For 70 years now the military and economic partnership between the United States and Western Europe has produced unparalleled peace and prosperity. Now a growing rift threatens that alliance, and many question whether it can or should survive. Where will this divide lead?
When German Chancellor Angela Merkel visited Donald Trump shortly after he took office, the new U.S. president, according to officials, immediately stirred the pot, brashly declaring, “Angela, you owe me a trillion dollars.”
That was his estimate of what Germany agreed to contribute to its own defense under a North Atlantic Treaty Organization arrangement versus what it actually spent over the past 14 years.
Since then, Mrs. Merkel has issued her own barbs that Europe can no longer count on the United States and must take matters into its own hands.
The divide between these two leaders has often been painfully visible, as Mr. Trump has made the German chancellor one of his favorite rhetorical targets, often assailing Germany’s anemic defense, trade and migrant policies.
At the NATO summit in July the president raised the level of contention, shellacking Germany for being “totally controlled by Russia” because of its dependence on the Kremlin’s monopoly on energy.
Labeling the EU “a foe” on trade
“Since the Soviet collapse,” according to The Economist, “the sense of threat has receded and the barriers to working together have risen.” Because of this, “the Western alliance is in trouble. That should worry Europe, America and the world.”
Foreign Policy went even further, announcing, “RIP [Rest in Peace] the Trans-Atlantic Alliance, 1945-2018.”
Differing priorities, divergent beliefs and clashing political cultures have fueled a dangerous escalation in the war of words. President Trump lashed out at the European Union for allegedly ripping off the U.S. on trade and freeloading on security. He even stated that the EU is “a foe” on trade, “set up to take advantage of the United States, to attack our piggy bank.”
European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker—whom Mr. Trump has also sharply disparaged—voiced Europe’s need “to replace the United States, which as an international actor has lost vigor, and because of it, in the long term, influence.”
Donald Tusk, president of the European Council, echoed that blast, chastising the American president by saying:
- “With friends like that [President Trump], who needs enemies?”
- “He is on a mission against what we stand for.”
- “Dear America, appreciate your allies. After all, you don’t have that many.”
Economic giants across the Atlantic
Because nearly one-third of the global trade in goods occurs between the EU and the United States, a transatlantic rift morphing into a trade war would have enormous impact. U.S.-EU trade totaled nearly $1.1 trillion in 2016, with the U.S. running a trade deficit with the EU of $92 billion that year.
The EU’s 500 million consumers make it America’s largest export market. It buys nearly $270 billion in goods from the U.S.—more than twice the total U.S. exports to China—and over $230 billion in services. With over 70 percent of all foreign direct investment into the U.S. coming from the EU (a figure that has doubled in the last 15 years), Europe is also the largest investor in the American economy. (Though the numbers for the EU will change with Brexit, the percentages for all of Europe remain the same.)
Quarrels between friends
This is not the first time the U.S.-Europe bond has been tested. The Suez Crisis of 1956, when President Dwight Eisenhower had a tense standoff with Britain and France over control of the Suez Canal, tried the relationship. The 1980s saw President Ronald Reagan’s planned deployment of midrange nuclear missiles to Europe trigger an eruption of protests and division. And the Iraq War in 2003 stirred deep anti-American sentiment on the continent.
But as Nicholas Burns, a career diplomat who served in the George W. Bush administration, noted in The Wall Street Journal, “In each of those three crises, neither side felt that either one was abandoning the West, abandoning the basic contract that we’re allies” (quoted by Gerald Seib).
The divergence between American and European policy now, however, is occurring much more often and with increasing emotion. Less than two years into his presidency Mr. Trump has brazenly disrupted the status quo, pulling out of the Paris climate agreement, recognizing Jerusalem as Israel’s capital, withdrawing from the Iran nuclear deal and placing tariffs on European aluminum and steel.
Media fans the flames
European media took a strident stand against President Trump even before his election. According to a recent Harvard Kennedy School study of global media, 98 percent of German public television news portrays him negatively, making it by far the most anti-Trump media in the world.
The highly respected German weekly Der Spiegel has recently featured incendiary articles titled, “The Enemy in the White House” and “Time for Europe to Join the Resistance.”
Not surprisingly, according to Pew Research, a majority of Germans—compared to a small minority of Americans—believe the U.S.-German relationship is “bad.” Another recent poll found that only 14 percent of Germans believe the United States is a reliable partner. Many Germans feel this way because Washington has developed an exasperating habit of making unilateral diplomatic decisions that have a disproportionately negative impact on European businesses.
