Last weekend’s Munich Security Conference could perhaps best be summarised by two sentences in the 102-page report produced by a group of Western luminaries, politicians, military officials, and ex-statesmen (and stateswomen): After ‘two years in office, the Trump administration has triggered a reassessment of transatlantic relations in Europe,’ the report somberly declared. And ‘with President Trump under increasing domestic pressure and a national security team that is much closer to his views, there is reason to expect even more turmoil in the second part of his term.’
Before Donald Trump, the annual Munich Security Conference was an opportunity for the A-listers in the national security world to enjoy the German cuisine, congratulate one another for a job well done, and wax lyrical about the indispensability of NATO, the greatness of the European Union, and the special bond between the United States and Europe. After Donald Trump, the conference has been a far less placid affair; instead of polemics, diplomats and establishment-types are now actually engaging in conversations about whether the transatlantic bond can be saved or whether the liberal world order is a few Trumpian outbursts away from implosion. There was a sense among attendees and participants in the room that the generations-old assumptions about friendship between Americans and Europeans can no longer be taken for granted.
Trump is everything the European political order is terrified of. He is brash, loud, and obnoxious when he talks with his European colleagues, throwing candy at the German Chancellor as if she were a school girl who earned an award for spending more on the military. Past American presidents had their annoyances with the French, Germans, and Italians, but never in modern history has Europe dealt with a chief resident of the White House who is almost scornful of every utterance that comes out of the mouth of a European head-of-state. Trump likes to pick fights with his allies as much as he likes to wrestle with his adversaries. Emmanuel Macron was once ridiculed by Trump for his low poll numbers. Angela Merkel was denied a handshake. And Theresa May went through the indignity of being scorched in the British press for her negotiating acumen on Brexit. And just to twist the knife into her back a little deeper, Trump predicted that former Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson would ‘make a great prime minister.’
Back in Washington, DC, Trump’s political enemies have taken notice. And they don’t like where this is all going. It’s one reason why top Democratic lawmakers flew to Munich to address the conference. They wanted to make sure Europe understood that they have a friend and ally in the Democratic Party. As House Intelligence Committee Chairman Adam Schiff told the Washington Post as the conference was going on, ‘I think that we can go a long way to satisfying our allies that support for the relationship is not only strong, but it is bipartisan, even if it is not always reflected in the Oval Office.’
While the current US vice president was lecturing Europe about how ghastly the Iran nuclear deal is and how stupid they were for remaining a part of it, a former US vice president by the name of Joe Biden (who may or may not launch his third presidential campaign in a few weeks time) was on stage telling the atlanticists at the conference to hold their breath and wait until the storm of Trump’s tenure passes. ‘The America I see does not wish to turn our back on the world or allies, our closest allies,’ Biden said, as if to remind the Europeans in the room that Americans still hold them in their heart. ‘Indeed, the American people understand that it’s only by working in cooperation with our friends that we are going to be able to harness the forces of a rapidly changing world, to mitigate their downsides and turn them to our collective advantage.’
These are the words Europeans are used to hearing from US politicians. It’s no wonder why Biden was given rousing applause after his speech while Mike Pence received a room full of crickets.
Until very recently, transatlanticism had immense bipartisan support among Americans of both political parties. Pro-NATO sentiment among the American electorate was a given. Now, both are becoming partisan issues. According to a July 2018 Reuters/Ipsos poll, two thirds of Republicans now believe the US shouldn’t have to uphold treaty commitments if America’s allies don’t spend more on defence. Less than four in ten Democrats take that view.
For establishment politicians like prime minister Theresa May, a woman who believed that Britain’s – and indeed Europe’s – relationship with the US would always be roses and sunshine, the Trump-era of US diplomacy is about as horrifying as the next Brexit vote in the House of Commons. Downing Street can’t do anything to avert Brexit, but it can silently cheer on the Democratic nominee – whoever that nominee is – as the 2020 presidential election season approaches.