President Donald Trump may be aggravating Germany, France and other U.S. allies in Europe with his tirades and qualms about trade imbalances, NATO spending and the Paris climate change deal.
But the White House is casting Trump’s approach as one designed to strengthen the U.S.-European relationship — not kill it.
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After all, Trump aides insist, real friends tell each other hard truths.
Trump “views not just Germany but the rest of Europe as an important American ally,” White House press secretary Sean Spicer said Tuesday, adding that the Republican president’s demands during his first official visit to Europe last week that other NATO countries spend more on defense were “getting results.”
“That is a good thing for them, it’s a good thing for NATO, and it’s a good thing for America,” Spicer said.
To others, however, the Europe-U.S. tensions over defense spending, trade deals and climate change are real, growing and could ultimately lead to shifts in alliances if Trump does not temper his tone. European leaders, some of whom face elections at home, do not want voters to see them as weak next to Trump.
While it’s unlikely the United States and Europe would flat-out abandon each other, smaller rifts could be exploited by rivals such as Russia, lead to new partnerships with emerging forces such as China, or threaten cooperation on joint endeavors such as stabilizing Afghanistan.
“Europeans really are asking themselves, ‘How can we try and proceed and construct a positive way forward with someone who won’t even meet us halfway?’” said Julianne Smith, who advised former Vice President Joe Biden on national security. “Sure, there’s not going to be a total break in the relationship. But it could really inhibit cooperation at the highest levels, and that’s where the toughest problems get solved.”
During meetings in Europe last week, Trump devoted much of his public remarks to chiding NATO members he insists are freeloading on the United States by not meeting their commitment to spend at least 2 percent of their GDP on defense. Trump did not directly endorse Article 5, the principle at the heart of NATO that says members will treat an attack on one as an attack on all. He also would not sign on to a statement committing the United States to honoring the Paris climate change agreement.
German Chancellor Angela Merkel, at a campaign event over the weekend ahead of elections this fall, indicated that she no longer considered the United States a reliable ally.
“The times in which we could rely fully on others — they are somewhat over,” said Merkel, strong comments from the highly influential but usually measured leader. On Tuesday, she told a closed-door meeting of her parliamentary group that while she remained committed to the trans-Atlantic alliance, she would not pretend there weren’t substantive differences with Trump, especially on climate change.
German Foreign Minister Sigmar Gabriel was blunter. “The short-sighted policies of the American government stand against the interests of the European Union,” Gabriel said Monday. “The West has become smaller; at least, it has become weaker.”
Trump and his team were in no mood to walk anything back.
The president shot back Tuesday on Twitter: “We have a MASSIVE trade deficit with Germany, plus they pay FAR LESS than they should on NATO & military. Very bad for U.S. This will change.”
In the past, Trump’s aides have engaged in clean-up efforts after he clashed with foreign allies, but there was no confirmation of such behind-the-scenes work this time. A Pentagon spokesman said he was unaware of any outreach by Defense Secretary James Mattis to European counterparts, while the State Department refused to say whether Secretary of State Rex Tillerson had had any conversations.
Spicer used Tuesday’s daily White House press briefing to insist that the Trump administration is fully committed to NATO and other European alliances but that it would not back down on its demands.
“During his conversations at NATO and at the G-7, the president reaffirmed the need to deepen and improve our trans-Atlantic relationship,” Spicer insisted.
Another administration spokesman, Michael Short, put it this way: “The good thing about strong alliances, like the one we have with Germany, is that you can have frank discussions.”
Trump’s predecessors, Republican and Democratic, also voiced frustration that so few NATO members meet the commitment to spend at least 2 percent of GDP on defense. But those presidents couched their criticisms in reassurances of America’s commitment to NATO, including promises that it would aid any NATO member that was attacked.
Trump’s failure to take that two-pronged approach is why so many Europeans are alarmed, said Charles Kupchan, who served as senior director for European affairs on the staff of the National Security Council in the Obama administration.
“This is the real Trump, this is where he’s landed, and I think that’s the message that Europeans have come away with,” Kupchan said.
A State Department official said that Trump’s departure from past administrations’ approaches deeply concerned U.S. diplomats but that, so far, they are taking comfort in the fact that it’s not much more than rhetoric.
However, if Trump decides to abandon the Paris climate agreement or to reverse the U.S. diplomatic opening to Cuba brought about by former President Barack Obama, many European officials would be furious, the State Department official said. Both decisions could come in the next few days.
On climate, there are signs that Europe is preparing for what it considers a worst-case scenario. European officials have for months looked to Canada and China as partners on climate change, increasingly aware that the United States is no longer fully in their corner on the issue, EU sources told POLITICO.
Trump’s critics have already accused him of emboldening China, saying his decision to yank the United States out of the massive trade deal known as the Trans-Pacific Partnership will allow China to take the lead on trade in the Asia-Pacific region.
The political climate in Europe is playing into how closely leaders align with or distance themselves from Trump.
British Prime Minister Theresa May, who is overseeing her country’s plans to leave the European Union, has tried to get close to Trump, to the point where she’s been accused of not doing enough to push him to stick to the Paris climate deal.
In Germany, where Merkel is running for re-election, no party wants to be seen as soft on Trump, who is widely disliked by Germans. The Merkel-Trump divide isn’t unprecedented. The relationship between Merkel’s predecessor, Gerhard Schröder, and then-President George W. Bush essentially broke down over Berlin’s refusal to back the 2003 U.S. invasion of Iraq.
Newly minted French President Emmanuel Macron, free of the burdens of campaigning, has made several moves that indicate he won’t kowtow to Trump. In Brussels, Belgium, last week, he shook Trump’s hand with such a strong grip that the U.S. president’s knuckles turned white. Macron later declared the handshake was “not innocent” and symbolized his unwillingness to make concessions.
During another encounter, Macron walked toward Trump but swerved at the last minute to greet Merkel first; later he published a photo of the mingling G-7 leaders that noticeably did not include Trump.
But Macron aides say their new leader’s ultimate goal is to draw the American president in, not push him away. “The greater the distance is, the more you have to go toward the other … sulkers don’t win,” a senior aide to Macron said, adding that the French president wants “to remind Trump that he is part of the future of Europe.”
Andrew Restuccia, Matthew Nussbaum, Jacqueline Klimas, Nicolas Vinocur and Matthew Karnitschnig contributed to this story.