Many Europeans, furthermore, believe the post–World War II, U.S.-led order is in rapid decline. Pluralities of those Pew surveyed last year in France, Germany and Britain said that China—not America—is the world’s leading economic power.
Not popular in Europe, but why?
The American president seems to confirm many of the negative stereotypes Europeans hold about Americans. “Temperamentally,” writes global affairs columnist Walter Russell Mead, “Mr. Trump’s impulsive nature puts him at odds with the low-key norms of statesmanship upon which the European Union depends. Stylistically, his theatrical approach to politics strikes Europeans as both dangerous and unserious. … Even worse from a European perspective, Mr. Trump believes international relations are driven by need and self-interest—and by Mr. Trump’s measure, Europe needs the U.S. much more than the U.S. needs Europe.”
“He doesn’t believe,” continues Mead, “military power will become less relevant as progress marches on,” and he believes individual nation states will remain the dominant geopolitical force. Mr. Trump concludes, according to Mead, that “the EU’s political establishment is just as blind and misguided as they believe he is” (Wall Street Journal).
As a businessman and self-proclaimed dealmaker who sees international relations from a transactional perspective demanding reciprocity, President Trump despises Berlin’s trade imbalance with Washington.
“When Mr. Trump looks at Germany today,” adds Mead, “he may not see much of an ally. Germany benefits immensely, the president believes, from America’s investments in NATO and more generally in Europe. But it responds with selfish trade policies, moral lectures, and security free-riding.”
Outsourcing Europe’s defense
Like many Western nations, Germany has grown accustomed in the nearly three decades after the Cold War to slashing defense budgets, enjoying its “peace dividend” and outsourcing its defense under the U.S. security umbrella.
In one sense, President Trump is proving to be a unifier of an increasingly anti-American Europe that is feeling more confident in its ability to reject any partnership with the U.S.As the biggest economy in Europe and fourth largest in the world, Germany has an astounding current account surplus amounting to 8 percent of its gross domestic product, but puts only 1.24 percent of that GDP toward its own defense—far below NATO’s agreed-upon minimum contribution of 2 percent. The German electorate, which associates military strength with the country’s darkest chapters, currently balks at increasing military expenditures. Neighboring countries, though, these days seem to be concerned less by German strength than weakness.
Germany has cut its armed forces from around 500,000 soldiers in 1990 to around 180,000 in 2017. Meanwhile, equipment rusts and grows outdated. Entire areas of the military are “hollow,” short on everything from tents to winter clothes.
Recent military assessments noted that because of needed repairs, less than half of German tanks are battle-ready and that none of their six submarines are seaworthy. The German air force lends little to NATO, as only four of the Luftwaffe’s 128 Eurofighter jets are armed and ready.
During a recent assessment, a paltry 8 percent of German soldiers trusted their weapons, and in 2015, due to poor funding, soldiers were forced to use broomsticks as guns during training exercises.
Repercussions of a transatlantic rift are massive. The imbalance of the trade and military partnership highlighted by the American president threatens to turn the rift into a rupture. In one sense, President Trump is proving to be a unifier of an increasingly anti-American Europe that is feeling more confident in its ability to reject any partnership with the U.S.
As the EU intensifies its economic relationship with Russia through massive energy deals and pivots toward Asia, the gap will widen.
The object of NATO, said General Lord Ismay, its first secretary general, was “to keep the Russians out, the Americans in, and the Germans down.” President Trump’s threat to walk away from the alliance if there is not more burden sharing potentially changes the formula. But requiring Germany to step up may, down the road, lead to a far different result than anticipated.
For now, the EU, not military conquest, is Germany’s tool for European influence. But the “mutable Germans,” as historian Luigi Barzini noted in The Europeans, have shown many times the ability to “change into something entirely different within a short time.”
As economic tensions rise, consider that end-time Bible prophecy foretells a revival, led by Germany, of a 10-nation “beast” power to rise again from the ashes of the Roman Empire (Revelation 17:9-14) as an awesome and unmatched military, economic and religious power (Daniel 11:40-45; Revelation 13:1-8; 18:2-3, 9-14).
Watch for it, and learn more about the future for Europe and the world in our free booklet The Book of Revelation: The Storm Before the Calm.