Europe has few good options for dealing with Donald Trump

Europe has few good options for dealing with Donald Trump

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REMEMBER “Love Actually”? Back in 2003, in the heat of the Iraq crisis, British hearts were lifted by Hugh Grant’s portrayal of a prime minister publicly humiliating a bullying American president. In 2018 Donald Trump’s decision to withdraw from the nuclear deal with Iran is inspiring Europeans to their own moments of Grantian hauteur. “Do we want to be vassals who obey decisions taken by the United States while clinging to the hem of their trousers?” asked Bruno Le Maire, France’s finance minister. German diplomats are spitting blood. One magazine urged Europe to join the anti-Trump “resistance”.

If that seems a trifle overcooked, the strength of the fury shows the value of the Iran deal for Europeans. In one neat package it diminished a security threat, bolstered multilateralism and strengthened the transatlantic bond. The Europeans fought desperately to assuage Mr Trump’s concerns, and earned only humiliation. Their current efforts to stop him slapping tariffs on their steel and aluminium exports next month may be similarly doomed. The twin pillars of Europe’s place in the world are the multilateral rules-based order and the transatlantic alliance. Mr Trump seems to be forcing Europeans to choose between them.

For now, the path seems clear. Meeting this week in Sofia, Europe’s leaders agreed they would try to keep the nuclear deal alive (see article). The options include countermeasures like a “blocking regulation” to shield European firms investing in Iran from American sanctions. Whether they will succeed is an open question; for many European companies, the American market is too important to risk. (Germany exports about as much to North Carolina as to Iran.) On the trade row, some European governments think the current spat can be flipped, judo-like, into talks about eliminating the tariffs which Mr Trump dislikes on cars and other goods; others doubt it. But all agree that if his metals tariffs take effect, Europe must hit back.

If all this hints at a new readiness to get tough, it is in part because other tactics have flopped. Emmanuel Macron, the so-called “Trump whisperer”, tried flattery; he was ignored. Angela Merkel’s softly-softly approach found only Trumpian derision. Mr Trump paints the European Union as a plot against American interests and has urged its disintegration. These days European diplomats mutter that only the hard-nosed seem to get results from Mr Trump. Europe is rich and capable. Perhaps it is time to acknowledge that America can be an adversary as well as a partner. Should matters between Europe and America escalate, says Mark Leonard of the European Council on Foreign Relations, a think-tank, “It’s not clear to me that America would win.”

But there are dangers in the “Love Actually” approach. It seems self-defeating to try to defend the multilateral order using the same divisive tactics as Mr Trump. The WTO, perhaps Mr Trump’s next target, is already tottering; it might not survive an escalation between the world’s two largest trading partners. America’s withdrawal from the Iran deal leaves the Europeans awkwardly lining up with China and Russia to offer sweeteners to the regime in Iran—a serial human-rights violator and source of regional instability. The need to convince the Iranians to stay in the deal means there is no leverage to make them end their missile programme or their regional troublemaking, as Europe had been trying to do before Mr Trump walked away. Most of all, Europe still depends on the American security guarantee. It should think hard before offering Mr Trump an excuse to jettison it.

Such are the dilemmas thrown up for Europe when America comes First. And while Mr Trump has never hidden his allergy to multilateralism, today his cabinet has fewer dissenting voices. The “adults in the room” on whom the Europeans had pinned their hopes, grey-haired generals or businessmen with an affection for diplomacy and stability, have largely been turfed out in favour of men like John Bolton, Mr Trump’s national security adviser, who has urged regime change in Iran and thinks rules are for wimps. Things will not get better under this administration.

Trump 2.0

Yet it would be myopic to blame The Donald alone for the sense of transatlantic drift. The end of the cold war, and growing threats elsewhere, set America on a different geopolitical course. Even Barack Obama, who believed in alliances and knew how to appeal to Europeans’ vanity, wanted to pivot America towards Asia. It is hard to imagine a president who would not. Mr Trump’s successors may not share his aversion to partnership. But nor will they preside over a return to the status quo ante.

So as Donald Tusk, president of the European Council, hinted this week, it is time for Europe to attend to its own yard. Mr Trump has already spurred some gentle defence co-operation inside the EU; it can be stepped up without undermining NATO. Germany is going backwards on military spending, but it has at least learned, in Mr Leonard’s phrase, to “weaponise” its economy in disputes with Russia and Turkey. Mr Macron can lead a fresh European diplomatic offensive in the Middle East; the regional tensions which a collapse of the nuclear deal could unleash make that an especially urgent task. Even Mrs Merkel has come to understand that disasters abroad have consequences at home. On trade the EU has been striking deals with partners like Canada and Japan that will boost growth and spread European standards.

But maintaining unity is difficult when many European countries, especially in the east, are not convinced that they must line up with their own continental partners in geopolitical affairs. Only last week three governments vetoed a planned EU statement condemning Mr Trump’s decision to move America’s Israeli embassy to Jerusalem. Standing up to Mr Trump feels intoxicating, but Europe’s options are limited by its own divisions and dependence. If America drops its end of the international order, Europe lacks the strength to support the entire structure alone.



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