Toward a new transatlantic bargain

You’ve likely never heard of the Parsley Island crisis, sixteen years ago this week in the narrow waters between Morocco and Spain. So, it’s unlikely you’ve considered what its peaceful resolution says about the stakes involved the next few days in President Trump’s meeting first in Brussels with NATO leaders and thereafter with Russian President Vladimir Putin in Helsinki.

The Parsley conflict began when a dozen Moroccan soldiers seized the disputed 37-acre outcropping of mostly rock, inhabited only by feral goats, and planted their national flag on it. It escalated when the Spanish launched special operations commandos to remove the Moroccans, complete with helicopter drops, fighter jet air cover and the taking of prisoners.

The parties ultimately turned to US Secretary of State Colin Powell to mediate a solution, which led to a return to the status quo ante of a disputed but peaceful island. What’s important to this story isn’t that outcome, but rather the reality it underscores. For most of the past 70 years, the United States has been involved in all matters European, both small and large, and for most of that time American leaders and voters have believed that this was in their interest.

The author and historian Robert Kagan writes that this was the result of a grand bargain after World War II, which put the US at the center of an evolving, rules-based world order. No one back then called it America First, but it resulted in a Pax Americana that had elements of charity but even larger doses of political and economic self-interest, earning its image as a global leader advancing common interests.

“To ensure the global peace that Americans sought after being pulled into two world wars,” Kagan writes, “the United States became the main provider of security in Europe and East Asia. In Europe, the US security guarantee made European integration possible and provided political, economic and psychological safeguards against a return to the continent’s destructive past. In East Asia, the guarantee ended the cycle of conflict that had embroiled Japan and China and their neighbors in almost constant warfare since the late 19th century.”

President Trump is right that this bargain’s economic dimension in Europe served the strengthening of European and social welfare systems, creating countless manufacturing jobs while Germany and others saved billions of dollars on their own defense. In a security sense, European countries became free riders, a rational choice on their part and the result of far-sighted, if now unsustainable, US policy.

The post-World War II history of Europe is one of the great accomplishments of US diplomatic and military history. Increasingly in recent days, however, President Trump refers to NATO as a historic rip-off and to the European Union as “being set up to take advantage of the United States.” He saves particular animus for Germany, because of its low defense spending and its high trade surplus, and its energy payments to Russia that help finance the Kremlin’s military against which American investments defend Europe.

However, the defenders of NATO and transatlantic relations make a mistake when they dismiss President Trump’s complaints, however poisonously they are stated, because they reflect a virulent strain among American voters. The current bargain isn’t sustainable, irrespective of President Trump. Former Secretary of Defense Robert Gates had already warned Europeans about that during a farewell speech in Brussels in June 2011.

Yet President Trump also errs if he comes to Brussels this week with a wrecking ball rather than a reformer’s passion. “America’s alliances are an asset that are the envy of Russia and China… NATO is an inheritance that is all the more precious for being irreplaceable,” writes The Economist in its cover story this week.

What makes the current transatlantic tension particularly perilous is that this comes at a time of four threats.

First, a US President for the first time is openly questioning the cost and benefit of NATO; second, the European project is facing increasing strains: Brexit, illiberal democracies, economic disagreements, separatist movements and, most salient of all, migrant challenges that are dividing rather than uniting. Third, a revanchist Russia has proven adept at capitalizing on the weaknesses and divisions in Western democracies; fourth, allies lack any common project to reframe or reinvent the transatlantic community.

It is that context that so sharply raises the stakes for the next few days: the NATO Summit in Brussels on July 11-12, President Trump’s meeting with British Prime Minister Theresa May on July 13 and then his Helsinki Summit on July 16 with Russian President Vladimir Putin, a day after the Russian’s triumphant hosting of the World Cup final. (It’s worth recalling that the occupation of Crimea came four days after the 2014 Winter Olympic Games in Sochi)

There is the very real but previously unthinkable prospect of a US president snarling at his NATO allies before smiling at his Russian counterpart a few days later. In Brussels, he’s likely to condemn European failure to pull their own weight while preparing potential auto tariffs, when a more conventional President would keep Europe on the US side for a common trade struggle with China.

