European leaders came away from the recent NATO and G7 meetings disappointed and skeptical of the future of the transatlantic relationship. Most comments included words such as “failure” and “unreliable” and focused more on Trump’s bullying behavior (handshakes, pushing, etc.) than on outcomes. Across the EU, there is talk predicting the end of the US global leadership, and European leaders are calling for a stronger EU that is less dependent on the US for its security and prosperity.
It is no secret that I do not share President Trump’s values, and that I believe his behavior did more to hurt US interests and weakened the role of the US in the international community than it did good. However, while I fundamentally disagree with his policies, it does no good to sit around laughing (and sometimes crying) at his antics. Given the state of global affairs, transatlantic conflicts only make both sides more vulnerable.
Before we start mourning the end of Transatlanticism, it is important to note that the EU and the US have had their share of political differences in the past. In the 1980’s European leader slapped countersanctions measure on the US to stop the US extraterritorial action through its Iran sanctions regime. In the 1990s the EU and the US faced off over with counter-sanction regimes over investment in Cuba (the Helms-Burton law).
It is not the first nor the last time the two sides have serious differences over policies. If we look back in the last 20 years both NATO and the G7 have been criticized as being obsolete, out of touch and too expensive. Part of the problem lies in the different understandings of the role of international institutions. The US sees institutions as means to and end, and the EU sees them as goals in themselves. While the US acts alone when it can and internationally when it must, the opposite is true about the EU.
Whereas this recent division might only be a momentary hiccup in an otherwise harmonious relationship, the questions for us are what can we learn from his visit and how can we overcome differences to ensure continued prosperity in the transatlantic region. My departure point is that the G7 and NATO meetings were not failures. We only think of them as failures because we compare them with meetings that took place with President Obama, who cherished the EU-US relationship and saw it as a cornerstone of US security. In those meetings, the topics were the same, yet the styles were different.
President Trump, on the other hand, thrives on confrontation and has few international diplomatic skills. He understands negotiation as a distributive confrontational process in which parties arrive at mutually agreeable solutions through concession-making. In fact, his approach, whether conscious or unconscious, is to find a Pareto Optimal line where both sides reach an economic and political equilibrium. Central to this approach is power and that “no” has a value. What we saw on display was a quintessential economic approach to political conflicts in which the world is a zero-sum game.
Seen through a political lens, the meetings were mostly a failure. However, seen through a “Trumpian” lens, the meetings were very successful. He set out
1. to confront partners for not paying their fair share in NATO,
2. to secure more jobs for US companies,
3. to build an anti-ISIS coalition, and
4. to show the world the US would be doing business differently.
Not only did he achieve these goals but he also has another three years to repair any damaged caused by his rough approach. In his world, the mission was a success. The result of the meetings, whether we like it or not, is that Trump managed to change the game to his advantage. Europe is now talking more about how to accommodate him, a debate has broken out about European financial contributions in NATO, and the anti-ISIS coalition was strengthened.
The EU for its part didn’t do so well. European leaders came ready for battle but were ill prepared for Trump’s approach. They do not understand Trump and by enlarge thought that they could outnumber him. A strategy doomed to fail. While the EU does understand distributive confrontational bargaining (e.g. the Council negotiations over the Greek debt), in the end, they come together publicly as a community of shared values. This, of course, will be tested in the months to come as BREXIT negotiations get underway. It’s not what Trump demanded; it’s his public contempt for 70 years of European neo-functionalist institutionalism that infuriates them the most. So we come back to style and not substance.
So what can we learn about the recent US-EU meetings?
1. Most importantly, business-as-usual is a thing of the past. We find ourselves in a period of change and transition. Those who embrace it and dance with it will come out stronger. Both sides will have to listen deeply to each other’ others and seek cooperation in areas where interests overlap.
2. The existing international architecture seems outdated. The EU and the US will need to sit down and take each other’s concerns more seriously on how best institutions can meeting current challenges. This will require the EU to leave its institutionalist comfort zone and the Trump Administration to shore up its commitment to multilateralism.
3. Terrorism is an issue in which there are mutual interests in cooperation. It might be good to set out some rules on intelligence sharing and use the issue as a trust-building exercise.
4. Future meetings need to be better prepared with expectations clarified before leaders meet. Both sides need to do some more homework. The tactics such as power handshakes, eye contact, and other snubs only show poor leadership.
5. POTUS needs to be better prepared. The fact that he was completely unaware of EU institutional arrangements, e.g. that Germany cannot renegotiate trade deals as it is an EU competence, shows unprofessional preparation by the State Department and Trump’s advisors.
6. The EU needs to get its own affairs in order. Its global aspirations are somewhat dampened by its own poor leadership. It must make BREXIT a success, deal with the refugee crisis and should consider reigning in the power of the Commission which is out of touch with modern democratic understanding. All of this must also be done without US assistance.
7. Lastly, the elephant in the room was the role of Russia in the international community. While not present, Russia’s relationship vis-à-vis the US and EU will be important in rebalancing the international community.
Europeans can rest assured that in a real crisis, it can rely on the US. However, the US has signaled that it is going through a difficult social and economic period in its history and that maybe, just maybe, for a while, the US will need the EU not only to carry its own weight but shoulder a little more for a while. Whether that signals the end of American hegemony or only a brief period of US isolationism will depend on how the rest of the world reacts to the current US situation. Either way, the fight to destroy terrorism and other global problem will not go away. Therefore, there will be other opportunities for the US and EU to reset the relationship and hopefully rediscover each other.
As a good friend always says, “it’s about clarity of purpose and quality of relationships”. The US and the EU can use a little of both.
NOTE: This article first appeared on LinkedIn: https://www.linkedin.com/pulse/eu-us-relations-after-trumps-visit-dr-juan-diaz-prinz