The US secretary of state Mike Pompeo strutted into Brussels yesterday like a man on a mission. His task was almost impossible from the start: to convince America’s friends and allies in Europe that the United States under Donald Trump is still the leader of the liberal world order European politicians care so deeply about.
It’s difficult to believe Pompeo convinced anyone. America’s top diplomat could have done what many of his predecessors have chosen to do: tell the European foreign policy community to relax and take a deep breath, America won’t be throwing you to the wolves. Instead, Pompeo was far more confrontational, channeling the fire and brimstone of his egotistical boss.
John Bolton, Trump’s white-moustached national security adviser, is supposed to be the hardliner in the administration who despises multilateral governance and wants to implode the UN headquarters in New York. But apparently Bolton’s brashness has rubbed off on Pompeo, who essentially used his speech to condemn supranational institutions. He also attacked the European Union as a relic that cared more about self-enrichment and preservation than the common person it was supposed to serve. The Secretary of State’s depiction of the EU, the UN, the World Trade Organisation – and multilateralism in general – was one of hostility, as if the bureaucrats and elites in Brussels were a bunch of mean globalists plotting the people’s eternal subjugation. “The more treaties we sign, the safer we supposedly are,” Pompeo said sarcastically. “The more bureaucrats we have, the better the job gets done. Was that ever really true?”
It’s a legitimate question for Pompeo to ask, even if he could have been less strident in asking it. The EU is supposed to interlace Europeans together and, ultimately, prevent the kind of nationalistic jingoism between great powers that led to two world wars in twenty years. The EU was built on a noble goal. Yet even Brexit aside, it’s clear that things are going far from swimmingly.
While a recent Eurobarometer poll demonstrated that an overwhelming number of people were happy staying put in the EU – and fewer than two in ten EU citizens wanted out – it still seems as if the foundations of the bloc are far from secure. More and more governments are willing to challenge the bureaucrats in Brussels over matters as far afield as migration policy and budgets to press freedom and civil society. European politicians have also come around to recognising that hitting Brussels hard is good politics; Germany’s AfD, Italy’s 5 Stars and League, Hungary’s Viktor Orban, and Poland’s Law and Justice have all solidified a core group of supporters in large part on an anti-EU ideology that resonates with a disaffected population.
Perhaps because of a siege mentality in Brussels, the institution’s officials didn’t take too kindly to Pompeo’s words. An EU spokesman quickly released a rebuttal with a run-down on how the E.U. system operates, suggesting the US secretary of state simply didn’t know what he was talking about. Some of the elites in the room were dumbfounded by what they heard; David Fouquet, a professor at the Free University of Brussels, told said that he was “struck by the fact that he [Pompeo] put the European Union on his administration’s hit list of bad actors…I’m in disbelief: the tone, the lack of sensitivity to the place where he was.”
Pompeo, of course, knew exactly where he was: in the den of bureaucratic evil, where the old way of doing things has allowed the European continent to take advantage of the system, burying the US in a big trade deficit and putting Washington on the hook as the bankroller of Europe’s defence. Most of the Europeans listening to Pompeo would violently object to that interpretation. But with Trump is charge, Europe doesn’t have much of a choice other than to begrudgingly respect it.