Old alliances in the age of “America First”
America’s political pendulum has swung back once again – and this time in a “huge” and unparalleled way. GOP Congressman and Donald Trump supporter Tom Cole put it succinctly when he commented on the 45th president’s inauguration: “It really is a leap into the dark. And I think that’s true for the country and that’s true for Trump.” It is also true for Europe and the rest of the world.
To put Trump’s stunning election into perspective, we should take a step back and look at how we got where we are today. After all, America’s foreign and domestic policies have been characterized by massive pendulum swings in recent decades.
Let’s start in the early 1980s, with the election of Ronald Reagan, whose rise to power can only be understood against the backdrop of his hapless predecessor, Jimmy Carter. Reagan’s vision was to “Make America Great Again,” both economically and militarily, and to put the “evil” Soviet empire into the dustbin of history. Déjà vu – at least concerning the former.
Fast forward to 1992. The Cold War is won. The End of History has seemingly arrived. George H. W. Bush, while victorious in the Gulf War, is defeated by a young and charismatic governor from Arkansas. Bill Clinton’s vision was all about “the economy, stupid.” Basking in the sun as the world’s sole superpower, Washington quickly cashed in its peace dividend and embarked on a military “procure-mentholi-day.” The US focused instead on pursuing trade deals like NAFTA and laying the foundation for its tech industry to rise to global preeminence.
Although important security and defense decisions like NATO enlargement were made under President Clinton, the big-picture geopolitical context was – at least by today’s standards – quite benign: no Russian invasion of Ukraine, no aggressive Chinese military actions in the South China Sea, no massive refugee flows in the Middle East.
However, it is often overlooked that transatlantic relations took an acrimonious turn under Clinton. Recall, for instance, the wars of the Balkans and the deep-seated US frustrations with Europe’s failure to handle security challenges in its own backyard.
Clinton called for more transatlantic burden-sharing as early as 1994. Yet five years later in the Kosovo War, 85 percent of the effective airpower still came from the US. Adding to the strain were institutional clashes at the intersections of NATO and the EU, pitting pro-Atlanticist voices against the Europe-first faction. Deep rifts between the US and Europe were also exposed over the Kyoto Protocol on climate change and the International Criminal Court.
Transatlantic relations would reach new lows under George W. Bush, especially in connection with the Iraq War. His controversial election in 2000 was driven not only by a repudiation of Clinton’s personal transgressions, but also by a Republican-led narrative that the president had caused great harm to US national security: first, by involving the country in missions of “social work” like in Somalia; second, by engaging in timid “cruisem is-sile diplomacy” following Al-Qaeda’s simultaneous bombings of two US embassies and its attack on the USS Cole; and finally, for failing to properly manage America’s relations with major powers like Russia and China.
Following the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, George W. Bush embarked on a wartime presidency characterized by a massive build-up of the defense, intelligence, and homeland security apparatus and US-led military interventions in Afghanistan and Iraq. His decision to attack Saddam Hussein without a clear UN Security Council mandate caused lasting harm to relations with Moscow, as well as Paris and Berlin. America’s reputation also suffered greatly due to Guantánamo and the use of “enhanced interrogation techniques.”
At the end of the Bush presidency, following US military setbacks in Iraq and Afghanistan, and in the midst of the 2008 financial crisis, America longed for a fresh face and a new start. With his promise to transcend America’s entrenched political divisions, get the US out of Iraq, stop torture, close Guantánamo and embrace progressive climate change policies, Barack Obama was greeted with hyped-up expectations both at home and abroad, and especially in Europe.
But make no mistake: it was George W. Bush who created the political terrain for Obama’s sensational rise and ultimately, if unintentionally, paved his way to the White House. In the same vein, we all owe the Trump presidency in part to Barack Obama and a flawed presidential candidate in Hillary Clinton. Those who connect the rise of populists like Trump only to the overwhelming effects of globalization, flawed institutions and growing insecurities miss the point that his predecessor obviously failed to find convincing solutions.
While the backlash Trump embraced was certainly driven by domestic issues – Obamacare, job losses in the manufacturing sector and a crucial Supreme Court vacancy – the banal slogan, “Make America Great Again,” was also a direct response to the relative decline of US power and influence on Obama’s watch.
