Trump’s Troubling Bilateralism

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This article was originally published by Carnegie Europe on 20 January 2017.

Supporters of the EU should be troubled by U.S. President-elect Donald Trump’s remarks in a joint interview with the Times and Bild published on January 16. Trump said not only that Britain’s exit from the union would “end up being a great thing” but also that the EU would continue to break apart. Trump explained, “People, countries, want their own identity.”

Speaking on British radio the same day, Theodore Malloch, a university professor tipped to become the next U.S. ambassador to the EU, added that the United States may lure more countries out of the EU by offering trade deals on bilateral bases.

Trump was more mixed on NATO, if not altogether reassuring: “I said a long time ago that NATO had problems. Number one it was obsolete. . . . Number two the countries aren’t paying what they’re supposed to pay. . . . With that being said, NATO is very important to me.”

Some pro-Brexit politicians in the UK interpret Trump’s outlook as additional justification for Britain’s withdrawal from the EU. The world is changing, so the argument runs, and the UK will emerge as a pioneer in the new sovereigntist world order. Following a meeting with Trump on January 9, British Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson said that the U.S. president-elect had “a very exciting agenda of change” and that the UK would be “first in line” for a free-trade deal with the United States after the Trump administration takes office on January 20. (Technically, however, this cannot happen for at least two years, because the UK cannot formally agree to a bilateral trade deal with the United States or any other non-EU country until it has left the bloc.)

It is easy to imagine a scenario in which the combination of Trump’s bilateral offers and the election of more Euroskeptic politicians like National Front Leader Marine Le Pen in France would reinforce this nationalist worldview that the EU’s days are numbered. Moreover, as a New York Times editorial stated on January 17, “the big winner in all this is [Russian President Vladimir] Putin, who has been working assiduously . . . to destabilize Europe and weaken if not destroy NATO.”

The trouble with Trump’s approach is that it favors creating an international bazaar of bilateral deals, centered on what the president-elect thinks is best for the United States, over working with more stable global and regional institutions. That the United States created the current global system of institutions and rules—for very good reasons—seems to be neither here nor there for Trump. No wonder that many in Brussels and elsewhere worry for the EU’s future.

Much commentary has focused on the key role Germany will have to play to keep the EU together during the Trump era. The departing UK aside, some other major EU countries may not be so resistant to the incoming U.S. president’s ideas. The current conservative government in Poland shares much of Trump’s nationalist worldview. Following his election, the Polish prime minister, Beata Szydło, said, “A certain era in world politics ends. . . . Democracy won despite the liberal propaganda.”

Warsaw has been fighting with the EU institutions in Brussels over Poland’s rule of law, and the country meets the NATO target of spending 2 percent of GDP on defense. Sounds like Trump’s kind of European ally, a country he might want to tempt to leave the EU with a bilateral trade deal. And if Trump continued to be dissatisfied with NATO as a whole, Poland might be tempted to try to cash in and strike a bilateral deal with the United States on defense.

Alternatively, if Trump and Putin agreed on a new geopolitical arrangement for Eastern Europe over the heads of NATO allies, in a kind of updated Yalta Conference, that might push Poland toward stronger bilateral military relationships with France, Germany, the UK, and others. In some respects, this has already been happening. Since 2015, Germany has placed a battalion under the command of a Polish brigade. In November 2016, Poland and the UK announced their ambition to agree on a bilateral defense treaty.

As Poland’s potential choices suggest, deeper bilateralism across Europe may be the best way to resist the temptations of Trump. Preserving the EU will depend to a large degree on stronger Franco-German cooperation—although the Berlin-Paris engine is in dire need of a kick-start. To reinforce the European part of NATO, the ongoing quiet deepening of bilateral military cooperation between Europe’s two leading military powers, France and the UK, based on the 2010 Lancaster House treaties, is vitally important.

Despite Brexit, France’s strategic culture remains closest to Britain’s. London and Paris conducted a joint military exercise with over 5,000 troops in 2016, as part of their broader effort to develop a combined expeditionary force. In November, they announced that they would deepen their dependence on each other for missile technology. Franco-British cooperation is much more militarily significant for European security than the EU’s own trumpeted recent developments, which have produced little of concrete military value so far. The Franco-British partnership could become even more important if Trump scaled back the U.S. military commitment to European security.

Some in London may hope that Trump will reinforce the UK’s position in its forthcoming EU exit negotiations. But this could encourage an Anglosphere-versus-Eurosphere divide among NATO allies, with the United States and the UK on one side and France, Germany, Italy, and Spain on the other.

Similar to the bitter splits over the 2003 invasion of Iraq, this could potentially force other European governments to choose sides. In that scenario, everyone would lose out. Alternatively, the UK could potentially act as a bridge between Europe and the new U.S. administration on European defense, a move that could play positively into the Brexit negotiations.

Trump’s preference for bilateralism over international rules and institutions is troubling. Deepening their own bilateral relationships would help Europeans preserve the EU and reinforce NATO.

About the Author

Daniel Keohane is a senior researcher at the Center for Security Studies at ETH Zürich.

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