The Trump Administration’s Gradual Retreat From Europe

Why does it matter if Rex Tillerson skips a NATO summit?

Joshua Roberts / Reuters

Diplomacy is a subtle art, which is why it is often over-interpreted. Reports on Monday that U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson will visit Russia in April but not attend a meeting of NATO foreign ministers earlier in the month are being lumped together as a sign that the Trump administration is courting Russia and rejecting its European allies—a sign that comes just after the FBI director confirmed an investigation into possible connections between the Trump campaign and the Russian government during the 2016 election. But the story is more complicated than the headlines suggest: According to Reuters, Tillerson may be skipping the NATO gathering in order to attend a summit that same week with the Chinese president in the United States, and he’ll be discussing the military campaign against ISIS with his counterparts in NATO countries during a conference in Washington, D.C. this week.

Still, the scheduling details do offer a window into Donald Trump’s approach so far to foreign policy. What the news appears to signal, as Reuters has noted, is that the president is prioritizing America’s dealings with big powers like Russia and China over its security commitments to smaller nations. This emphasis on big-power dealmaking, along with the Trump administration’s promotion of nationalism, skepticism of free trade, criticism of traditional U.S. allies, and focus on terrorism at the expense of other threats have contributed to a new, consequential dynamic in international affairs: the slow-motion fraying of U.S.-European relations.

Yes, there are indications that the relationship is functioning normally. Donald Trump is planning to attend a NATO summit in May. German Chancellor Angela Merkel and British Prime Minister Theresa May have visited the White House. Trump’s vice president and defense secretary have traveled to Brussels to assure nervous NATO members that their boss remains committed to the military alliance so long as European countries increase their defense spending.

Yet signs of distress in transatlantic ties are arguably more evident. Last week’s meeting between Merkel and Trump was quickly marred by sparring between the U.S. and German governments over Germany’s financial contributions to NATO. The Trump administration was simultaneously quarreling with Britain’s government after airing unverified allegations by a Fox News commentator that Barack Obama had conspired with a British intelligence agency to spy on the Trump campaign. (The U.K. intelligence agency took the extraordinary step of denying those claims publicly, with a spokesman calling them “utterly ridiculous.”)  During a Group of 20 meeting in Germany over the weekend, U.S. Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin defied Asian and European finance ministers and central bankers by opposing pro-free trade language in the group’s joint statement. This week, Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe is in Brussels to advance a long-stalled trade deal with the European Union, as the EU seeks to position itself as an alternative free-trade partner to Trump’s protectionist United States. (Trump recently withdrew from a massive trade agreement with Asian nations, and has promised to renegotiate the U.S. trade accord with Mexico and Canada.) Several European leaders, citing Trump’s repeated questioning of NATO’s value and praise of Britain’s exit from the European Union, have characterized the American president as a threat to the decades-old project of unifying Europe. There are even murmurs among some European officials about establishing an EU nuclear-weapons program if the region loses American military protection.

These trends were foreseen, though not inevitable. Reflecting on America’s long history of opposing alliances and passionate embrace of them during World War II and the Cold War, the political scientist Rajan Menon once observed that alliances “reflect specific circumstances, and when these circumstances change, the shared practical interests that are vital to the health and life span of alliances begin to erode.” Writing in 2003, he predicted that elaborate Cold War-era alliances would soon be replaced by “agile, shifting coalitions forged for specific purposes.” He noted that today’s grand causes, including the war on terrorism and the promotion of democracy, “will not become new unifying objectives; they are too diffuse and amorphous to concentrate minds and ensure consensus.” He argued that NATO in particular “is endangered because the disintegration of the Soviet Union has robbed it of a clear and common enemy and an unambiguous purpose.”

Tillerson’s absence from the NATO summit is a statement by the Trump administration about changing circumstances, as it perceives them. Tillerson will meet with European foreign ministers—but mainly to discuss the fight against ISIS. He’ll be at Trump’s side to greet China’s leader at Mar-a-Lago, while his under secretary of state for political affairs heads to Brussels to hash out transatlantic security strategies. The secretary of state will pay a visit to Russia, the country NATO was created to oppose. Such are the emerging priorities of the Trump administration.