The humanitarian catastrophe in Syria, the rise of the Islamic State (IS), Beijing’s increasingly aggressive actions in the South China Sea, the failed “reset” with Russia, the fact that Washington has allowed Moscow and Iran to strengthen their position in Syria and the Middle East – it is hard to point to any major foreign policy accomplishments of the Obama administration. Even the 2015 Iran nuclear deal, while important and promising at first glance, is flawed and remains highly controversial within Washington’s policy circles. The one exception may well be the historic reopening of relations with Cuba, accomplished with crucial support from the Vatican. It all points to a rather prosaic legacy for a US president who was initially hailed as a transformative global political figure and even received the 2009 Nobel Peace Prize after just a few months in office.
At this stage, it is impossible to predict what form the Trump presidency will ultimately take. The only constant factor to emerge thus far is his erratic, impulsive, narcissistic character. However, in terms of security Europe had better take Trump’s “America First” agenda seriously and start beefing up its own security and defense capabilities. While early pronouncements by Secretary of Defense James Mattis about America’s “unshakeable bond to NATO” may appear comforting, it is neither healthy nor sustainable that the US accounts for about 75 percent of the defense expenditures of the 28-member alliance.
While his cabinet picks, Mattis and Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, are grounds for some guarded optimism, it is too early to say how much Trump will defer to them. It is not beyond reason that he may rely more on his dubious White House whisperer, Steve Bannon, and National Security Adviser Mike Flynn, who has already put forth several highly undiplomatic statements. Intra-governmental conflicts seem inevitable, and it is disconcerting that the president imposed his divisive travel ban without first consulting America’s top diplomat.
Trump’s relationship with Russia and apparent admiration for Putin remains a mystery. It will be interesting to see whether his “deal-making” attitude runs at a cost to the citizens of either Eastern Ukraine or Syria.
The most recent three weeks have dashed any hopes that the weight of the Oval Office will instill caution and discipline in the rumbling new President. Trump’s personal Twitter account is still active, holding American diplomacy eternally hostage to whatever nuanced and complex policy statements can be squeezed into 140 characters. The fact that he hung up on the prime minister of Australia – the country with the closest intelligence ties to the US – is rather troublesome. Moreover, Trump’s protectionist agenda lacks any intellectual or economic depth, antagonizes allies like Mexico and Germany and benefits declared geostrategic rivals like China by abandoning the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) trade agreement.
If Donald Trump manages to move beyond the early chaotic rollout of his administration, he may best be viewed through the prism of a “high risk, high return” president. Four years from now, America and the world will either be in much worse shape or the “apprentice president” will somehow have risen to the occasion, surprising many of his fiercest critics at home and abroad. The stakes are extremely high, yet this is the risky bet the American people placed on Trump when they chose him as their new president.
In contrast to Obama, who infamously drew “red line” in Syria and failed to back it up, friends and foes alike have no idea how Trump really ticks, or what could compel him to initiate US military action abroad. On the campaign trail, Trump repeatedly told his fellow Americans: “We have to be unpredictable.” At least that part of Trump’s administration is on track.
After all, this new “doctrine of unpredictability” also means that America’s traditional allies in Europe can no longer count blindly on Washington to bail them out of a security challenge. “America First” is carrying the day in Washington, in terms of both domestic and foreign policy. Yet it remains to be seen whether the new president recognizes that it is impossible to “make America great again” without close and strong allies abroad, particularly in Europe and Asia.
In any event, Berlin will need to shoulder more responsibility, especially in light of an EU weakened by Brexit and threatened by the rise of populist, nationalistic parties in a crucial European election year.
Simply hoping that America’s geopolitical pendulum will swing back in a pro- European direction when Trump leaves the White House is not a responsible option.
A version of this article appeared in print in February, 2017, with the headline “Backlash”.
Karl-Theodor zu Guttenberg is chairman of Spitzberg Partners and a former German defense minister as well as economics and technology minister
Ulf Gartzke is managing partner of Spitzberg Partners and teaches at Georgetown University’s BMW Center for German and European Studies.