What Trumpism Misses About America’s Transatlantic Comparative Advantage
3 November, 2020
In the midst of election season in America, the outcome of the election is one of the core issues for European capitals and how it will affect the Transatlantic partnership going forward. Most assume that relations would quickly improve if Joe Biden were to be elected; however, it would still not change many of the challenges that both sides of the Atlantic have to deal with. Be that as it may, there is still a more than decent chance that President Trump will get elected to a second term, and what that means for the future of the partnership, of NATO, etc., is anyone’s guess.
If President Trump is to be reelected (and for the record, I believe he will), he would be well advised not to continually undermine the partnership with Europe to the benefit of its actual enemies, namely China and Russia. As the tectonic plates continue to shift in the coming years, the White House, irrelevant of who’s in office, will need its European allies more than ever. To solve the litany of complex geopolitical realities that exist in the 21st century, there is clearly no more steadfast likeminded friend as the one America has in its European counterparts. Mind you, this comes with its broad soft power, economic might, and vast potential for massive military armament.
Conversely, if we look at its two geopolitical foes’ allies, as opposed to its deeply rooted alliance with Europe and others, who are China’s allies? Pakistan? North Korea? No comment. What about Russia? Syria? A state that would fall apart the minute it leaves. Belarus? That’s going so well at the moment. It’s largely unrecognized breakaway Republics? It can barely maintain even those. Serbia? While it flirts with EU integration and deepens cooperation with NATO? And last but not least, Venezuela? A near failed state, but ¡viva la revolucion! It’s clear that both America and Europe have something these two autocracies do not – a deeply rooted trust-based alliance that has survived 70 years and a Cold War.
Why, might you ask, are NATO and Europe so important to American interests if you’re on the “America First” bandwagon?
- Because this means that America has something Russia or China or other potential aggressors don’t – multiple allies, and not just of a purely transactional nature either. Far more so than any other country, America is still able to build vast coalitions when the need arises. Both the Kremlin and the CCP know this and want to do everything in their power to undermine the ability of the White House to do so. Not surprisingly, guess who are the first ones to sign-on when the need arises? Our NATO partners in whatever form of a “Coalition of the Willing,” or 5 of the NATO Treaty stating, “an attack on one ally is considered an attack on all allies.”
- If taken as a whole, the EU is the US’ largest trading partner by a large margin with Canada coming in at 4th – another NATO member. Around 60-percent of America’s foreign assets are parked in Europe on top of millions and millions of jobs that are supported by European companies. The case for the transatlantic security partnership is therefore not just based on values or security concerns, but on economic aspects as well.
- On a tactical and strategic level, the US is deeply intertwined with the military interoperability and intelligence networks of its European allies. This allows it to have a great advantage over its adversaries. If the US were to end its partnership, it would essentially be like throwing away the Ferrari and keeping the keys as a souvenir. Then, god forbid, unforeseen conflict could follow that America would likely be dragged into. And then what?
- Values actually do matter. It is true that there are valid criticisms that one can point out with the US and the West in general, be it the involvement in Iraq, civilian deaths from drone strikes, etc. However, to say that shared values don’t play a part is not only asinine, but it fundamentally runs contrary to why we fought World War II and had a Cold War in the first place. It is the very thing that shaped the current world order. There’s a reason why people that live in despotic states want to come to countries that uphold liberal values. We have a vested interest to keep it that way, and we also have a vested interest in making it clear that if need be, we can and will respond to threats against these values.
- America’s alliances, especially its European ones, give it a privileged position to project its own interests in every corner of the globe while still maintaining some relative safety. Be that as it may, most capitals in liberal democracies will agree that an engaged America is a much better alternative to a disengaged one, as it could allow autocracies, such as Russia and China, to fill that vacuum left behind. Some would point out that America has partnerships of a more transactional nature from autocracies and theocracies such as Egypt and Saudi Arabia. These strategic partnerships are also important for regional stability and vested economic interests. Even so, we do not, for the most part, share the same values and vision of the world, and we shouldn’t pretend we do.
- Even if you’re taking a pure realist approach and throwing all of these other issues aside, if you’re an American policy maker and World War 3 breaks out, would you rather have your allies in Europe and the Pacific as deeply integrated with you as possible beforehand, or some ad-hoc mishmash of convenient alliances that would perhaps go America’s way but with no real trust behind it? Of course, this is all hypothetical until something like it happens, but great power politics has returned with a vengeance whether we like it or not and with it the inherent risk of conflict. I’ll reemphasize that our geopolitical foes realize this, and they are doing everything they can to undermine both America’s place in the liberal order and its alliances, especially with Europe.
Building on those ideas, not all of Trumps points about the Alliance are off base. Europe needs to reinvest in its defense capabilities and should move with a sense of urgency to get up to speed. While it is true that the likelihood of conflict still is relatively low simply because GDP and defense expenditures are tilted heavily in its favor, at least in the EU/NATO parts of Europe, it does not mean that it should be filled with complacency.
It’s no secret by now that America’s focus has shifted East for both strategic and economic prerogatives, and for that reason Europe must take its own security much more seriously. Any sensible European policy maker will agree with this and will also be quick to reinforce the idea for some level of European autonomy. The simple fact is that despite the shared values, not all of our interests are the same, and as Europe finds its way in the 21st century, we should forge a collective path via NATO based on the interests that are shared. Where they diverge, we can hash out behind closed doors away from Russian or Chinese interference.
Furthermore, the 2-percent NATO spending quota that President Trump rambles on about is pointless if it’s not tied to a bigger strategy. We can all agree that most of NATO members need to up their defense spending, but what the President should be hitting hard is the need to have a cohesive strategy to deal with the elephant in the European room – Russia. There are a number of other issues that need to be dealt with as well, including Turkey’s two-faced growing penchant for neo-Ottomanism at the expense of the Alliance, which further illustrates the need for a bigger strategy.
In sum, a secure Europe is vital to US interests. Despite the temporary unipolarity of the post-Soviet world, the US did not leave its military in Europe just out of the goodness of their hearts. We have vital mutual interests and those interests should be maintained for all of the reasons pointed out and more. As politics shift, adjustments will have to be made and Europe will have to take point on ensuring its security. This, however, should not be a zero-sum game as the President has tried to assert while he is cozying up to strong men who are either transactional partners at best, or our actual geopolitical foes at worst.
To whomever the next President of the United States is, the EU is not our foe as Mr. Trump opined in 2018, and we would be wise not to cut off America’s nose to spite its face. Elsewise, the world is going to become a vastly more unstable place. Starting with an increasingly bellicose Russia being given a gift of the century and a green light to start having its way with its former fiefdoms in Eastern Europe, and further destabilizing the Balkans for its benefit. Mr. President, the ball is firmly in your court. Concurrently, there is overwhelming bi-partisan support in Congress for NATO, and if need be, it would be wise to flex its authority to maintain the most important alliance in human history.