European allies alarmed over political turmoil in the US

BRUSSELS • Washington's closest allies in Europe are increasingly worried that rising political chaos in the United States is undermining the strength of the most powerful nation in the world.

In conversations with more than two dozen current and former European ministers, lawmakers, diplomats, intelligence officials and military officers in recent days, there was a common theme: After nearly four months of President Donald Trump's administration, many fear that mounting domestic scandals could sap Washington's ability to respond to challenges ranging from Russia to terrorism to North Korea.

And one senior European intelligence officer said if his agency ever came into possession of information that was incriminating to Mr Trump or his circle, it would hold back from sharing with the US for fear that the President would seek revenge.

The officials paint a continent on edge as Mr Trump embarked on his first foreign trip as President, a nine-day voyage that in Europe includes a visit to Nato in Brussels, an audience with the Pope and meetings with European leaders.

With the White House under siege, some officials said they were still searching for ways to work with Mr Trump, even as they were deeply concerned about the future.

"It is disturbing," said Ms Marietje Schaake, a Dutch member of the European Parliament who works on US affairs. "The vacuum may encourage people all over the world to seize the moment of an absent United States." She pointed to political turmoil in the western Balkans and Syrian President Bashar al-Assad's use of chemical weapons in Syria as examples.

LEFT VULNERABLE

It is disturbing. The vacuum may encourage people all over the world to seize the moment of an absent United States.

MS MARIETJE SCHAAKE, a Dutch member of the European Parliament who works on US affairs, on the White House under siege.

Many officials spoke on condition of anonymity because they were worried about jeopardising their standing with an unpredictable US President who, they say, may be quick to lash out at their nations if he is criticised.

Mixed with the worry is a thread of relief: Many of Mr Trump's most radical foreign policy promises during the campaign have been toned down now that he is in the White House. He has reversed himself on Nato, which he called "obsolete" shortly before his inauguration.

His Defence Secretary Jim Mattis and National Security Adviser H.R. McMaster are both respected here.

Even his criticism of the 28-nation European Union has been toned down "for a few weeks", one senior EU official said.

And few said they were worried about a decline of US democratic institutions, at least not yet.

"I have faith in the US," said Danish lawmaker Michael Aastrup Jensen, who is the foreign policy spokesman for Denmark's ruling centre-right Liberal Party. "I know a lot of moderate senators and congressmen. They will do whatever they can to keep the US system we believe strongly in, in li`ne."

While many officials say Mr Trump's first months in office have been calmer for international security than they expected, they have also watched the swirling dramas in Washington with growing concern.

"If you are only fighting about tweets, if you don't have time to follow what is happening in the world, that is really disturbing," one European minister said.

WASHINGTON POST

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on May 20, 2017, with the headline 'European allies alarmed over political turmoil in the US'. Print Edition | Subscribe