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Perhaps Some Good News for NATO, but Little Else

October 23, 2018
3 min read
"The new Congress, like the old, will value alliances more than the administration." –Ian Lesser

"The new Congress, like the old, will value alliances more than the administration." –Ian Lesser

Two years of experience with the Trump administration has left Europe — or at least those inside the “Brussels bubble” — with little to show for their efforts in engaging Washington on trade, climate, and foreign policy. Europe has traditionally sought predictability from U.S. administrations, and predictability has been in short supply.  The central question for many observers is whether the Trump administration and its policies are an aberration, or whether they reflect durable changes in American society and politics.  The outcome of the midterms is sure to be less consequential for transatlantic relations than many Europeans imagine. Even assuming Democratic control of the House, and perhaps the Senate (by all accounts, a more distant prospect), the prospects for policy change are uncertain.

The TTIP experience suggests that the transatlantic trade agenda was already troubled before the advent of the Trump administration. The Iran nuclear deal always had its critics in Congress and there are plenty of hawks on Iran in both parties. Having withdrawn the United States from the JCPOA, European supporters of the agreement cannot be sanguine about reversing this decision or fending off secondary sanctions. On the Paris climate accords, Congressional pressure might possibly lead the administration to a compromise of some sort. More likely, with an eye on the 2020 presidential race, the administration will seek to reinforce its tough, unilateral approach on this and other issues to keep the base on board. 

Similarly, there is little prospect that the administration will suddenly discover the virtues of the EU per se as an international partner. Views on Brexit and other key questions are unlikely to change, and bilateral diplomacy is likely to remain the center of gravity in transatlantic relations. This is especially uncomfortable for decision-makers in Brussels as the EU seeks to project a more energetic and cohesive global strategy. This has not been an easy project, and the absence of American interest has not helped. Efforts toward European “strategic autonomy,” including a stronger defense identity (and spending) have been given new impetus by Washington’s perceived unreliability. More fundamentally, the interest in a stronger and more independent European defense capability is driven by the need to hedge against the steady rise of distractions for American power in Asia.

NATO policy is one area where the midterm elections might make a practical difference.

NATO policy is one area where the midterm elections might make a practical difference. Opinion in the Senate has served to constrain what might otherwise have been an even more assertive approach from the administration. This was evident during the July 2018 NATO Summit in Brussels. Congress and the administration see eye to eye on the need for European allies to spend more on defense. This will not change after the midterms, whatever the outcome.

But Congress is more naturally inclined to see inherent value in alliances, and to recognize the independent American interest in European security. Early in the Trump administration, there was considerable concern in NATO — and EU — circles about the durability of the U.S. commitment to the Alliance, including Article 5. Today, NATO policy appears as a relatively stable element in the transatlantic equation. Congressional politics around this issue are unlikely to change significantly. And Congressional control over national security spending means that major, expensive changes in U.S. military posture affecting European security — including redeployments elsewhere — would face strong Congressional scrutiny. 

Even if the outcome of the midterm elections is unlikely to produce significant changes in the policy landscape as seen from Brussels, the results will be watched closely, and seen as a bellwether for what Europe faces from across the Atlantic and in its own societies in the years ahead.

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