How Donald Trump has changed the world series>
US President Donald Trump’s break with tradition on transatlantic ties has involved Eurosceptic rhetoric and demands for balance in America’s economic ties with the European Union (EU) and under the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO). Empirical evidence, however, shows that Trump’s record has in fact been mixed, with some notable policy-level achievements and other contentions predating his tenure.
On trade, after the Trump administration’s sweeping imposition of tariffs on imported steel and aluminium, and Europe retaliating with their own tariffs, the next significant point of tension came only in 2019. The US tariffed European planes, wine, cheese, and other products, after the World Trade Organization (WTO) permitted Washington to act on European exports of up to US$7.5 billion. This was in response to a 16-year dispute on the US accusing Europe of subsiding Airbus. Similarly, the spectre of Europe imposing tariffs on US$ 4 billion worth of US products emerged, after WTO ruled on Europe’s 2005 counter-complaint on the US subsidising Boeing. Apart from such issues that predate Trump, tensions mostly remained confined to the rhetoric level and the two sides even announced in 2020 their first duty reductions in over two decades.
Similarly, on collective security, Trump rallied against the lack of equitable burden-sharing amongst NATO members. However, his hyperbolic threats aside, Trump’s last two predecessors also repeatedly pushed for increased NATO defence spending, with Barack Obama even referring to Europeans as “free riders”. Moreover, in lending credence to Trump’s approach, the tally of NATO members that spend two percent of their GDP on defence has risen to 10, from just three in 2014. Furthermore, the Trump administration has supported collective security by re-establishing the Atlantic-based US 2nd Fleet, spearheading operational initiatives like the ‘Four Thirties’ on force readiness, and supporting regional capacity-building via platforms like the Three Seas Initiative.
Nevertheless, criticism of Trump’s record based on an idealised reading of transatlantic ties has continued, ignoring not only old faultlines but also recent policy gains. This has assumed a catalytic effect, resulting in the emergence of a push for greater European “strategic autonomy”. European leaders argue for an active European foreign policy by openly questioning US credibility: “The era in which we could fully rely on others is over”; “barriers behind which Europe could blossom have disappeared”; and, “thanks to him we have got rid of all illusions”. Although initially limited to addressing Trump’s ‘disruptions’, as with Europe exercising greater control over its interests amidst transatlantic divergences on Iran (via measures like the INSTEX), European assertiveness is increasingly assuming its own character.
On addressing long-standing dissonance in European agenda-setting, deliberations are underway on shedding the requirement for unanimity amongst member states on foreign policy issues, in favour of “qualified majority”. This could be pivotal in forging, for instance, a pan-European stance on the Indo-Pacific. In addition, after long viewing China solely from an economic standpoint, the EU has now termed it as a “systemic rival” to formulate a holistic approach on defending its interests and values. This has been evident with proposals on guarding against predatory acquisitions by government-subsidised Chinese investors and limiting export of surveillance technology that helps operationalise China’s digital authoritarianism.
Therefore, in the larger scheme of Europe belatedly meeting its moment, Trump’s ‘disruptions’ that now unduly dominate analyses on transatlantic ties could eventually become mere footnotes to history.
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