Two years ago, relations between the U.S. and Europe were on terra firma, just as they had been since the end of World War II. But after the seismic shift of the U.S. presidential election, that bond appears to be on thinning ice.
Nicholas Burns, the Roy and Barbara Goodman Family Professor of the Practice of Diplomacy and International Relations at Harvard Kennedy School (HKS) and a former U.S. ambassador to NATO and Greece, calls the situation “a crisis, because of what’s happened” since the start of the Trump administration. The changes include U.S. withdrawal from the Paris climate accord and the Iran nuclear deal, sanctioning of European companies that continue to do business with Iran, criticizing NATO, and questioning U.S. defense obligations to NATO members.
During a JFK Jr. Forum Monday evening, Burns, who also directs the new Project on Europe and the Transatlantic Relationship at HKS, asked European and American foreign policy experts whether the U.S. and Europe are experiencing a momentary rift or something far more serious.
“The fabric of our relationship … is much, much deeper and more resilient than just governments. Our people, our businesses, our cultures, our ideas, our values — they are completely integrated, and I don’t see any of that changing,” said Kurt Volker, a former U.S. ambassador to NATO during the George W. Bush and Obama administrations and currently the U.S. special representative for Ukraine negotiations, where he is working to resolve the ongoing territorial conflict with Russia.
Unlike past crises between the U.S. and European Union (EU), the debates happening in European countries around national identity, religion, populism, and other issues are shaking nations from the inside, not the outside, he said.
Still, there’s more common ground than may appear. Perhaps surprisingly, President Trump has helped create more consensus around policies in Europe — whether on increasing U.S. troop deployment in Europe, enacting tougher measures on Russia, or pushing back on the use of chemical weapons in Syria — than existed during the Obama administration.
“There’s a lot more convergence, and, in many cases even, people are happier with policies than where we were previously,” said Volker.
The rift may turn out to be a good thing for Europe.
“Let’s not waste a crisis like this,” said Wolfgang Ischinger, a former German ambassador to the U.S. and the Britain and now chairman of the respected Munich Security Conference. Europeans must recognize that the EU can no longer “outsource” its conventional security defense to the U.S. and must do more to bolster NATO, which is still “indispensable” to Europe’s nuclear defense.
“We need to do more for ourselves and try to make ourselves as Europeans a more respectable and more relevant partner for the U.S. That doesn’t mean break the relationship. On the contrary, I think we should try to engage, engage, engage, but by doing more, not by giving up,” he said.
Driving much of the tumult is the Trump administration’s sometimes up-is-down, black-is-white perspective and approach to foreign policy, one that veers from the careful language of diplomacy and respect for historical precedent toward a style that embraces provocation, surprise, and even chaos.