The worst-case scenario has the US President threatening to pull down US participation in NATO’s common defense commitment from any country not paying 2% on defense – or in pulling troops out of Germany if Berlin isn’t willing to pay more of their share faster.

President Trump could surprise allies with a pivot to the positive in Brussels, and the NATO accomplishments over the past months and deliverables at the summit would allow him that victory lap. Allies have been paying more for defense over the past four years and the summit will produce agreements on readiness and mobility, two new commands in Ulm, Germany and Norfolk, Virginia and new initiatives against terrorism, including stepped up troop training in Iraq.

“Yet even if his three coming summits pass off without controversy – as they might, given how Mr. Trump delights in confounding his critics,” The Economist writes, “the differing priorities, divergent beliefs and clashing political cultures will remain.  That leaves the Western alliance in trouble, and that should worry Europe, America and the world.”

So, what to do?
Thomas Wright of Brookings lays out three options in a must-read analysis ahead of the summit, which I amend below.

    1. TAKE ADVANTAGE OF EUROPEAN DIVISIONS: The US for most of the past seven decades has promoted European unity and coherence, despite political and economic stances that are often at odds with Washington. “The troubles and divisions in the EU offer Washington – like Russia and China – the opportunity to play divide and conquer, especially on issues like privacy and data, energy security, refugees and migration, and corporate taxation.” The EU would respond by seeing the US as an opponent and look for ways to minimize US influence, which itself would divide the European Union further as not all allies would sign on to this approach.
    1. BENIGN DISINTEREST IN EUROPE’S PROBLEMS.  Wright sees this as the approach pursued by President Obama, which was one where “the United States would remain a supporter in principle of European integration but its involvement in Europe would be strictly limited” to issues where it has a significant self-interest. This approach would shift the security burden to Europe on issues such as the Balkans and North Africa where the US interest is far less than that of Europe.
    1. A RETURN TO DEEP ENGAGEMENT. This would seem the least likely outcome in a Trump administration, but it’s worth considering as the logic for it is compelling. US leaders would need to accept that failure of European integration would be a significant hit to our global interests, producing a Europe that’s weaker economically and politically, vulnerable to corruption and authoritarianism, seeking their own deals with Russia and China.

Such an approach would have to be based on a new security bargain of that would involve Europe taking on ever-greater burden sharing.  Europe would also have to embrace the continued value of a US partner helping it deal with myriad challenges that include deterring Russia, managing refugee flows, handling the rise of illiberal European democracies, promoting economic growth, fighting terrorism and dealing with Brexit.

On the economic front, the transatlantic economic community – the largest bilateral trading and investment area in the world – could experience a huge shot in the arm through negotiations whose aim would be to reduce transatlantic regulatory burdens and perhaps fight new US tariffs by embracing President Trump’s off-hand comment at the G7 in Canada regarding the creation of a transatlantic, tariff-free trade zone.

There’s also a far more powerful argument. If the US and Europe do not act in common cause globally, it is likely that the rules-based order they created – with all of its flaws –  will be replaced over time by something far poorer in protecting their interests.

This “deeper engagement” alternative would be the best possible outcome. However, first one has to avoid the worse possible dangers of the coming days.

To that end, the Atlantic Council will co-host the official side event for the NATO Summit, bringing together high-level decision makers including Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, the German Minister of Defense, NATO’s Secretary General and the Supreme Allied Commander Europe, among others.

Ours will be the venue for decision makers to provide a readout to the public on the official closed-door dialogues. Find the agenda here: and follow along at #NATOEngages, as we underscore how the US is #StrongerwithAllies.

Frederick Kempe is president and chief executive officer of the Atlantic Council. You can follow him on Twitter @FredKempe. This blog post is based on his weekly InflectionPoints newsletter. Read the newsletter in full here.

Image: U.S soldiers arrive in Zagan as part of NATO deployment, Zagan, Poland January 12, 2017. (Agencja Gazeta/Anna Krasko via REUTERS)