Has the last trump sounded for the transatlantic partnership?

Policy brief
04 May 2018
  • Donald Trump’s inauguration felt like the end of the post-World War Two era to many people. Trump disavowed 70 years of US international engagement in favour of ‘America first’. But Europeans should understand that Trump is not to blame for all the threats to the transatlantic partnership; longer term changes in the relationship are also at work.
  • The US and EU are still each other’s most important trading partners, though China is catching up, both in the American and the European markets. The US and EU have the largest stocks of investment in each other’s economies; China lags far behind.
  • Though not all of Trump’s predecessors were convinced supporters of globalisation, he stands out for his hostility to multilateral free trade and the institutions that underpin it. Europeans should be prepared to make common cause with other US trading partners to resist Trump’s more protectionist acts.
  • NATO remains the bedrock of the transatlantic partnership. But the bonds are looser than they once were. Trump regularly implies that the US might not defend allies who do not meet NATO’s spending target. Even so, since the Russian invasion of Ukraine, the US has begun to invest more in the defence of Europe.
  • Trump and those around him do not understand the EU. For Trump, it is another means by which the US’s trade partners cheat it. For some in his administration, it is an obstacle to bilateral relations between the US and individual European countries. Differences of view between Trump and his team make it hard for the EU to navigate the US policy-making process.
  • People-to-people links between the US and Europe are important but declining. Migration from Europe to the US has become much less significant over the last few decades; more recent immigrants have more ties to Asia and Latin America. Numbers of Chinese students in the US and EU far outstrip European students in the US or US students in Europe.
  • Trump’s hostility to the EU and NATO is not so far reflected in US public opinion, except among his core supporters. Most Americans still have positive views of the EU, NATO and major European countries.
  • Trump is having a much more serious effect on European views of the US; the proportion of Europeans with a positive view of the US has fallen dramatically since Barack Obama left office.
  • Trump’s team has so far managed to reassure Europeans of the US’s continued commitment to the transatlantic partnership. But recent personnel changes in the White House and the State Department are likely to increase tensions. Iran is a probable flashpoint.
  • Transatlantic disagreements are nothing new. But some of the shared assumptions about the importance of the relationship which acted as shock-absorbers in the past may now be weaker. The breakdown of the transatlantic partnership would be damaging to both the US and Europe.
  • Europeans should keep trying to influence Trump’s views, however hard it might be to change his negative opinion of US allies. Emmanuel Macron and Angela Merkel were right to visit Washington, and Theresa May is right to invite Trump to London. But European leaders should also work on strengthening public and Congressional support for the transatlantic partnership.
  • European governments also need to put more effort into persuading European public opinion that opposition to Trump’s policies can be combined with support for transatlantic ties. On both sides of the Atlantic more needs to be done to increase the ability of societies to resist narratives designed to drive wedges between Europe and the US.
  • The underlying interests of Western democracies have not changed because Trump is in office. His approach to Europe should be a wake-up call, not a sign that the world as we know it is ending.

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