Trump missteps aren’t last wordWith Pyongyang ratcheting up tensions on the Korean peninsula, this may seem like an odd time to ponder America’s relationship with Europe. But the stability and prosperity of the Korean peninsula depends on a larger international order that may — repeat may — have been badly shaken this past week.
That, at least, is the impression of many seasoned observers on both sides of the Atlantic after President Donald Trump’s inaugural visit to Western Europe for the North Atlantic Treaty Organization and G-7 summits. The headlines certainly did not comport with the president’s tweet that his trip was a “great success.” At NATO, the president declined to reiterate an explicit commitment to Article V (the collective security clause) as virtually every president has since the trans-Atlantic security treaty was signed in 1948. Instead, he berated allies for not paying more for defense and was received after his remarks with an unmistakable chill from European leaders.
French President Emmanuel Macron stared down the president with an awkward bone-crunching handshake that he later told the press was “not innocent.”
German Chancellor Angela Merkel declared at a beer hall rally that Europe could “no longer rely” on its overseas allies. The Chancellor later walked back her comments, but not before leading foreign policy figures in the United States warned that her remarks had been a turning point in trans-Atlantic relations. And these were only a few of the headlines from the trip — there were a dozen smaller slights, insults and incidents that created an unprecedented tone of discord to the president’s first overseas trip.
Before going further, it is important to provide some political context. The American and European media are mostly liberal and inclined to criticize conservative American presidents for their “uncouth” demeanor when they first encounter Europe — something Presidents George W. Bush and Ronald Reagan both experienced initially. Moreover, some of the areas of trans-Atlantic disagreement are legitimate policy disputes that are not unique to President Trump. For example, there has long been skepticism in the U.S. Congress regarding the European approach to climate change.
Finally, it is worth remembering that previous conservative U.S. administrations have eventually reached common cause with Europe, as both Reagan and Bush had initially scratchy trans-Atlantic encounters in their first terms.
Nevertheless, there are three reasons why the new tensions in trans-Atlantic ties should not escape the attention of Korea.
First, Korea’s survival since 1950 has depended not only on the U.S.-ROK alliance, but on the post-war ecosystem of alliances that has included the U.S.-Japan alliance and NATO. If collective security broke down in Europe, U.S. defense resources would be pulled away from East Asia. Indeed, the major challenge to the liberal order today is the simultaneous revisionism of Russia in Europe, Iran in the Middle East, and China in East Asia.
Of these aspiring regional hegemons, China is the most dependent on the current international order economically and thus the least confrontational (North Korea is not dependent and is most confrontational, but has no aspirations to regional hegemony). Russia, in contrast, has aggressively interfered in European and American elections, broken an international border in Europe (Ukraine), and engaged in dangerous military and cyber intimidation against other states. The apparent lack of unity between the U.S. and NATO on Russia — at least at the presidential level — could create a vacuum in European security that would embolden Mr. Putin and distract from the American focus on the North Korea problem.
Second, shared democratic values are the glue of America’s strongest alliances. Trump’s criticism of European leaders contrasted with his praise for more authoritarian American allies and his pledge not to criticize them on human rights. If the democratic values that bond us as allies have no meaning, then the president will be tempted to treat relations with China or North Korea on purely transactional grounds. Without values, our democratic allies lose their privileged positions in U.S. foreign policy.
Third, the tone in trans-Atlantic relations reflects the battle for influence within the White House between the internationalists and the nativists. The nativists like Steve Bannon are profoundly anti-Europe. They despise the loss of sovereignty and liberal-overreach they see in the European Union. They also harken back to the “America First” isolationists of the 1930s who were determined to protect American republican purity from the intrigues of the Old World. They would withdraw from the World Trade Organization and even the United Nations if they could. Their vision for American retrenchment was evident in the president’s Europe trip. While the “America firsters” have at times also been “Asia firsters” in post-war American history (meaning that they wanted to defy Europe and focus on containing communism in Asia), the triumph of nativism and its handmaiden protectionism would be highly problematic for American alliances in Asia as well.
Trump’s visit to Europe is not the last word on American trans-Atlanticism. Most of the Trump national security team has seen first-hand the importance of NATO to American security. But it is critical for Asia’s U.S. allies that the torn fabric of trans-Atlantic relations be repaired. With immediate security challenges from North Korea and longer-term questions about the rise of China, we will all find that we need to revitalize the concept of “the West” that sustained a liberal international order in the second half of the 20th century. Only this time, the term “West” is inaccurate, since some of the most important guardians of that order are now Asian democracies like Korea.
*The author is senior vice president for Asia and Japan chair at the Center for Strategic and International Studies and associate professor at Georgetown University in Washington, D.C.