The NATO Summit in Brussels will capture the attention of the world today and tomorrow, and not just because it takes place immediately prior to Trump’s Helsinki Summit with Putin.
Trump has stated publicly his unhappiness with NATO members’ seeming inability to meet their commitment to spend 2 percent of their GDP on defense. And he has publicly questioned NATO’s value, most recently suggesting to Swedish prime minister Stefan Löfven that the U.S. should work with NATO the way Sweden does: as a non-member that occasionally participates in NATO exercises. Add to that Trump’s combative personality, his need to be the center of attention, his propensity to take all criticism personally, his broad lack of interest regarding the U.S. role in Europe, and his particular lack of concern over Russian aggression, and we have all the makings of a disaster in Brussels.
This struck me a few weeks ago when I visited Berlin. The city is vibrant and prosperous, with a strong museum culture. Indeed, the occasion of the main exhibit at the Deutsche Historisches Museum was the centennial anniversary of the Russian Revolution, reminding us that the most vivid displays of Communism in Berlin are literally museum exhibits.
But my memory was jarred as I walked past Checkpoint Charlie, the most famous of the Cold War crossing points between East and West Berlin and a fixture of many a spy novel. I graduated from the School of Foreign Service at Georgetown University while the Cold War was still on and I was a member of the Foreign Service fraternity. At our fraternity house hung a directional sign (perhaps purloined) from Checkpoint Charlie, “Vous sortez du secteur Américain.” That is, “You are leaving the American sector.”
The meaning of the sign was clear. You who were dedicated to foreign affairs were indeed at Checkpoint Charlie. The West faced the extraordinary geopolitical challenge of the Soviet Union and the Warsaw Pact, and the only way to meet this challenge was for the great democracies of the West to unite under NATO. All of us — members of the Foreign Service fraternity; students at the School of Foreign Service; indeed, all Americans and the whole free world — were at Checkpoint Charlie. The integrity of the Western alliance would be tested in Berlin and around the world over the course of the 45-year war and only by holding firm would the alliance prevail.
Does that history matter today? As marvelous as my visit to Berlin was, the tone of the discussions was, well, off. Trump had notified the German government that he would be implementing steel and aluminum tariffs, and there was consternation over that move, compounded by mystification. No one on the German side believed they were in violation of any trade agreements or had done anything to deserve the punishment. Worse, the U.S. invoked a “national security” argument for the tariffs, with the implication that Germany was not a reliable ally. It’s no surprise that Germans would take umbrage.
What is Trump trying to do? This was the most common question, a polite way of observing that the stated reason for the tariffs did not make sense. Indeed, in a rare moment of formal objection, the Pentagon had noted in writing that the tariffs were not necessary for U.S. security needs and that defense requirements accounted for only 3 percent of U.S. steel production.
The conclusion this allowed Germany to draw was that German–American relations were not fundamentally about Western security, finding a way to work together on broader policy issues, or facing the world as friends. Indeed, Trump’s point was, contrary to 70-plus years of policy, that there really was not a relationship but a series of transactions. There was no history, no shared sacrifice, and no common worldview. But there was a desire to help one segment of the U.S. economy at the expense of one segment of the German economy.
That cut against the grain of every element of U.S. foreign policy toward Germany in the modern era, and it in turn baffled and irritated the Germans with whom I met. For 70 years, we had stressed that it was not about the money but about a good relationship. Now we were saying that it was, after all, about the money. Trump’s message in Brussels: Ich bin kein Berliner. “I am not a Berliner.”
There are at least two ironies in this development.
The first is that the steel and aluminum tariffs in themselves are injurious to the U.S. economy, as they will push steel and aluminum prices up. The U.S. has far more people employed in steel-consuming industries (autos, construction) than in steel-producing industries, so it will be a net job loss.
The second is that a European–American free-trade agreement (the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership, or TTIP) has been part of discussions over the past ten years, with both sides gradually warming to the idea. If European Union trade barriers concerned Trump, he could have put TTIP on the table and made the matter a win-win.
Instead, Trump has just about done the impossible and made trade a lose-lose. The U.S. faces higher costs, the Germans have reduced exports, the bilateral relationship has been called into question, and TTIP is stalled.
If Trump is willing to degrade relations over steel, where no valid complaint exists, what will he be willing to do over security issues, where there are valid complaints about defense spending?
Trump is un-enamored of Merkel for somewhat the same reason he is enamored of Putin.
And it is not just Trump’s mishandling of trade that sets a bad tone for the NATO summit. Add to this that Germany seems singularly unable to grapple with Trump, whether to accommodate him, deflect him, rebut him, or even just engage him. No doubt much of the blame here should fall to Trump, who does not seem to take his NATO role seriously, but there are other factors as well. The Obama administration seemed relentless in weakening the U.S. in Europe, from the “Reset” button to canceling missile-defense systems, to reducing U.S. forces in Europe. And some blame should fall to the German side as well. Those goodwill performances of the Berlin Philharmonic in New York get you only so far.
Indeed, if one had to design a personality type guaranteed not to engage effectively with Trump, one might design Angela Merkel: staid demeanor, educated to the point of pedantic, fixated on process and systems and fitting in. Trump no doubt views her as the smartest postmistress in Germany, a career political functionary with no emotional connectivity or imagination. Never mind that the U.S. spent some one hundred years hoping for a German leader without emotional connectivity or imagination. When the postmistress articulates her view of foreign policy and the value of NATO, what Trump hears is: “Mr. President, please make sure you affix adequate postage to the envelope before you mail your letter.”
This is all a bit harsh on Chancellor Merkel, who despite recent political troubles has had a generally successful run over 13 years, but Trump attaches little importance to history. And there is an unsettling truth in this judgment: Trump is un-enamored of Merkel for somewhat the same reason he is enamored of Putin. Putin is forceful, projects his personality, disregards international norms, and shapes outcomes to his liking regardless of public opinion. Merkel is rather conventional, democratic, and competent.
You are leaving the American sector. No, not exactly. The American sector itself is long gone. The need for American involvement and leadership remains. America’s goals regarding Europe are long-term, and they are pursued not in the service of altruism or misplaced idealism but because of the cold political reality that the world can be a dangerous place and the Europeans will be America’s best friends.
For my entire life this has been regarded as a universal truth. And yet the ones who are leaving it are the Americans.