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When U.S. Vice President Mike Pence spoke at this year’s Munich Security Conference, he seemed to speak not to the audience facing him—the leaders and representatives of important U.S. allies around the world. Rather, his “America first” rhetoric seemed like a courtesy for his boss in the White House, U.S. President Donald Trump.
Pence’s performance in Munich was symptomatic of the state of transatlantic relations. At the highest administrative level, U.S. rhetoric toward Europe alternates between silence and verbal assault. Constructive dialogue, cooperation on common interests, and a commitment to shared values are all on the retreat.
The damage need not be permanent, but simply waiting out the current U.S. administration will not do. The repercussions of Trump’s tenure will outlast his term of office, and the United States will be a different country for it. To save the transatlantic alliance, both sides must make a significant effort. The United States needs to understand that to blame and threaten allies while withdrawing from multilateral agreements provides no basis for cooperation and trust. Europe, for its part, needs to develop a common foreign and security policy, and that will, at the very least, require real investments in its defense capabilities. If both sides do their part, the relationship could emerge from the current crisis more balanced and therefore stronger.
Trump has dramatically changed the manner in which the United States deals with international partners. He shows little interest in open dialogue on an equal footing; rather, he expects other countries to follow his orders, even if that means breaching international treaties that the United States once helped negotiate. If a so-called partner nevertheless dares to make an independent decision, Trump threatens to impose sanctions. This trend has intensified over time, as the inner circle around Trump has grown more and more homogeneous and dissenting voices have been sidelined. Moderating advisers who engaged in constructive dialogue with their European partners, such as former Secretary of Defense James Mattis, have left.
The shift is not only one of language and style: fundamental disagreements on policy have also become more frequent. The transatlantic relationship has always ebbed and flowed, but past disagreements tended to be constrained to single issues, such as the Iraq war. Today the United States and Europe diverge over a wide range of concerns.
The conflicts in and around the Middle East are a case in point. In Iran, the United States and the European Union actually share the same objectives: both seek to curb Iran’s influence in the region and to prevent it from developing nuclear weapons. Trump is trying to achieve these twin goals by isolating Iran and ruining its economy. These tactics will not work. Iran is the most populous country in the Middle East and a leading regional power. Making its leaders feel existentially threatened will only further destabilize the neighborhood, as the turmoil of recent weeks bears witness: in late April, Trump raised the pressure on Iran by ending waivers that had allowed a handful of countries to continue buying Iranian oil despite U.S. sanctions. Iran responded by announcing that absent sanctions relief it would stop complying with parts of the 2015 Iran nuclear deal (the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, or JCPOA) in July. Trump, undeterred, escalated by imposing new sanctions on the Iranian metals sector. Bellicose rhetoric on both sides shows how quickly the U.S. “maximum pressure” approach can lead to an accidental war, even if a military conflict is in neither side’s interest. In the past weeks, even the U.S. administration has come to acknowledge this danger and declared itself open to talks with Iran without preconditions.
The European Union’s approach is based on the belief that the West must face reality and accept Iran’s position as a leading power in the Middle East. As for the objective of preventing an Iranian nuclear weapon, the EU views the JCPOA as a great success. The deal significantly limited Iran’s nuclear activities and allowed for extensive international inspections. Breaching an international agreement such as the JCPOA not only runs counter to the shared objective of limiting the country’s nuclear capabilities, it undermines the United States’ international credibility, which is in neither the United States’ nor the EU’s interest.
Constructive dialogue, cooperation on common interests, and a commitment to shared values are all on the retreat.
The JCPOA was just one important aspect of a complex relationship between Iran and the international community, and the sponsors of the agreement initially wanted to avoid linkage with separate concerns about Iran’s foreign policy. But positions in Washington and Tehran are now so entrenched that an agreement focusing solely on nuclear activities is unlikely. The sponsors of the JCPOA should aim for a new, more extensive agreement with Iran that also covers legitimate concerns about Iran’s behavior in the region. Europe—that is, the so-called E3 of Germany, France, and the United Kingdom—must initiate this process.
Another critical juncture came with Trump’s sudden announcement last December that U.S. forces would withdraw from Syria. Following a wave of indignation from U.S. allies and the resignation of Secretary of Defense Mattis, the Trump administration quickly backpedaled: it now plans to keep several hundred soldiers in the country. Trump’s zigzag course in Syria illustrates the lack of foresight in current U.S. foreign policy and underlines the United States’ growing disengagement from the Middle East. The ensuing power vacuum leaves the field open to other players such as Iran and Russia. Moreover, the United States’ game-changing decision came as a complete surprise to its allies, since Trump had not consulted any members of the global coalition against the Islamic State, or ISIS. This is the exact opposite of what Europeans expect from a partnership. European leaders can only hope that the United States will refrain from taking a similar approach to Afghanistan, where a premature withdrawal announcement would only benefit the Taliban and undermine current peace negotiations.
Transatlantic trade relations offer a similarly dire picture. Under Trump’s leadership, the United States has withdrawn from the Trans-Pacific Partnership and undermined the authority of the World Trade Organization by levying illegal tariffs on aluminum and steel imports, including imports from partners such as Canada and the European Union. In the case of the EU, Trump has threatened to expand those tariffs to car imports. His justification—national security concerns—is an insult to good sense on both sides of the Atlantic. These tariffs would hit Germany, the EU’s prime car manufacturer, hard; but the United States itself would bear the bigger burden, as both BMW and Mercedes have major production sites in the United States and hundreds of thousands of American jobs depend directly or indirectly on the German car industry.
