Uncertainty About the U.S. Security Guarantee: The New Normal
WASHINGTON - Just days before he is sworn into office, President-elect Donald Trump sent new shockwaves through Europe with his comments in an interview with Bild and the Times, published on Sunday. Much of what Trump said in the interview repeated what he had already said during the election campaign last year — in particular the statement that NATO was “obsolete.” (In fact, he went slightly further than before. When he used this word previously in an interview in March, he said NATO “may be obsolete.”) But many in Europe had apparently believed, and hoped, that what Trump said during the campaign was mere “political theater,” as Maggie Haberman of the New York Times put in a tweet, and that he would accept the reality of the transatlantic relationship once he became president.
Trump’s comments confirm that the uncertainty about the U.S. security guarantee toward its European allies will continue — even after appointment of James Mattis as Secretary of Defense. In his confirmation hearing last week, Mattis gave a completely different, and more conventional, view of NATO and Russia than Trump, saying “If we did not have NATO today, we would need to create it.” It remains to be seen how exactly the relationship between the president and the defense secretary will play out (though there is already much speculation that Mattis may at some point be forced to resign). But it is now difficult to see how confidence in the commitment of the United States to its allies can be restored. In short, the uncertainty about the U.S. security guarantee is not a temporary aberration but the new normal.
In addition to his comments on NATO, Trump also alarmed Europeans with his comments on the European Union. Pushed by the two interviewers, Kai Diekmann and Michael Gove (the former British minister and prominent Leave campaigner), Trump made more specific comments about the EU than he had before — though he was as incoherent as ever. At one point he said he was merely indifferent to the fate of the EU (“I don’t think it matters much for the United States”), which would itself be a break with U.S. policy going back decades. But at other times he also seemed actively hostile to it. He said the EU was “basically a vehicle for Germany,” which is why he “thought the U.K. was so smart in getting out.” He predicted other member states would leave the EU. “I think people want […] their own identity,” he said.
It is not yet clear whether and how the Trump administration could or would actively undermine the EU. The concrete fear that many pro-Europeans have is that it could agree to a free trade deal with the U.K. after it leaves the EU. In the interview Trump confirmed he wanted to do this (“we’re gonna get a trade deal”), though it is not at clear how generous the terms of such a deal would be. This could indirectly undermine the EU by making it more attractive for other member states to leave. In addition, the Trump administration might somehow support Euroskeptic parties (Trump predictably praised former U.K. Independence Party leader Nigel Farage in the interview). The “alt-right” website Breitbart, whose former editor Steve Bannon was appointed by Trump as chief strategist, has already announced it is expanding into France and Germany.
However, even if President Trump is not able to actively undermine the EU, his election could nevertheless lead indirectly to European disintegration, as I argue in a new policy brief. Historically, the U.S. security guarantee was the precondition for European integration. The question now is whether, given that the EU has not evolved into a full political union or become independent of the United States in security terms, the new doubt about the security guarantee could exacerbate the disintegrative tendencies within Europe. In that sense, it is not quite right, as Chancellor Angela Merkel said in response to the Trump interview, that Europeans “have our destiny in our own hands.” Europe’s dependence on the United States for its security, not least because of Germany’s low level of defense spending, means its fate is also to some extent in the hands of the new president — as scary as that is.
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