The Courage to Confront the United States: When Allies Must Say Tough Things

President Emmanuel Macron of France and Chancellor Angela Merkel of Germany have back-to-back visits this week with President Donald Trump, a European doubleheader at a pivotal moment. There is much to discuss: managing the world’s largest economic relationship as U.S. tariffs loom; coordinating on Iran; forging a Russia policy; and moving forward on Syria after U.S., French, and British strikes on Syrian chemical weapons sites.

Over a year ago, many of the United States’ allies hastened to Washington to meet the “disruptor-in-chief.” Amid mostly productive private conversations with President Trump and roller-coaster press conferences, the media focused mainly on symbols over substance—holding hands with Prime Minister Theresa May of the United Kingdom, not shaking hands with Chancellor Merkel. President Macron (of the firm handshake) was the most audacious and benefitted from his colleagues’ earlier experience: he invited President Trump to Bastille Day, and the president was so impressed that he is hosting the Macrons for his first state visit.

The United States’ policy toward Europe is a jolt of iconoclasm from the president and soothing continuity from the U.S. foreign-policy machinery. Candidate Trump declared NATO obsolete and said allies “rip the U.S. off,” yet his administration has vastly expanded U.S. resources for European security. He imposed tariffs on aluminum and steel but temporarily exempted the European Union, even as he threatens a 25 percent tariff on European cars. Trump excoriates the Iran nuclear deal negotiated by the Obama administration but has demanded France, Germany, the United Kingdom, and the European Union amend the agreement and toughen actions against Iran by May 12.

Whatever the political zig and zag, it is clear the United States’ alliance relationships are no longer Washington’s foreign policy lodestar, as they were for the past 70 years. These alliance structures were fraying long before Trump’s election however.

The United States’ allies have been slowest to adjust to this unhappy fact. Washington’s adversaries are comfortable with confrontation and caustic rhetoric; they use it themselves. Allies are different. They balance private disagreements with public unity because they depend on the United States for security and to uphold the international system. Allies downplay serious differences and focus on half-full glasses, but transatlantic relations are drifting toward dangerous cliffs: trade altercations that could damage the global economy; dissolution of the international constraints on Iran’s nuclear program; divergences on Russia that will make our democracies more vulnerable to outside interference; and uncoordinated responses to China’s economic policies that dissipate the power the two largest economies in the world, the U.S. and the EU, would have working together.

How should European allies adapt? They should begin with greater candor, privately and publicly. Macron stands out as Europe’s greatest natural talent in this respect. He balances good personal relations with President Trump and significant contributions to shared security goals, while self-confidently addressing their many disagreements. As Macron said in a Vanity Fair interview, “Our strong bilateral relations actually enable us to address our divergences in a constructive way.” His April 25 address to a joint session of Congress could be another rare exception to U.S. allies’ public reticence on difficult but unavoidable problems in our relations.

Confrontation for its own sake is not the point. Europe has demonstrated it can have impact by embracing friction as the price for frankness. Ambassadors from France, Germany, the United Kingdom, and the European Union mounted a vigorous—and successful—diplomatic and public campaign around the renewal of waivers connected to the Iran nuclear deal early in Trump’s presidency.

Would a more “undiplomatic” European diplomacy make a difference? In 2002, French and German opposition to the Iraq war was vocal and early. Paris and Berlin made clear the United States risked serious damage by pursuing a military solution. It did not stop the war, and it deeply divided Europe as well as the transatlantic relationship.

Yet there are significant differences now. The George W. Bush administration was set on war, had bipartisan support, and U.S. national resolve after September 11 combined a sense of heightened vulnerability with high confidence in military action for achieving policy goals. In 2018, the Trump administration struggles to formulate policies, and many contending views remain—between the president and his administration and in Congress. This suggests that a more assertive European diplomacy could shape U.S. policies, as these are countries that share the United States’ core values and objectives and will be asked to bear some of the burden for implementing whatever initiatives Washington proposes.

The United States relies on Europe to pursue nearly every pressing international objective, as French and British participation in the Syria strike attests. The U.S. public debate needs greater involvement from our most dependable partners to create sustainable and effective policies. Confrontation, just like friction, can generate heat and rancor, but it is also necessary to challenge and refine, to hone and polish. Now is the time for the United States’ closest friends to adapt to these undiplomatic times with a more robust and if necessary confrontational diplomacy to shore up careening U.S. policy and strengthen fundamental bonds.

Jeffrey Rathke is a senior fellow and deputy director of the Europe Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, D.C.

Commentary is produced by the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), a private, tax-exempt institution focusing on international public policy issues. Its research is nonpartisan and nonproprietary. CSIS does not take specific policy positions. Accordingly, all views, positions, and conclusions expressed in this publication should be understood to be solely those of the author(s).

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Jeffrey Rathke