With Trump and Putin, Europe is now between a rock and a hard place

Natalie Nougayrède writes: European capitals have been busy sending discreet emissaries to New York to sound out Donald Trump’s intentions. Angela Merkel, who on 9 November delivered a blunt warning to the US president-elect, sent her close adviser Christoph Heusgen to meet General Michael Flynn, the new national security adviser, in late December. François Hollande, who commented during Trump’s campaign that it made him want to “throw up”, sent his diplomatic adviser, Jacques Audibert. Now Theresa May has announced that she will travel to Washington to meet Trump directly in the spring. But European leaders are still at a loss as to what to expect from the man – hardly surprising when major foreign policy pronouncements are made via Twitter. “We’re in another world” one German official recently told me, after pointing to how closely Merkel had worked with Obama on Ukraine and other issues.

Everything that is mind-boggling and distressing about Trump for liberal Americans is even more so for democratic Europeans, and that’s because of the angst attached to geopolitics. With Trump about to settle in the White House and Putin gloating in the Kremlin, two illiberals who like zero-sum games, Europe finds itself dramatically caught between a rock and a hard place.

The rock is Trump’s propensity to disparage alliances and show sympathy for illiberal European politicians. The hard place is Putin’s expectation that more, not fewer, opportunities lie ahead to further his foreign policy goals – not least a rewriting of Europe’s architecture, to Russia’s benefit. Noises in central Europe that Trump will be keenly interested in the region because his wife was born in Slovenia smack of either irony or despair.

For Europe, two dangers arise. The first is that the principles on which the transatlantic link was founded in the 1949 North Atlantic Treaty, including the pledge to uphold “democracy, individual liberty and the rule of law”, might head for the dustbin. The second is that Europe may witness a return to spheres of influence, something that has historically plagued it, and essentially amounts to saying this: might makes right, and the strong do what they can while the weak suffer what they must. Not much seems to separate Trump from Putin on that account.

If this is the new normal, expect an unseemly European scramble, with governments rushing to try to secure their own interests whatever the cost to neighbours and the continent’s future. Putin will be waiting with open arms for those who, whether out of admiration or fear, might want to compensate American strategic withdrawal by seeking lofty arrangements with the great eastern neighbour. Peeling Europe away from the US is an objective Putin has long made clear. A strong, coordinated Europe is in Putin’s interest only if it is ideologically favourable to him – with cultural nativists such as Marine Le Pen, Geert Wilders and Viktor Orbán calling the shots. If liberal democracy can resist, however, especially in France and Germany, then he will continue working to achieve a weak and fractured Europe. [Continue reading…]

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