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‘America First’ Is the EU’s Greatest Opportunity

Former French prime minister Manuel Valls reacts after partial results in the second round of the French left’s presidential primary election in Paris, France, January 29, 2017. (Philippe Wojazer/Reuters)

Former French prime minister Manuel Valls spoke about populism, nationalism, and democracy at an event in New York earlier this month. He was addressing the obstacles to European integration when he said this:

And we may have one extraordinary opportunity. And that is Mr. Trump, because it forces Europeans to respond. . . . We have, thanks to Trump, thanks to Putin, thanks to China’s strategy, we have a challenge, and we have to respond to it.

An initial observation: In these remarks, the president of the United States rounds out a category of global threats on par with China’s destabilizing rise and Russia’s crusade against world order.

A second thought: These remarks are the new normal. Valls isn’t the only European who thinks like this, nor the only one willing to voice these thoughts in public; Germany’s foreign minister Heiko Maas made similar comments recently lamenting “a world radicalized by nationalism, populism, and chauvinism.” Like Valls, he placed the United States in the same category as Russia and China. And they’re far from the first European leaders to have used this rhetorical formulation.

It’s difficult to pinpoint precisely when this perception of the United States as a global security challenge rather than of an unconditional ally started. But I’ve been hearing it for at least the past year and a half. It sounds a leak that’s drip-drip-dripping into a deluge.

The points constituting the list of worries are many and varied, but they all, clearly, reflect the view that the United States is now an unreliable ally. First were the concerns over whether the new administration would come to the defense of its NATO allies if Article 5 of the alliance’s treaty were invoked; an affirmation of support for Article 5 was eventually eked out of the president last summer. Withdrawal from the Iran deal and the Paris climate accord, though smaller concerns, also soured relations. And now, the G-7 debacle.

Though conceived as a free market for its members, the European Union can be rather hawkish on trade with outsiders — Europe’s assertive protection of food products named after regions, like Champagne and Parmesean, is an eternal sticking point in trade discussions. That said, our trade with the EU is indisputably massive (taken as a unit, it is our largest trading partner), and the benefits of a healthy transatlantic relationship should be a given in a world led by liberal democracies with an overlapping interest in preserving human freedom.

Is this downturn in relations the consequence of a single American president’s disposition? If so, these alliances will last. But if it results more broadly from the end of the Cold War finally catching up with politics — and with this an erosion of the necessity of values-based diplomacy and strategy — the free world might be headed for a gray winter. This would be unfortunate. Europe would seek to be its own bloc, freed of the unreliable American shadow under which it existed previously: Comments like Valls’s and Maas’s are always accompanied by a call for more European defense integration, a project that failed in the 1950s but now seems tantalizing, if far off.

Everyone thought that the European project had reached its end following Brexit. In a twist, the most nationalist of the recent American presidents might give the supranational body a new life.

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