Trump has wreaked severe damage on the transatlantic relationship. But Europeans have some responsibility to bear, too. In particular, Europe needs to ramp up its military spending, an issue that even Trump’s predecessor, Barack Obama, complained about. In 2014, Germany, along with other NATO allies, pledged to increase its defense budget to two percent of GDP by 2024. The German government soon watered down its pledge to just 1.5 percent, but it won’t hit even that goal: under the country’s current defense budgeting plans, its defense spending will amount to just 1.25 percent of GDP by 2024. Berlin’s unwillingness to pay enough to meet the defense needs of Europe and NATO is not acceptable, and Germany’s partners have been rightly critical. German Chancellor Angela Merkel has at least committed herself repeatedly to the 1.5 percent goal.
Germany’s timid approach to military spending needs to change. NATO is indispensable for Europe’s security, and it is only fair for the alliance’s European members to pay their share. Europe, moreover, cannot meet the United States on equal terms if it is not ready to pull its own weight. To do so in the future, Europe will need to play a much greater role in guaranteeing its own security, including its own defense capabilities, even if the United States’ contribution will remain indispensable. In the long term, getting there will require an “Army of the Europeans,” designed not to replace national armies but to complement them.
The Nord Stream 2 pipeline project, which will carry Russian gas exports to Germany via the Baltic Sea, has become another flash point for transatlantic disagreement. For now, much of the gas destined for that pipeline flows through Ukraine. If Moscow no longer depends on Ukraine to act as a conduit for its gas exports, Ukraine will be even more vulnerable to Russia’s aggressive policies.
Germany’s timid approach to military spending needs to change.
The United States, along with several European countries, has long been critical of the pipeline, and rightly so. But stopping the project is difficult, as all relevant European states have already granted the necessary building permits, with the exception of Denmark. What is more, the German government remains a fierce supporter of Nord Stream 2. But whereas Berlin once tried to cast the pipeline as a purely economic matter, it now acknowledges the project’s political implications for Ukraine, and Chancellor Merkel has promised to stand up for continued gas transit through Ukraine.
Trump, for his part, might be less interested in Ukraine’s energy security than in increasing U.S. gas exports to Europe, but no matter his motives, the criticism of Nord Stream 2, and of Germany’s position in particular, is justified. What is not justified, however, is Trump’s attempt to interfere in European energy politics by threatening sanctions, as he did in late 2018. Trump is, of course, welcome to express his concerns and put forward relevant arguments—Europeans do so quite frequently on U.S. foreign policy decisions. But in the end, Trump must accept the decision of sovereign European states and should not try to impose his will on international partners.
Some issues, finally, will require Europe and Washington to change their policies in equal measure. China’s role as a rising global power is one such concern. A united Western effort to protect the rules-based international trading system, which both Europe and the United States want to shield from unfair Chinese competition, cannot rest on measures that themselves undermine the order, such as Trump’s trade war with Beijing. Europe, for its part, for too long took a somewhat naive approach toward China, built on the desire above all to safeguard European economic interests. In order to continue exporting high-end commercial goods to the Chinese market, it has accepted imbalances in its trading relations with China. Whereas Chinese investors have almost unlimited access to the European market, the same does not hold true for European competitors eager to invest in China. Some recent EU-wide initiatives, such as the European Commission’s ten-point plan on China and the bloc’s new investment-screening mechanism, prove that Europe has finally caught on to the problem and is starting to adopt a realistic view.
For all the current obstacles, Europe and the United States can still restore their partnership. Trump and his inner circle should not be equated with the U.S. political system and certainly not with the country as a whole. The two sides should continue cooperating through legislators and civil society. An exchange program for German and U.S. lawmakers could serve as a fruitful starting point.
But no matter how creative both sides are in finding ways to continue cooperating, some of the recent changes are likely irreversible, and both Americans and Europeans will have to adjust. The United States’ self-perception has dramatically altered, and its domestic divisions run deep. Any successor to Trump will be forced to focus on domestic problems and policies, limiting the United States’ role in the world. Other powers will fill this gap, including China and Russia.
Europe, of course, could be part of that list, too, but to foster European interests internationally, it needs to become a global player that actively shapes foreign policy instead of just reacting to crises in an ad hoc manner. Europe can reach this goal only if it develops a united foreign and security policy. Doing so will not be easy: in foreign and security affairs, the EU can act only with the consensus of all member states, and reaching a shared policy on the basis of agreement among all 28 EU member states is simply unrealistic for the time being.
Instead, a smaller group of states should take the lead and start cooperating much more on foreign, security, and defense policy. The group might include Germany and France but also Poland and the United Kingdom, even in a post-Brexit scenario. The collective would, of course, remain open for others to join. Above all, members of this avant-garde should develop a common foreign policy agenda, which inevitably has to include a joint approach to the conflicts in the Middle East as well as to China’s geopolitical ambitions. Furthermore, they should promote a common defense culture by investing in developing joint weapons systems to reduce costs and pool knowledge. Such a group would in no way compete with the EU, but it can help navigate around an impasse the EU is too cumbersome to break through.
The survival and health of the relationship now depend to a large extent on Europe: to stand on more equal footing with the United States, Europe must become a much stronger version of itself.
For the transatlantic relationship, the most pressing step now is simple but important: as in all long-lasting relationships, the participants should talk, respect, and strengthen relations wherever possible. Doing so is possible only without the threat of sanctions, without reproaches, and without trying to impose one’s own positions onto those of one’s partners.
In the long term, however, the transatlantic alliance can survive only if Europe’s role within it is stronger. No individual European country can hope to achieve parity with Washington, but a united and capable Europe makes an attractive partner with which to pursue the many common interests the transatlantic allies still share. The survival and health of the relationship now depend to a large extent on Europe: to stand on more equal footing with the United States, Europe must become a much stronger version of itself.
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