POOL / REUTERS Stiff upper lip: May and Trump at the G-20 summit in Hamburg, Germany, July 2017.

The United Kingdom’s Trump Trap

How Special a Relationship?

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One sunny afternoon in Covent Garden this past summer, a street performer realized that an audience volunteer sounded American. “Please tell me you’re not a Trump supporter!” the busker pleaded. “Er, no, I’m not,” stammered the embarrassed young man—at which point, the London crowd cheered.

Most Europeans find Donald Trump alien and contemptible and a man unsuited for the U.S. presidency. Some will admit that he has at least introduced them to a large part of the American public they seldom encounter: the ordinary citizens who feel disrespected and exploited by globalist elites they see as rigging the system against them. Trump gives his supporters a rare sense that someone at the top understands their feelings of defeat and humiliation—and Europeans who simply dismiss him will continue to underestimate the power of the passions that fueled his rise.

THE REGION'S REACTION

In office, Trump appears to have abandoned much of his domestic populist agenda and pursued traditional Republican policy priorities: cutting taxes rather than building infrastructure, restricting rather than expanding health care, rolling back environmental and consumer protections. But on foreign policy, he continues to push a strongly nationalist line, even while consigning many of his radical campaign promises to the memory hole.

European views of Trump fall into three main camps. The first and largest sees him as a living fossil, the sort of “ugly American” common enough in earlier eras, focused less on responsible global leadership than on nativism, mercantilism, and gunboat diplomacy. This camp takes it for granted that Trump is destabilizing and an embarrassment and wonders only whether he will be checked and balanced enough by the U.S. Constitution. 

Protestors outside the Palace of Westminster in London, February 2017.

Protestors outside the Palace of Westminster in London, February 2017.

A second, smaller camp is more pragmatic. Its members point out that the Trump administration’s actions have been more conventional than its rhetoric and that the president’s tweets have not represented U.S. policy. The third, smallest camp includes Trump’s European supporters, populists and nationalists across the continent who are delighted by such an emphatic vindication of their worldview from such an unexpected source. 

Germany is the epicenter of the continent’s anti-Trump feelings, which is hardly surprising given how the brash New Yorker is a living negation of modern Germany’s liberal cosmopolitanism, not to mention its attachment to pooled sovereignty and a cooperative, rules-based international order. “We, along with Japan, are the successful children of postwar America, so it is especially painful and confusing for us to see the institutions that have created our rehabilitation, such as NATO and the EU, trashed by our own parent,” said Klaus-Dieter Frankenberger, foreign editor of the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung. And the tensions have been compounded by bilateral differences on issues such as trade and Iran.

Still, some things about the new administration have gone over well in Europe. For example, Trump’s decision to launch an air strike against Syria in support of nonproliferation norms and his skepticism about economic globalism have pleased many on the European left (although not enough to offset their disgust with what are widely considered to be his racist immigration policies). His coolness toward NATO and the EU, ironically, has given a welcome boost to those favoring a strong Europe united under Franco-German leadership. And of course, Trump has real friends among the continent’s populists and right-wing nationalists, who together account for about one-fifth of the European electorate. He has embraced some of the populists in return, most notably Nigel Farage, former leader of the UKs Independence Party. And Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban, an explicit proponent of “illiberal democracy,” actually endorsed Trump’s candidacy during the campaign. 

Trump appears to have abandoned much of his domestic populist agenda.

In recent months, Orban’s enthusiasm has waned, thanks in part to Trump’s withdrawal from the Paris agreement on climate change. And some European populist parties closer to the mainstream, such as Alternative for Germany and the Danish People’s Party, are also more circumspect.

There remains a striking difference between how Trump is perceived in western Europe and how he is seen in the former Soviet bloc. “Attitudes to Trump’s America are different in eastern Europe, where the Russian threat is the main concern, leaving little room for moral grandstanding towards a vital ally; instead, the attention focuses, with cold-eyed realism, on who can provide the hard defense capabilities needed to deal with the security situation at hand,” notes Gabriel Elefteriu, a foreign policy specialist at the London think tank Policy Exchange. And in the east, despite Trump’s rhetoric, recent U.S. actions have been conventional and welcome. 

The Poland-based Enhanced Forward Presence Battle Group, part of a NATO operation and built around an American unit, has deployed in the field as planned. Multinational military exercises have continued at a high tempo. And the administration has sought increased funding for the European Reassurance Initiative, an effort to strengthen deterrence in the region that was launched after Russia’s annexation of Crimea.

