try. But some Europeans are trying to move beyond their grief and be constructive. In Munich there was some recognition from “European realists” that “we have to deal with him” and that “there are no substitutes for the Transatlantic alliance.”
Especially in light of this opening, Trump should back up his cabinet officers with words and actions. Trump should give an address on our relationship with Europe, certainly before a coming state visit to the United Kingdom. He should state plainly that his administration embraces a Europe “whole and free.” He should seek at an early opportunity go to the Baltics or Poland to visit our troops serving as deterrents to further Russian aggression. A muscular NATO is a manifestation of Trumpian American Greatness. Whatever affinity there may be for candidates who overturn established orders, seeming to support Marine LePen in the French Presidential election would be a strategic disaster and lock-in the conspiracy narrative that Trump’s foreign policy is “Russia first.”
Given Trump’s embrace of chief Brexit engineer Nigel Farage, a Trump endorsement of the European Union as an institution is unlikely. But there may be room for Trump to discuss Brexit as a wake-up call to listen to voters worried about immigration, economic dislocation, intrusive bureaucracies and stifling regulation. But Trump should also acknowledge that many continental Europeans hold European integration as sacred. Admitting that European unity is the foundation of the post-World War era and contributed to the collapse of the evil empire is compatible with Trump’s Make America Great Again theme. Getting over this rhetorical hurdle may facilitate discussions about real issues, like a volcanic Middle East that is breeding refugees and terrorists who come first to Europe.
Trump can indulge his renegade impulses by continuing to put burden sharing front and center. In Munich, most of the audience sat on their hands when Vice President Pence said Trump expected allies “to live up to their word” on increased defense spending in service of the NATO Alliance. If Trump returns to his “NATO is obsolete” rhetoric, foes of increased European defense spending might rightly ask why spend if our American NATO core is foundering. Embracing NATO arguably would increase Trump’s leverage. It enables Trump to rightly pound on the Europeans for failing on burden sharing. So far, only five of 28 NATO countries have met their commitment to spend the equivalent of 2 percent of gross domestic product on defense.
America is not the problem and through actions, rhetoric and gestures Trump can arrest distracting distress about him as the leader of the free world. More importantly , it would give Trump room to advance his priorities including winning the fight against ISIS, checking Iran, and otherwise stabilizing the geopolitical mess he calls Obama’s bequest. All this can be done without injuring Trump’s brand as the great disruptor.
Photo credit: Jeff J Mitchell/Getty Images