Europe Ponders New World Order as Trans-Atlantic Ties Fray

That last week’s Group of Seven summit in Canada ended in disarray—with President

Donald Trump

withdrawing his assent to a communiquéthat he and the leaders of the other six major Western nations had all signed off on after two days of negotiations—came as a shock to European diplomats. But it was hardly a surprise.

It came, after all, in the wake of Mr. Trump’s decisions to withdraw from the Paris climate-change accords and the Iran nuclear deal, and his imposition of tariffs on imported steel and aluminum from the European Union. So no one was under any illusions about the state of the trans-Atlantic relationship. Still, despite much talk over the past year about the need for greater European “strategic autonomy” amid concerns that the U.S. can no longer be counted on as a reliable partner, few questioned the durability of a Western alliance underpinned by shared values and common rules.

This week, though, it no longer seems far-fetched to consider a new world order emerging in which the West is no longer bound together by those shared values and common rules. And after the G-7 debacle, there are growing worries in Europe that next month’s summit of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization in Brussels may be heading for a similar disaster.

European diplomats were relieved last year when they eventually persuaded Mr. Trump to recommit the U.S. to common defense under Article 5 of the NATO treaties. Indeed, Mr. Trump has since stepped up troop deployments in Europe, suggesting that security cooperation is one aspect of the trans-Atlantic relationship that is still working well. But the fear is that Mr. Trump’s anger at inadequate European military spending—despite recent promises by most governments to boost it toward the NATO guideline of 2% of gross domestic product—will lead to a public showdown, overshadowing efforts to present a united front.

From a European perspective, the risk is that the continent is facing the collapse of the American order in Europe, akin to the collapse of the Soviet order in 1989. In that year, Russia’s grip over Central and Eastern Europe collapsed almost overnight when the shared ideology that underpinned its common rules-based system evaporated, leaving those countries to seek a new strategic alternatives.

Today, it is the West’s ideological cohesion—including the U.S. commitment to the rules-based system that has underpinned the American order—that is in question. That has particular implications for Europe’s integration, which has been a core U.S. strategic interest for more than six decades. Indeed, the U.S. has often appeared more pro-EU than many EU members.

Few believe Mr. Trump wants to blow up the EU, but European diplomats have been left in no doubt that the president doesn’t value the bloc or believe it serves U.S. interests; on trade, he has branded it worse than China. Nor do they consider he has any ideological commitment to—or interest in protecting or defending—the other multilateral institutions that have underpinned the U.S. order.

The EU has found Mr. Trump to be impervious to traditional arguments about its added value to the U.S. Past American administrations saw the EU, despite its manifest imperfections, as a force multiplier, helping Washington achieve its strategic objectives in common challenges such as facing up to climate change, combating Islamic State, countering Russia and containing the rise of China. They also recognized that European support could help build domestic backing for U.S. foreign-policy goals, for example when taking military action.

But these arguments appear to cut little ice with the “America First” president, who appears to consider the EU as at best a strategic irrelevance and at worst an obstacle to his own objectives. Nor has the Trump administration shown much interest in areas where in the past U.S. foreign policy has explicitly relied on European integration to deliver its goals, for example in extricating itself from the Balkans.

This leaves Europeans facing a potentially existential challenge. French President

Emmanuel Macron

talks of Europe being obliged to choose whether this will be a Carolingian moment or a Lotharingian moment for the continent—a reference to the period of unity Europe enjoyed under the medieval emperor Charlemagne, which has become the EU’s foundation myth, and the instability that followed that empire’s division after his death.

Can the EU discover the necessary degree of ideological cohesion to maintain its own rules-based system in an increasingly chaotic world? Or will the loss of U.S. strategic interest in European integration deepen growing divisions on the continent? Will it hasten the disintegration of the EU, already manifest in Brexit and the rise of euroskeptic parties in Hungary, Poland and now Italy?

The stakes could hardly be higher. When the Soviet order collapsed in 1989, the West was able to offer Central and Eastern European countries a clear strategic alternative. The result was a moment of triumph for Europe, paving the way for what by historical standards has proved a remarkable period of peace and prosperity.

Today no such alternative exists. For now European diplomats remain hopeful that transatlantic ties are robust enough to withstand the current tensions. But one thing is clear: if the American order collapses, the consequences will be far less benign.

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