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Global Affairs

Perils of publicly washing transatlantic dirty linen

European leaders' disavowal of the US may be popular now, but is not good for Europe's long-term strategic interests

LONDON • "I was elected to represent Pittsburgh, not Paris" is how President Donald Trump explained his decision to withdraw the United States from the Paris climate agreement.

At first glance, this is just a bland statement of fact. But, to Europeans already alarmed by Mr Trump's other controversial political decisions, the President's sideswipe was seized upon as yet further proof that relations between America and Europe have now finally and irretrievably broken down.

As German Chancellor Angela Merkel mournfully put it to her domestic electorate recently, the times when Europe "could fully count on others are somewhat over".

"We have to fight for our own future ourselves, for our destiny as Europeans," she added.

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Meanwhile, France's President Emmanuel Macron seized the mantle of Europe's top anti-Trump cheerleader. Breaking with longstanding French political tradition by publicly speaking in the English language, Mr Macron poked fun at Mr Trump's electoral slogan and appealed to the US to "make our planet great again". He also offered the US President an unsolicited and more basic lesson in how to manage this "dangerous world", as Mr Macron put it.

In Europe, the jibes earned both leaders plaudits. Dr Merkel was praised for her alleged "realism" in publicly acknowledging Europe's loss of America's support and protection, while Mr Macron's English language comments went viral on the Internet.

Still, the Europeans' newly acquired hobby of dismissing their relationship with the US in apocalyptic terms is not clever politics, for it risks becoming a self-fulfilling prophecy.


ST ILLUSTRATION: MANNY FRANCISCO

And, it will do little to improve Europe's capabilities to either defend the continent, or halt its relative decline on the global stage.

There is little doubt that Mr Trump's behaviour is sorely testing the transatlantic relationship.

Mr Trump was the only presidential candidate representing a mainstream American political party since World War II to have publicly characterised the Nato alliance, which binds Europe to the US, as "obsolete". He is also the first US president since the 1960s to view the danger of a European Union disintegration as a potential benefit to the US. All his predecessors supported more, rather than less, European integration.

Since he entered the Oval Office, Mr Trump has clawed back some of his rash electoral pronouncements.

He also surrounded himself with some capable security and foreign policy heavy hitters, people who are now collectively referred to in global diplomatic circles as the "grown-ups" in Washington.

But the President continues to find himself unable to resist expressing his often boorish disdain about Europe.

He refused point-blank to reiterate, in public, America's commitment to come to the aid of any Nato member-state that may be under attack, despite the fact that he was given plenty of opportunity to do so during this latest European trip.

He treated Dr Merkel rudely, and he keeps on castigating the Germans as "bad, very bad" for being successful in their industrial exports to the US.

Besides, everything Mr Trump stands for, from his attitude to women and climate change to his hairstyle, permanent tan and ostentatious display of wealth, embodies the epitome of what the Europeans - or, at least their political elite - hate. So, the groaning from Europe is both predictable and understandable.

PROTESTING TOO LOUDLY IS A MISTAKE

Still, by throwing up their hands in horror and by proclaiming in public the imminent demise of their transatlantic relationship, the Europeans are engaging in a dangerous game.

To start with, the unremitting criticism of the Trump administration threatens to bring into the open a massive tidal wave of anti-Americanism that has always bubbled below the surface in Europe. Some of this European resentment of the US is born out of envy at an American continent that draws its cultural and political roots from Europe but has outpaced the European continent in every field for over a century, while other strands of anti-Americanism stem from Europe's own sense of superiority.

Be that as it may, every successive generation of European leaders accepted that it was its duty to keep this resentment within acceptable bounds.

That didn't mean that the policy choices that the US made were beyond criticism, but, it did mean that most of the "dirty linen" in transatlantic relations were not washed in public, and that European leaders never questioned the enduring nature of America's commitment, even if they privately entertained doubts on that topic.

That was the case during the Vietnam War when US embassies throughout Europe were besieged by demonstrators; during the 1970s, when the US initiated a policy of dialogue with the Russians that the Europeans feared was conducted at their expense; during the 1980s, when the Europeans dismissed former US president Ronald Reagan as a reckless Cold Warrior who may well unleash a very hot war; and, more recently, when another former US president, Mr George W. Bush, went to war against Iraq.

On every single one of these occasions, commentators proclaimed the transatlantic alliance as "over", but European politicians refused to accept this narrative, and were proven right.

By breaking this taboo now, Europe's leaders risk unleashing forces they cannot control.

Dr Merkel's public expressions of doubt about the future of the Atlantic alliance may have won the German Chancellor some support in her ongoing re-election campaign, but it has allowed Germany's opposition Social Democrats to elevate anti-Americanism to a key plank in the country's general election.

Dr Merkel's claim that Europe has no choice but to increase its integration because the US is fading away also reinforces the false impression that EU integration should somehow be seen as a substitute to the US when, in fact, it is a complementary act to the US and was seen as such on both sides of the Atlantic.

And, the ease by which European leaders are now adopting the anti-Trump language will hamper their future room for manoeuvre.

Politicians in many European capitals are now merely copying the "Oh my Gawd, I can't believe what the President has just done today" tone which is now the norm in most US media outlets, and which merely obscures rational debate.

NO ALTERNATIVE TO THE US

Furthermore, it is a fallacy to believe that, by pronouncing their alliance with the US as either dead or moribund, Europeans will seize the moment to create a more powerful union.

There is no evidence that the serious problems of managing the euro currency, or incentivising EU economic growth will somehow be resolved as a result of declaring an open spat with the US.

Nor is there any evidence that Europeans will be prepared to spend more money on their military if they are told that the Americans won't defend their continent.

The reality is that no effort, which the Europeans are either able or willing to expand in the foreseeable future, can replace the military might and power-projection advantages that the US offers.

Nor are the Europeans in agreement on what they are seeking to defend. For some, the threat is Russia while, for others, it stems from uncontrolled immigration from Africa.

There isn't even an agreement on whether military force should be a central instrument in Europe's security arrangement.

The role of the US has never been just about protecting Europe, but also about acting as an arbiter of these differing European views, a job that no European power can now perform.

So, although the Europeans may believe that the US is retreating from shouldering its global obligations, that does not mean that the EU is now capable of filling America's shoes.

And, although it is now fashionable to claim that Europe no longer shares the values of today's US government, it is odd to say in the same breath - as European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker recently put it- that, as a consequence, the EU should get closer to China, a country that shares not only even fewer political values with Europe, but actually negates the validity of many principles the Europeans hold dear.

None of this means that Europeans should tolerate any move by the Trump administration, or should refrain from criticising Washington. Nor is there much evidence that sidling up to the US by flattering Mr Trump and his associates - as British Prime Minister Theresa May is now doing - produces any better results.

Still, Europe's real objective must be to shield, as much as possible, its ties with the US, for as long as possible, to insulate its strategic and economic links with the US for the duration of the Trump presidency to ensure that much of these survive after Mr Trump leaves the White House.

And that often means keeping quiet even when speaking up may prove irresistibly popular with European electorates.

Not because principles don't matter, but because Europe's long-term strategic interests matter even more.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on June 05, 2017, with the headline 'Perils of publicly washing transatlantic dirty linen'. Print Edition | Subscribe