What President Trump Has Been Getting Right and the Weakening of Transatlantic Relations
Thomas Kleine Brockhoff moderated an evening discussion with Professor Stephen Walt from the Harvard Kennedy School of Government in Berlin on his recently published book, “The Hell of Good Intentions: America’s Foreign Policy Elite and the Decline of U.S. Primacy.” Professor Walt shared his perspective on why U.S. foreign policy in recent decades has not met expectations and what steps should be undertaken to alter the country’s course.
You said, “If you squint hard enough you can see the outlines of a sensible grand strategy in some of what the Trump administration has done.” What do you think the administration is getting right, and do you think it is doing the right things to communicate its policy?
They’re not communicating their policy very well at all. The underlying logic or rationale behind many of their moves is pretty hard to discern, which is why I said you had to squint to see it. But there are several things that I think Trump and his advisors have understood about the contemporary world. In particular, they recognize that China is the biggest strategic challenge facing the United States. Therefore we need not only to shift U.S. military attention, but also to focus our efforts at revising China’s economic policies in ways that would be good for the United States but also beneficial to others.
I think Trump has also understood that efforts to spread democracy through military force and to engage in nation building in other countries are not working and are not going to work. If he can get the United States out of those activities, that would be desirable.
Finally, I think he has correctly understood that our European allies were not bearing a sufficient weight within the alliance – not taking as much responsibility for European defense as they should. That’s not unique to Trump, by the way; every U.S. president since Eisenhower has had a similar view. The problem is that he has not been able to articulate a strategy for achieving any of those ends, or to advance them in a way that’s getting him closer to the desired results. In fact, in some cases I think he’s acted in a completely counterproductive and incoherent fashion. As a result, he has undermined the United States’ position around the world, but without getting any real benefits for it.
Given these things, what signals should policymakers here in Germany take? I’m thinking not so much about the short term, but the long-term relationship with the United States.
I think the most important thing to realize is that the weakening of the transatlantic relationship did not begin with Donald Trump – although he has acted in ways that has exacerbated it to no one’s benefit. Once the Cold War was over, the rationale for a deep U.S. security engagement in Europe had disappeared, or at least decreased dramatically. With the rise of China, the focus on Asia has grown enormously. Even beginning with the Bush administration, and certainly during the Obama administration, you saw greater focus on Asia and less focus on Europe. This trend will continue long after Donald Trump leaves the White House.
Given that, what future do you see for the NATO alliance, if any? Do you think we’ll still have NATO as we know it 25 years from now?
You won’t have NATO as we know it. You might still have headquarters in Brussels, annual summit meetings, and some of the other trappings of the alliance, but it may not be all that strategically important. It’s even possible – I think ultimately desirable – for the United States’ role to gradually decline, even if it remains a formal member and the Europeans take much greater responsibility for their own defense.
Europe has a large population, is wealthy by global standards, and has all the latent potential to create and maintain the military capabilities it needs to protect itself against any expected dangers. The only question is whether or not Europe will be able to find the collective will to do so, or whether countries will ultimately feel the need to do so individually. Ideally that process would be done while remaining on good terms with the United States, because we should not bear any ill will towards any European countries. That’s where I think we’re headed over the longer term, and I hope this process occurs in a gradual, cooperative, and amicable fashion.
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