Three Questions to Kim Holmes, Executive Vice President of the Heritage Foundation

6 min read
Editor's note: GMF Vice President and Brussels Director Dr. Ian Lesser sat down with Dr. Kim Holmes, Executive Vice President of The Heritage Foundation, to discuss the current state of transatlantic relations.

Editor's note: GMF Vice President and Brussels Director Dr. Ian Lesser sat down with Dr. Kim Holmes, Executive Vice President of The Heritage Foundation, to discuss the current state of transatlantic relations.

We’ve spent an interesting afternoon talking with an audience here in Brussels about what is happening in transatlantic relations and, broader than that, what is happening in the world that might be affecting transatlantic relations. To begin with, would you say there is such a thing as a Trump doctrine in foreign policy?

A Trump doctrine is probably not something as sophisticated or intellectual as the word “doctrine” might imply. But there are themes that those who wish to create a doctrine might use, as a way of intellectualizing what is already there. First is an emphasis on national sovereignty, which in the U.S. political and historical context is not a dirty word. It is so in Europe due to historical factors - the success of the European Union, and in overcoming nationalism’s role in creating wars and dividing the continent. But in the U.S. context, in the Trump context, the term “national sovereignty” is often used as a way of emphasizing the right of the United States to make its own decisions in its own national interest, and according to its own values.

This rubs a lot of people in Europe the wrong way. The liberal international order as defined here in Europe is based upon consensus, on multilateralism. When we come together on climate change or the Iran nuclear accord or other issues, in Europe it’s pretty much assumed that is a litmus test for whether you’re adhering to the order or not. And Donald Trump came in and said: “You know, no, that’s not the way we’re going to do business.” That’s the second part: challenging multilateralism as it has been practiced in the past between the United States and Europe.

Thirdly, he’s a trade protectionist. That’s not only policy, that’s what he believes. And in addition I would say he has an unorthodox approach to diplomacy, using tactics that have not been tried before, and having a very high tolerance if they don’t work. He doesn’t get embarrassed by the North Korean agreement not working very well. He’s willing to try it because he’s not from the world of diplomacy and politics. He does not worry about repercussions in the same way professional diplomats do. And that gives him the freedom to try things that have not been tried before.

You’ve been here in Brussels for a couple of days, talking to a lot of people, and you come to Europe frequently. What’s your impression of what you’re hearing right now about the administration in Washington? We’ve gone through different phases with this here, just observing it and going from trying to decode it to trying to outlast it to now perhaps thinking that whatever is there is more structural than just the personality of the president, which has not obviously gotten a good reception here. What are you hearing from your interlocutors?

Well, I was just at a forum in Brussels where there were many people who have certain strong views about the European Union, so I don’t know that I want to extrapolate just from that audience alone. But, from what I heard from them, and European politicians and experts that I talked to, the mood ranges from resignation to sometimes panic. That the current difficult state of transatlantic relations is possibly permanent, and not just the result of Donald Trump. There’s something new going on, and they don’t fully understand what it is. And so they go back and forth between wanting to condemn it in the strongest possible terms, and the hope that maybe we Americans will suddenly turn a light on and just see things differently. The standard response I get from the Europeans on the left wing of the political spectrum is, “Well, rising populism is just a form of fascism and, you know, fascism arose in a democracy and we must fight it with tooth and nail.” This is simply wrong and highly divisive. Labeling as fascists people who are having a hard time making a living and who are tired of being talked down to by cultural elites in Brussels and elsewhere is not the way to win their hearts and minds.

There’s a lot of concern here in Europe, and it in fact doesn’t date from this administration, it goes back to previous administrations, about the sort of predictability of U.S. engagement in Europe, with all the distractions of the rise of China and other things. Do you think we’re coming to the end of what you could call a hundred-year American pivot to Europe or is something more structural going on here?

I think that business as usual, in terms of the United States and the transatlantic relationship, is changing. I’m not sure exactly where it’s going, but I do think the terms of the relationship are being reset. The traditional mutual expectations are being changed. Where it goes in the future depends a lot on how each side manages that transition. The dilemma for the average American is that when they look at an issue, many of them don’t look at it the same way as elites do. They think the United States should be a normal country like any other; that we have interests and values like any other. The average American asks: “Why can’t we just assert that? Why is it that we’re accused of being nationalists, isolationists if we stand up for ourselves?” They have a hard time understanding that. But we know why that is. It is because the transatlantic bargain over the last 60 or 70 years between the United States and Europe was that the United States, in the name of leadership of this alliance, would not only provide more for the common defense, but also that it would not maximize its own national interest at the expense of other countries. A lot of Americans today feel that bargain doesn’t work in the United States’ favor any more. They’re seeing that not only do we have to provide more for the common defense, for the defense of Europe, but even in some cases more than Europeans are willing to provide themselves. On top of that we’re asked to sublimate our own national interest in the name of a consensus on unity which may not serve U.S. interests or values. And that’s what is changing the American electorate, at least those who vote for Republicans. And Trump realized that, and he plays it up.

The danger is that he plays it up too much and that, after four years or eight years, he’s acculturated the Republican voting base on trade and the transatlantic relationship to see Europe as no longer our friend. This is the danger. But it is a danger that can be avoided, provided that both sides don’t overreact. I fear that when people in Europe get frustrated with Donald Trump and make accusations of various things - that Trump supporters are akin to fascists, for example - it gets all kinds of media play in the United States. It only turns Americans against Europe. Trump didn’t invent this phenomenon. It was already there. He found it and capitalized on it.