Germany is the epicenter of the continent’s anti-Trump feelings.

In fact, in most areas, U.S. policy has changed far less under Trump than the breathless media coverage would suggest. As Jens Stoltenberg, the secretary-general of NATO, said at a security conference in June, “Judge him by his actions, not his words.” Even his most egregious act to date, in European eyes—pulling the United States out of the Paris climate accord—was more symbolic than significant. The treaty is voluntary, the planned emission reductions are small, and the bulk of U.S. contributions to tackling climate change will continue to be driven by technological innovation and actions by state and local governments and the private sector. 

U.S. soldiers in a Stryker armoured fighting vehicle participate in a NATO exercise in Orzysz, Poland, June 2017.

U.S. soldiers in a Stryker armoured fighting vehicle participate in a NATO exercise in Orzysz, Poland, June 2017. 

MAY'S DILEMMA

Trump’s dealings with the United Kingdom have blown hot and cold. Cheered by the former real estate developer’s support for Brexit, British Prime Minister Theresa May’s Conservative government initially offered Trump the pomp and ceremony of a full state visit, including an audience with the queen. But as the months went on, Trump managed to alienate people across the British political spectrum—capping it off by responding to a terrorist attack in London in June with an absurd criticism of Sadiq Khan, the city’s mayor, who happens to be Muslim. With nearly two million British citizens having signed a petition calling for the visit to be canceled and the prospect of massive demonstrations causing a public relations nightmare, the trip was quietly dropped (although it may be revived down the road). 

In responding to Trump, May has had to balance competing concerns. The United Kingdom’s planned withdrawal from the EU makes its “special relationship” with the United States more significant than ever, and Trump has backed a comprehensive post-Brexit trade deal. Staying too close to Trump, however, could complicate the United Kingdom’s other major diplomatic relationships. 

The value of American support for the United Kingdom’s controversial new approach to Europe is crucial, even if it has scarcely been registered by most commentators. Had the Democratic candidate Hillary Clinton won the presidential election, as expected, for example, the British government would now be even more isolated, and its path toward Brexit, even more complicated. A Clinton administration would likely have continued its predecessor’s opposition to the United Kingdom’s withdrawal from the EU and turned a cold shoulder to any new bilateral trade deal. 

The value of American support for the United Kingdom’s controversial new approach to Europe is crucial.

The British government has navigated these shoals relatively skillfully so far. Trying to duplicate the relationship between British Prime Minister Tony Blair and U.S. President George W. Bush, May has triangulated, casting herself as a bridge between the headstrong Americans and a worried Europe. The strategy was developed and implemented effectively right after the surprise Trump victory, with May being the first foreign leader to visit Trump at the White House. At a time when her counterparts were frantic over Trump’s anti-NATO comments, she was able to extract some qualified support for the alliance from the president, reminding him of the value of the transatlantic partnership.

It is also interesting to consider how things might have played out had Trump won but Brexit lost, with David Cameron remaining British prime minister. London would probably have tacked closer to the pan-European chorus of Trump critics, or at least gone to ground—and one could easily imagine the new president being so annoyed that he would have begun unraveling the alliance in earnest. May’s maneuvering has helped prevent tensions from boiling over and kept her country’s options open.

The consensus in and around Whitehall is that the Trump presidency represents a painful but useful wake-up call for liberal internationalism, which had begun to slip into a less robust universalistic globalism (and one free-riding on U.S. power to boot). The problem, however, is that Trump seems to represent not a more prudent internationalism but rather crass chauvinism. 

European policymakers may have occasionally been frustrated with the Obama administration’s foreign policy, but they could at least be confident that there was one and that it displayed some internal logic and coherence. No such confidence exists today, with technocrats no better than anybody else at predicting or explaining Trump’s idiosyncratic behavior.

Despite all the tension, there is nonetheless an element of theater in the current transatlantic rupture, with all sides using the crisis to advance their own agendas and narratives. The idea that Trump’s emergence has proved that Europe cannot rely on the United States forever is welcome to those who want the continent to pursue a more independent course. And the president surely finds European opposition convenient for mobilizing his domestic political base. So Trump pretends to be a populist nationalist, and European elites pretend to be distraught. But neither side actually wants to seriously disrupt the alliance, at least not yet. 

The Trump era has jangled nerves on both sides of the Atlantic. But for all the shouting, it is not at all clear yet what major lasting impact, if any, it will have on U.S.-European relations.

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