Updated on April 13 at 11:17 a.m. ET
On the day before this article for The Atlantic’s May issue launched online, President Trump walked back some of his anti-nato pronouncements at a White House press conference with nato Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg:
The secretary-general and I had a productive discussion about what more nato can do in the fight against terrorism. I complained about that a long time ago and they made a change, and now they do fight terrorism. I said it [nato] was obsolete. It's no longer obsolete.
These words represent a remarkable revolution in Trump’s previously pro-Putin, anti-Atlanticist foreign policy. They follow an even more breathtaking about-face on intervention in Syria. Previously stridently opposed to any U.S. action against the regime of President Bashar al-Assad, Trump ordered a cruise-missile attack on a Syrian airfield—and then the next week criticized President Obama in a Fox Business interview for following the very advice that citizen Trump had pressed since 2013. Might the president yet reverse himself on the European Union too?
Trump’s policies are so poorly considered and so weakly held—his own interests so utterly subsumed in his business and his vulnerable ego—that literally almost any outcome is imaginable. We could well see Trump signing into law a Democratic Congress’s “Medicare for all.” Yet it’s also true that certain harms, once done, cannot so readily be undone. As new advisers replace the former Breitbart crew, President Trump might dial back the expression of hostility to the EU. European leaders can never again be certain, however, what might happen if those new advisers are in turn replaced. America has been immeasurably strengthened by its allies’ trust. Even as Trump’s aggressive words fade into reassuring conventionality, those allies will not soon forget their accumulated and well-grounded reasons for mistrust.
The original text of the article follows.
Within weeks of his inauguration, President Donald Trump had already wrought a strategic revolution in U.S. foreign policy. Russia, formerly an antagonist, has been promoted to preferred partner. In its place, Team Trump has identified a new enemy. With this enemy there can be no coexistence, no cooperation. It must be humbled and divided, not merely defeated but utterly overthrown. This enemy is the European Union.
The drama of this reversal cannot be overstated. George W. Bush observed in 2003, “Since the end of World War II, the United States has strongly supported European unity as the best path to European peace and prosperity.” That was a precisely accurate statement. From Truman through Obama, America’s European policy has been strikingly consistent: The United States has supported a democratic and united Europe joined to Canada and the United States by nato. “We recognize we will benefit more from a strong and equal partner than from a weak one.” Those words happen to have been pronounced by Bill Clinton. They could as easily have appeared in a speech by any of his predecessors or successors—until now.
Trump has more than once described nato as “obsolete.” During his campaign, he expressed uncertainty about whether, as president, he would honor America’s nato obligations to small countries threatened by Russia. He cheered Britain’s exit from the European Union. Trump and his chief strategist, Steve Bannon, have made common cause with populist nationalists working to end the European Union outright. Trump reportedly received Nigel Farage, the former leader of the UK Independence Party, at the White House; when he ran Breitbart.com, Bannon promoted the Dutch politician Geert Wilders and France’s Marine Le Pen. Hungary’s authoritarian prime minister, Viktor Orbán, claims to have been granted a call with President-elect Trump in November (two months before the president of France spoke to Trump).
Meanwhile, Trump has offered sharp personal comments on Chancellor Angela Merkel. One of his top advisers has called for Germany to flout the EU and negotiate bilaterally with the U.S. so as to reduce German trade surpluses. In a meeting with Merkel, Trump also called for direct negotiations, and suggested that Germany had outmaneuvered the U.S. On bad days, the U.S.–German relationship looks more strained than at any time since the end of the Cold War, including during the Iraq War. The Trump administration seems determined only to widen the breach.
G. K. Chesterton advised that one should never tear something down until one knows why it was built in the first place. So let’s review why our parents and grandparents constructed what Trump and his team now seem so set on destroying.
Their first concern was the internal peace of Europe.
The disturbing characters gaining access to the Trump White House profess to be united by their shared nationalism. That’s not how nationalism works out in real life, though. Competing nationalisms ripped apart Yugoslavia in the 1990s. In Ukraine, an assertive Russian nationalism has sparked a conflict that has left some 10,000 dead and driven hundreds of thousands from their homes. Between Hungary and Romania, between Ukraine and Poland, between Bulgaria and Turkey, there still smolder antique grievances that a demagogue could rekindle.
In the confines of a small and heavily populated continent, people do not always agree on the boundary between one nation and another—or even on what counts as a nation. Is Kosovo a nation? Scotland? Catalonia? Corsica? The Flemish-speaking parts of Belgium? By opening borders, Europe has been able to avoid these questions and maintain peace. As a German government official once remarked to me, noting the contemporary irrelevance of the Alsace-Lorraine dispute, which cost France and Germany so much blood between 1870 and 1945: “If a German wants a house in Alsace, he can buy one. Who cares which government delivers the mail?”
