How a Great Power Falls Apart
Decline Is Invisible From the Inside
In the run-up to last week’s NATO summit and the meeting between U.S. President Donald Trump and Russian President Vladimir Putin, European leaders could hardly hide their anxiety. In recent weeks, Trump has gone on a rhetorical warpath against the United States’ greatest allies. In a rally in June, he claimed that the EU “was set up to take advantage of the United States.” Earlier that month, Trump attacked German Chancellor Angela Merkel as she was facing a rebellion in her own coalition over immigration. “The people of Germany are turning against their leadership,” he tweeted. Trump also reportedly asked French President Emmanuel Macron to leave the EU in order to get a better bilateral trade deal with the United States. These latest attacks came on the heels of Trump’s refusal to join the G-7 joint statement, his imposition of new U.S. tariffs on steel and aluminum from U.S. allies, and his proposal to readmit Russia to the G-7. On the eve of the meeting with Putin, the U.S. president called the European Union a “foe.” The message seems clear: “America first” means Europe alone.
These recent debacles reflect not only a growing rift between the United States and western Europe but also a new reality: Europe, divided internally, is losing agency on the world stage, and the Trump administration, acting as a predator more than as a partner, is tempted to exploit this weakness. As great powers compete for influence across the globe, Europe, like the Middle East or Latin America, will become another battleground.
In a speech in June at the Heritage Foundation unveiling the administration’s Europe strategy, A. Wess Mitchell, the assistant secretary of state for European and Eurasian affairs, put it most directly: “Europe is indisputably a place of serious geopolitical competition. . . . We have to take this reality seriously. . . . America has to take it seriously.” Seen from Europe, this presents an existential challenge. European countries rely on the United States’ continued security commitment and leadership. With the latter gone and the former at risk, Europe will need to unify at home and undertake some savvy diplomatic maneuvering abroad if it is to continue to pursue its interests on the global stage. For Europe, learning how to live in the new era of great power competition is not just about managing an unpredictable U.S. president with a special disdain for multilateral alliances; it is a question of survival.
In an extraordinarily short time, Trump has begun to pivot the United States away from 70 years of U.S. foreign policy, which promoted European integration as a bedrock of U.S. security. Now that Washington aims to compete in Europe rather than alongside Europe, it will try to pick off European countries by dangling bilateral trade deals in front of them, such as the one Trump offered Macron. As the international relations expert Thomas Wright has argued, this could include using the United Kingdom’s weakened post-Brexit position to pressure it into signing a free trade agreement with the United States over one with the EU. The United States, in a predatory stance, will also exploit its greatest leverage, its defense and security commitments, to get short-term deals on trade. It will dole out defense dollars to the most loyal while punishing those who stand up to it. For 2019, Congress committed $6.3 billion toward the European Deterrence Initiative, an increase of $1.8 billion from 2018. Those funds, which are aimed at deterring Russia, disproportionately go to U.S. military forward presence and readiness in eastern Europe. But at the same time, the Pentagon is assessing the costs of U.S. military presence in Germany and the potential impact of withdrawing the 35,000 U.S. troops currently positioned there. These seemingly contradictory impulses—significant spending increases on European defense coupled with concerns over costs associated with keeping U.S. troops in Germany—make sense from the perspective of a United States interested in breaking up Europe rather than preserving it.
On the political front, the United States is moving to undermine European leaders who do not fall in line. Trump’s visit to the United Kingdom in July, during which he disparaged British Prime Minister Theresa May in a tabloid interview, revealed how such a strategy could play out in real time. The United States is undercutting Merkel by empowering far-right forces and fanning the flames of the immigration debate. The Trump administration is disregarding democratic backsliding in Hungary and Poland, much to the chagrin of the EU, which is looking for ways to punish those states for their increasingly illiberal policies. Hours before tweeting about the German migration crisis, Trump was on a call with Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban, in which they spoke about the importance of border defenses. That conversation likely prompted Trump’s subsequent Twitter attack on Germany. In the pursuit of bilateral relationships, the Trump administration is actively sowing divisions in other multilateral institutions as well, including NATO and the G-7.
