Food for Thought: "Donald Trump and the End of America's Benign Hegemony"

With Trump putting "America First", Europe needs a Plan B for a future without the U.S. as the liberal hegemon, writes Wolfgang Ischinger, Chairman of the Munich Security Conference.

Wolfgang Ischinger at the Munich Security Conference (Photo: MSC / Kuhlmann)

For Atlanticists in Europe who still think we shouldn't give up on the United States, the loss of John McCain has been particularly painful. All his life, the US Senator was a staunch defender of the transatlantic partnership – and particularly so since Trump came to power. At the Munich Security Conference in 2017, McCain had called on Europeans not to count America out and to keep investing in the transatlantic bond. McCain's words remain of utmost importance.
Yet, they cannot obscure the fact that the liberal hegemon – the hegemon Europe had relied on for decades – belongs to the past. This became particularly evident in the beginning of July, when President Trump almost wrecked a NATO summit, offended the hosts of his visit to Britain, and called the European Union a "foe" of the United States, all the while cozying up to Vladimir Putin, a "good competitor."

For months, Europeans concerned about the president’s statements have been reassured by American friends: Ignore the tweets, focus on what the administration does, and trust our checks and balances. That made some sense. Senior cabinet members like the secretary of defense have remained committed to the liberal international order and to America's alliances and partnerships. Congress has strongly supported NATO. And American troops still guarantee Europe's security. But in international relations, it's not only deeds that matter; words also do, especially the American president's.

Let’s face it: Mr. Trump's core beliefs conflict with the foundations of Western grand strategy since the mid-1940s. He believes America is getting a bad deal from its European allies. He expresses admiration for autocrats like Kim Jong-un and Mr. Putin, while reserving his most acidic comments for democratic partners like Germany’s Angela Merkel and Canada's Justin Trudeau. He represents the opposite of liberal internationalism.That sends Europe a sad message: The era of America's benign hegemony may be over, with Europe extremely ill prepared.

On July 11 and 12, Mr. Trump undercut a NATO summit that was yielding results: reaffirming a goal for members to strengthen the alliance by spending 2 percent of their gross domestic product on the military by 2024. While European military spending has been rising for some time, Mr. Trump was correct in saying that some members, including Germany, aren’t doing enough. He also has legitimate concerns about trade imbalances.

Still, his mischaracterization of the goal as "dues" owed to America makes it harder for European leaders to ask their voters for increased military spending. And his bullying comments led Europeans to suspect he might be more interested in leaving the alliance than in leading it. Such implied threats attack the foundation of the alliance: the idea of solidarity and commitment to one another's security. Americans tell us Mr. Trump can't leave NATO without Senate consent — a debatable notion that misses the point. Any doubt about America’s commitment hurts the credibility of NATO's deterrence. That is what makes Mr. Trump's statements so dangerous. They may extract a few billion dollars for defense spending, but they destroy the assurances that those dollars — or euros — are meant to bolster.

Those uncertainties were magnified by the president’s bizarre appearance with Mr. Putin in Helsinki, Finland, right after the NATO Summit. Mr. Trump in effect disavowed his own intelligence community. He failed to declare Russian meddling in Western democracies unacceptable. If Mr. Putin does not feel emboldened now, when will he? Who will now believe that interfering in democratic elections comes at a price? Mr. Trump's performance seemed to indicate that America is ready to give up its ambition to be the free world's respected leader. That was painful for America's European friends and allies to watch. Throughout the Trump presidency, we have tried to preserve a close partnership with America, influence the Trump administration and safeguard European interests. It hasn't worked. Mr. Trump ignored our concerns by leaving the Paris climate pact and the Iran nuclear deal, and he slapped tariffs on his closest allies. Why, then, should Europeans consider this administration a trustworthy partner? A recent ZDF Politbarometer poll found that only 9 percent of Germans do.

But there is no realistic Plan B yet, posing a conundrum: Europeans cannot simply go it alone, but we must prepare to be left alone. So we must develop a Plan B. Duck and cover will not suffice.

First, Europe needs a dual-track approach. We should strengthen our military readiness and decision-making capacity while showing the White House more clearly that its actions have costs for America. We also must address some of Mr. Trump’s justified concerns, like increasing military spending — but in our own interest, rather than to please him. We should also offer to work closely with those Americans – Americans like John McCain – who believe that a strong partnership with Europe remains in America's best interest. Europeans need to engage, engage, engage: with Congress, with governors, with America’s business community and civil society.

But can we rely on the American system of government to work as promised? Now is the time to check and balance! At the risk of "meddling": Are there Republican senators willing to refuse to vote for any Trump appointee unless he stops denigrating his own intelligence community? Security should not be an issue that pits the United States against Europe. Many Western societies are divided between those who believe in preserving the post-World War II order and those who would replace it with 19th-century nationalism.

Europeans who believe that abandoning the Western liberal order would be an extraordinary act of stupidity must step up our game. But we won’t succeed without strong support from like-minded friends across the Atlantic. American patriots, will you work with us?

Wolfgang Ischinger is the Chairman of the Munich Security Conference and teaches security policy at the Hertie School of Governance in Berlin.

This is an updated version of the op-ed "For Allies, Trump's Behavior Is Painful to Watch" published in the New York Times on July 21, 2018.

30 August 2018, by Wolfgang Ischinger