Of course, one nationalism has troubled the peace of Europe more than any other: Germany’s. Whenever Germany has unified—whether in 1871 or 1990—other European countries have gotten scared, and understandably so. How were they to live in peace with such a rich, strong, and well-organized neighbor? Here’s Benjamin Disraeli speaking in the British House of Commons after the first unification: “The balance of power has been entirely destroyed, and the country which suffers most, and feels the effects of this great change most, is England.” And here (according to Helmut Kohl’s memoirs) is what Margaret Thatcher said, even more pungently, on the eve of the second: “We beat the Germans twice, and now they’re back.”
European unification sought to transform German power into a resource for the rest of Europe, rather than a threat—to build a European Germany, it’s often said, rather than a German Europe. By submitting its decision making to the agreement of others, and accepting U.S. protection instead of seeking military supremacy, Germany gains peaceful consent to its economic primacy within Europe. Those rare moments when Germany acts unilaterally—as Merkel did by throwing open her country to mass migration in 2015 and then demanding that others share the burden she so impetuously undertook—are dangerous precisely because they corrode modern Europe’s founding compact. The Trump administration’s cold war against Germany threatens to upend the bargain that reassured Europe. Instead of exporting the security that reconciled the rest of Europe to German power, the U.S. is suddenly exporting uncertainty. Germans are confronted with the choice of depending on their own strength or relying on an increasingly unreliable protector. In turn, the rest of the Continent could find itself facing the old question: how to live with a Germany that is too rich and strong to be restrained by its neighbors, but not rich or strong enough to protect them.
Our parents and grandparents’ second reason for supporting European integration was economic. Before 1939, wages and living standards were much higher in the U.S. than in Europe. Transatlantic trade was limited; American companies didn’t export much, and European consumers couldn’t afford to buy much. Hitler’s response to Germany’s privation was to conquer, enslave, and plunder the rest of Europe—a plan that propelled the Continent into war and genocide. The war’s North Atlantic victors built a system both more humane and more effective: An integrated European market joined to a global open-trade system has raised European living standards to compare with those in North America, making us all better customers for one another.
Enriching Europe through trade and investment created an environment especially congenial for U.S. corporations used to operating on a continental scale in North America. The single currency may have seemed a bridge too far to most American economists. But the single market? Americans had been pushing Europe in that direction since V-E Day.
Finally, and perhaps above all, our parents and grandparents looked to a wealthier and more cohesive Europe to help shoulder the burden of its own defense. Individually, most European countries are no match for Russia. Standing together, Europe could be a superpower in its own right, with a population more than triple that of Russia and a joint GDP more than 12 times as large. The Kremlin has consistently sought to divide and weaken Europe; U.S. policy makers have consistently sought to unite and strengthen it.
So why has the president jettisoned the policy that guided his postwar predecessors? We cannot rule out the possibility that Russian influence affected Team Trump’s stance toward Europe—but neither can we yet prove that it did. There are other plausible explanations. For one, certain Trump advisers seem gripped by the species of nihilism described in Christopher Nolan’s The Dark Knight: “Some men just want to watch the world burn.”
Yet it’s also possible to see in Trump’s approach a positive vision of an alternative to the postwar world order. As the president said at the Conservative Political Action Conference in February, “We’re going to make trade deals, but we’re going to do one-on-one, one-on-one, and if they misbehave, we terminate the deal. And then they’ll come back and we’ll make a better deal—none of these big quagmire deals that are a disaster.”
In any bilateral deal, even one with China, the United States will for the foreseeable future be the stronger party—especially if, as Trump promises, it also sets itself up as the judge of whether the deal is being complied with. Trump sees the world as a competitive arena in which nations either dominate or are dominated. And he imagines the U.S. as the world’s ultimate dominator, imposing its will on each nation, one by one.
Trump is not the first leader to think this way. In fact, almost every previous ruler of a mighty state has thought this way, from Ozymandias onward. But they have all failed, with disastrous consequences. States that dominate inevitably inspire resistance. The subject states join together to overthrow the bully. And they almost always win, because no one state is ever stronger than all other states combined, or not for long anyway.
The men who built the postwar world anticipated this danger and sought to avert it. They designed trade and treaty systems governed by rules, rules to which the United States would submit, even though it was the strongest party. Indeed, they intended exactly the things that Donald Trump now complains about—that the U.S. would have to make concessions to smaller partners; that it would not act as judge in its own cases; that it would subordinate its parochial and immediate national interests to the larger and more enduring collective interest. America would find security by working for the security of others.
The Americans who led the effort took this approach in part because it’s what they were accustomed to: The U.S. Constitution likewise overweights the interests of minorities and small groups. They also did it because they had learned from their wars against rulers who sought to dominate their neighbors. In the world as at home, systems that serve the interests of all endure better than systems that oppress many to serve a few.
They wanted a future in which non-Americans would be the ones who most wished to uphold U.S. hegemony and most feared to see that hegemony end. They succeeded in this, against every external danger. And now the good and wise and even glorious accord they created is more threatened than ever before—not by an enemy, but by the narrow-minded, shortsighted bullying of an accidental and unfit American president. Will the story really end this way? It all seems not only heartrendingly sad, but also teeth-grindingly stupid.