As President Donald Trump kicks off a bruising NATO summit, transatlantic relations are said to be in the grip of an unprecedented crisis. On multiple fronts—defense spending, Iran sanctions, trade, and immigration—the United States appears to be on a collision course with its European allies. Running through these disputes is a deeper sense of division inside the West, as Trump questions the cost and wisdom of American troop deployments in places such as Germany, criticizes the European Union as a threat to American interests, and seems more enthusiastic about reconciling with an authoritarian Russia than standing in solidarity with democracies such as Germany and France.
For their part, multiple European leaders have made clear the unease they feel toward their American counterpart. “With friends like that, who needs enemies,” tweeted European Council President Donald Tusk earlier this spring, subsequently warning of the EU’s need to prepare for “worst case scenarios” in Western unity. German Chancellor Angela Merkel has declared that Europe can no longer rely exclusively on Washington for protection but instead “must take its destiny in its own hands.”
Yet while the Trump administration’s supporters and detractors are both fond of describing its approach to the world as a total break from the past, in reality, periodic crises have been a feature of the transatlantic relationship from nearly its outset. Almost as if by clockwork, a serious breach has tended to flare up between the United States and its European allies every 15 to 20 years going back to the mid-1950s—inspiring fears of a broader, more enduring unraveling of the alliance.