Grenell is early in his tenure, and may yet turn things around. But the Breitbart episode is a symptom of a broader problem. With rogue ambassadors, a president who praises Vladimir Putin, a bureaucracy that supports NATO, and an ongoing trade war, nobody really understands Trump’s policy on Europe.
Enter Wess Mitchell, the U.S. assistant secretary of state for Europe, who laid out the administration’s long-anticipated Europe strategy in a speech at the Heritage Foundation on Tuesday. Mitchell, a well-regarded expert on central and eastern Europe, is the author of three books on foreign policy, including a forthcoming history of the Hapsburg Empire. The main message of his thoughtful, well-written, and strategic speech: The United States views Europe through the lens of a strategic competition between Western civilization and a Russian and Chinese alternative. Mitchell effectively announced a pivot in America’s Europe policy away from western Europe and toward the East (his natural stomping ground) and the South. In fact, Mitchell criticized western Europe for failing to take strategic competition seriously, particularly on defense spending and confronting Iran.
In Mitchell’s speech, he favored engaging central and eastern Europe nations even when disagreements arise because “criticism bereft of engagement is a recipe for estrangement.” “Engagement,” he said, “is not just diplomatic—it is also about winning hearts and minds of publics for whom the memory of 1989 and NATO enlargement is increasingly distant.” Reasonable people can differ over whether such a strategy might give countries like Hungary a free pass on democracy. Mitchell is also hamstrung by Trump’s refusal to authorize actions to deter Russian political warfare. But the commitment to engagement that he expressed is to be welcomed. That section of his speech, including calls for pushing back against China’s efforts to make eastern Europe its “playground,” was promising. The problem, however, is in what is left behind in Mitchell’s pivot—the big three nations of western Europe: Britain, France, and Germany.
One would have to go back to the Suez Crisis of 1956 to find a time when the special relationship with Britain was in worse shape, for instance. Rhetorically, the Trump administration supports Brexit. In practice, it has pursued a predatory policy in response to Brexit, designed to exploit the government’s need for new trading arrangements. Essentially, the Trump administration is using Britain’s need to join the World Trade Organization as an individual state to force it to accept painful concessions in a number of trade and services sectors, exploiting the fact that it has less leverage outside the EU. Meanwhile, in bilateral trade talks, the Trump administration is pushing Britain to accept the U.S. regulatory framework, or at least opt out of the EU single market and customs union. This will benefit U.S. economic interests in the short term, but make it much tougher for London to reach an agreement with the rest of the EU.