Europeans should take heed of this new reality. In just the last month, European leaders have been unable to sway the United States on major issues affecting their interests, from tariffs to the U.S. withdrawal from the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, commonly known as the Iran nuclear deal. Worse still, despite announcing measures to save the JCPOA, European leaders have limited options to shield their own companies from renewed U.S. sanctions on Iran. Major European companies, such as Allianz, Peugeot, and Total, have already announced their withdrawals from Iran. What’s more, the Trump administration has threatened to impose sanctions on the Nord Stream 2 gas pipeline from Russia to Germany, a move that would effectively end the project, in which Austrian, Dutch, French, and German energy companies hold significant stakes. That would be a harsh move by the United States, but European countries would have no obvious recourse.
The current moment harkens back to the Suez crisis in 1956, when France and the United Kingdom belatedly realized their loss of influence in the Middle East. Attempting to intervene to overthrow Egyptian President Gamal Abdel Nasser after he announced the nationalization of the Suez Canal, French Prime Minister Guy Mollet and British Prime Minister Anthony Eden saw their ambitions thwarted by the combined opposition of the United States and the Soviet Union. Today, Europe’s predicament is even more concerning. Suez showed that Europeans couldn’t reshape other regions without the assent of great powers; now, they are faced with the prospect of losing agency over their own continent, too.
So far, Europeans have pursued the path of least resistance: holding firm on their positions but toning down the rhetoric to avoid alienating Trump. Macron, in particular, has relied on his charm to build a personal relationship with Trump. In April, Macron’s approach seemed to be paying off when he became the first foreign dignitary to be invited on a state visit to Washington during Trump’s presidency. But despite the Trump-Macron “bromance,” he walked away empty-handed: the United States withdrew from the JCPOA and imposed tariffs on the EU just weeks after Macron’s visit. Merkel has taken a more principled approach, which has only earned her Trump’s ire. Leaders of other countries, including the Baltic states, have adopted some of Trump’s rhetoric on defense spending and emphasized their own good behavior on meeting NATO’s two percent target. Yet they too know that their only option is to wait and see as major decisions about their future are made without them.
European leaders might assume that they can just wait this administration out. That would be a mistake. Trump’s policies, as harmful as they are to transatlantic relations, are also a response to European weakness and division. Previous U.S. administrations valued the transatlantic relationship and the common ideals that bound the two sides together, especially during the Cold War. But past U.S. presidents also had no illusions about Europe’s dependence on the United States. To remain relevant, Europe must learn how to play to its strengths in the face of great power competition.
Since the end of the Cold War, European elites and policymakers have believed that their model of multilateral decision-making, soft power, and institutional interdependence represents the future of international politics. In a best-selling book published in 2005, the political scientist Mark Leonard asserted that this European model would “rule the 21st century.” The EU’s predecessor, the European Community, was built on the ashes of World War II and premised on the idea that interdependence, cooperation, and integration would lead to convergence on liberal democracy. Today, that premise seems misplaced: Europe is becoming the exception, not the norm, as the British commentator Janan Ganesh recently put it.
If Europe wants to be an actor rather than a chessboard on which great powers compete, European leaders must take responsibility for defense and security and play up their economic strengths. Investing in European defense will necessarily go along with some decoupling from the United States. New efforts such as the Permanent Structured Cooperation and the European Defense Fund move Europe in the right direction but still fall short of achieving military autonomy. A more militarily independent Europe would also prove a more attractive partner for the United States, which still needs European cooperation in fighting terrorist groups such as the Islamic State (also known as ISIS). Ambitious countries such as France could take a more assertive role in regional conflicts such as the Syrian civil war, rather than waiting for U.S. leadership. Germany, which is Russia’s largest trade partner, could flex its economic muscle to push back against Putin. Europe should continue to engage the United States and push for its interests, but first and foremost, it should seize the moment to develop a vision for Europe’s role in the world.
To be sure, the current U.S. approach to Europe is shortsighted. The web of alliances and common values that undergird transatlantic relationships form a much stronger counter to China and Russia than do raw economic or military resources. The Trump administration will get its way on European investments in Iran and might even manage to negotiate more favorable trade conditions with the EU. But the short-term gains of acting like a predatory and divisive power in Europe will be offset when Europe looks elsewhere for friends. In a speech last month, German Foreign Minister Heiko Maas called for deeper European defense integration, a welcome step, and has pushed for a broad European approach toward Russia, against the wishes of some in his own party. So far, Germany has held strong on the issue of Russian sanctions, but as right-wing populists with pro-Russian agendas gather strength across Europe and China tries to peel off European countries with economic enticements, an antagonistic U.S. strategy could drive Europe farther east. Without European support, the United States will find it difficult to compete with China and Russia in other theaters. Yet if Europeans truly want to make their case heard in Washington, they need to start at home.