For almost three years, the rest of the world has worked hard to gauge where America is headed, and Europe’s pessimism is now palpable. Many foreign policy experts in Europe are wary and assume the era of US benevolent leadership is over, which gives the 2020 US presidential elections a sidebar feel with limited relevance for the trajectory of America’s international engagement. But the 2020 US presidential elections are highly consequential not only for America, but also for Europe.
It is hardly surprising Donald Trump’s erratic diplomacy and his impulsive personal style are unsettling America’s partners. But under Trump’s leadership, America has also adopted policies across a range of issues, such as climate, trade, Iran, Israel and Syria, that run contrary to Europe’s interests and also to its values.
Today, many of Europe’s most prominent foreign policy elites argue that America’s ambivalence towards global leadership is here to stay, a product of long-term change in the US linked to rising inequality, immigration and demographic change, and a fading sense among younger generations of the importance of America’s partnership with Europe. This is reflected in the policy preferences of America’s elected leaders. For this reason, they project that US retreat from its international commitments will continue long after Trump’s tenure expires.
Europe’s pessimism about the future of US leadership was put in stark light by Emmanuel Macron, who in his recent interview for The Economist stated NATO was ‘brain dead’, no longer able to deliver a coordinated response. Instead, he calls for Europe to drive forward its effort to achieve strategic autonomy and provide for its own defence.
But for those Europeans who would like to create a healthy distance from the United States and more autonomy for Europe, this may not be easy to do. American power remains a stubborn fact in international politics and the US continues to enjoy unparalleled military power. The prospect of Europe developing sufficient capability to significantly reduce its dependence on the US for defence and security is remote. In economic terms, China is the only sovereign nation that even comes close to matching the US share of the world’s GDP and you would also be hard pressed to find a serious economist who believes the exorbitant privilege the dollar (and so the US) enjoys as the world’s reserve currency will disappear any time soon.
Power alone though has never been the sole basis for transatlantic cooperation and there is ample reason for Europe and the United States to look forward together rather than alone. Shared history, culture and values will continue to make a meaningful difference when Europe and America look for partners in the decades ahead.
In any case, before Europe rushes for the exit it should wait and see who the next US president is. Not least because the US president has a great deal of power to shape foreign policy and so it matters who comes next.
It is easy to imagine, for example, that if America elects a different president in 2020, this person could embrace a set of foreign policy commitments more closely aligned with Europe. More likely than not, a new president will carry forward US commitments set out in the Paris Accords. Most of the candidates also look set to reinvest in non-proliferation diplomacy, especially towards Iran. Europe will be an essential partner in this.
And even if the US presses harder on the details of regional trade agreements, few candidates are likely to continue the more destructive tactics embraced by the current president, such as justifying tariffs against Europe on national security grounds or threatening to cripple the WTO’s appellate body by blocking appointments.
For Europe’s regional security, a president whose rhetorical embrace of Europe and of NATO is clear and distinct from US policy to Russia would be a game-changer, as would a return to more careful process of consultation with US allies, even if the steady demand that Europe spend more on its own defence continues.
Surveys of public attitudes in America suggest the next US president will have the support of the public for shoring up America’s global leadership role. Most Americans support US leadership generally, and US alliance and trading commitments specifically. Even the younger generation – well-known for its scepticism of America’s overseas military deployments –support America’s current level of defence spending and stationing of troops abroad. And most Americans would like to see the US stay in the Paris Accords, NATO and even the Iran Deal.
Even if the US continues to reduce its global commitments and adapt its foreign policy engagements, the 2020 presidential elections are critical. The devil is in the detail and the choices the US makes not about whether but about how to retreat will be highly consequential for its partners.
For example, it matters whether America’s reduces its commitments by working with Europe to adapt existing rules and norms on trade, security and the environment or simply walks away. US retreat isn’t simply a one-shot game. An effective retreat should be a managed process that pays heed to the spirit of existing rules and norms. It may even be underpinned by an institutional strategy.
President Obama’s strategy for reducing US commitments in the Middle East was only partly about reducing US troops in the region. It was also linked to a policy designed in cooperation with Europe to reduce the threat of a nuclear Iran. Similarly, the Transpacific Partnership sought to secure long term US economic and normative influence in Asia. A successful regional trade strategy in Asia may lessen US reliance on hard power to influence developments in the region.
Perhaps most importantly though, the 2020 US elections will determine whether transatlantic cooperation will continue to be grounded in the shared domestic values of liberalism, democracy and human rights, and in values-based diplomacy. Words matter. The US president can choose words that enable or constrain democrats and dictators who seek to steer their citizens in one direction or another. And the president’s words also shape the ability of Europe’s leaders to support US policy.
In the months ahead, Europe has choices to make. Whether to continue its current path – grounded in half-measures designed to wait out this US presidency – or whether to accelerate the current transatlantic divide. Macron’s call may be a wake-up call, or it may turn out to be ill-judged, further eroding the confidence of those participating in the transatlantic alliance.