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Among the most misguided aspects of Donald Trump’s assault on the liberal world order is his reckless campaign to undermine the European Union (EU). The President’s antipathy toward the EU has been on full display in the run-up to this week’s summit of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) in Brussels. Trump’s conviction that European unity threatens U.S. national interests is more than curious. It is historically ignorant and strategically obtuse. It overlooks America’s enduring interest in a Europe that can serve as one pillar of an open, rule-bound international system.
The United States has supported European integration for more than seventy years. And it has paid off handsomely. Farsighted U.S. leadership has helped consolidate a democratic zone of peace and transformed Europe into America’s most reliable partner in creating an open world economy, building a more secure world, and promoting the global spread of freedom.
Trump understands none of this. “The European Union, of course, was set up to take advantage of the United States, to attack our piggy bank,” the president explained on June 28 at a rally in Fargo, North Dakota. He cited as evidence inflated U.S. trade deficit figures—as if the choice by American consumers to purchase more from Europeans than vice-versa proved unfair competition.
More extraordinary still, Trump is actively encouraging the EU’s dissolution. During the campaign he lauded Britain’s “Brexit” vote. Since inauguration, he and his surrogates have lionized populist nationalists like Marine Le Pen of France, Viktor Orban of Hungary, Giuseppe Conte of Italy, and Sebastian Kurz of Austria, in the hopes they might follow Britain’s lead, while attacking establishment, Europeanist leaders like Germany’s Angela Merkel. Shockingly, Trump even asked French President Emmanuel Macron in April, “Why don’t you leave the EU?”—even offering a bilateral trade deal as a sweetener.
Simultaneously, Trump continues to criticize Europeans for allegedly freeloading off the United States within the transatlantic alliance. “By some accounts, the U.S. is paying for 90% of NATO, with many countries nowhere close to their 2% commitment,” he tweeted on Monday. To be sure, debates over burden-sharing have been a staple of transatlantic relations since the 1950s. What makes Trump distinctive is his insistence that the allies “owe” payments to Washington—as if he were running a protection racket.
Trump’s demands that Europeans “pay up” have an ironic twist. He wants the allies to do more so the United States can do less. But he insists that all additional EU defense efforts support NATO, rather than an autonomous European capability. This wrinkle has become clear since November, when the EU approved a plan called Permanent Structured Cooperation (PESCO), a modest initiative that would allow twenty-five of its twenty-eight member states to pool defense efforts. Although the EU framed PESCO as a complement to NATO, the U.S. reaction was harsh. In February, Kay Bailey Hutchison, the U.S. ambassador to NATO, warned, “We’re going to watch carefully, because if that becomes the case, then it could splinter the strong security alliance that we have.”
In other words, the Trump administration will resist an independent European defense capability alongside NATO that could undermine the special privileges (including the position of Supreme Allied Commander) that the United States enjoys as its unquestioned leader. And yet President Trump cannot have it both ways. He cannot suggest that the U.S. security commitment is contingent on greater self-reliance and be surprised when EU nations hedge their bets in pursuit of strategic autonomy from Washington.
The recent brouhaha makes one pine for a more historically-minded president. Trump, as former Swedish Prime Minister Carl Bildt lamented this week, “has a completely distorted view of the history of European integration. So distorted that it’s dangerous.”
So here’s a quick refresher course.
The dream of unity was widespread in Europe after of World War II. But the United States gave this vision a decisive push. Stunned by the scale of European postwar needs and fearing communist subversion, U.S. Secretary of State George Marshall in June 1947 announced his famous plan for European recovery. His sole stipulation was that aid recipients jointly determine their needs and devise a plan to coordinate their reconstruction. Repeatedly, U.S. officials insisted that the continent take definitive steps toward economic integration, departing from traditional notions of sovereignty and creating a “continuing organization” that would persist once Europe got back on its feet. This policy had the full support of Congress, which in April 1949 declared it “the policy of the people of the United States to encourage the unification of Europe.”
Frustrated by British ambivalence about European integration (plus ça change), the Truman administration pressed France, Germany, Italy, and the Benelux countries for bolder steps. The visionary Jean Monnet responded, persuading French Prime Minister Robert Schuman in May 1950 to propose the European Coal and Steel Community (ECSC). The scheme’s genius was to forge from the industries of war a bridge for Franco-German reconciliation—and European unity. Seven years later the original six ECSC members signed the Treaty of Rome, creating the European Economic Community—the forerunner to the EU itself, which emerged with strong U.S. support in the Maastricht Treaty of 1992.
The United States also supported European defense integration. As the Cold War took hold in the late 1940s, Washington resisted entreaties from individual European nations for bilateral security guarantees. Fearful that the Europeans would become unhealthily dependent on America, Marshall, Dean Acheson, George Kennan, and other U.S. diplomats insisted that the Europeans reach a collective defense agreement among themselves—the Western Union—before negotiating the North Atlantic Treaty in 1949.
Even after NATO emerged, the United States pushed hard for defense integration on the continent. Washington’s chosen vehicle was a proposed European Defense Community (EDC), within which France, Germany, and several other nations would pool their national armies. When the envisioned bloc encountered diplomatic headwinds in 1953, Secretary of State John Foster Dulles warned ominously that its demise would require an “agonizing reappraisal” of the U.S. commitment to Western defense. Despite intense U.S. pressure, the French parliament rejected EDC.
Viewed in historical perspective, America’s backing for European integration—or a “United States of Europe,” as U.S. officials and politicians called it—was extraordinary. It was arguably the first time that a preponderant power had pursued unity rather than division in an area under its influence. But U.S. reasoning was sound. What the United States sought was the emergence of Europe as a vigorous, free-standing pillar of an open world. And that is what it got.
President Trump would do well to bear this laudable history in mind. If he is serious about relinquishing the burdens of U.S. primacy, his heart should be with—not against—a united Europe.