The German Marshall Fund has just published an essay that I wrote in conjunction with a conference convened in Berlin six weeks ago. For a few hours in September, as Donald J. Trump’s poll numbers hovered around parity with Hillary Clinton’s (that is, before they fell and rose again), an array of American and European scholars contemplated Trump’s emergence as the de facto leader of one of the United States’ two major political parties.
What, if anything, did Trump’s rise portend for the future of transatlantic relations?
“Not much,” would be the safe, short and simple answer. After all, quite a number of GOP national security officials have raised the #NeverTrump banner. One group openly doubts that Trump has the “qualifications, the judgment or the temperament” to be president. Others bristle at his claim that U.S. allies are feckless free-riders, and reject his call for making them pay for the protection that they receive under the U.S. security umbrella. Hillary Clinton is even more adamant that NATO and other Cold War-era alliances should never be subject to scrutiny. As she said several years ago, American global leadership, which manifests in such alliances, “is in our DNA.”
In short, if Trump loses next week, it isn’t obvious that his ideas will outlast his unconventional campaign. The reigning transatlantic consensus, in which U.S. taxpayers subsidize European countries that might otherwise be inclined to spend slightly more on defense, will survive, and foreign policy elites in both the Democratic and Republican parties will work hard to ensure that no one like Trump ever emerges to challenge them.
However, as I note in the piece:
The mere possibility that America’s obligation within the NATO alliance might be open to interpretation should…serve as a powerful incentive for European countries to hedge their bets and get serious about developing a credible defense capability, one that is capable of acting without the United States in the lead.
Regardless of whether that occurs, it was probably unwise for Europeans to have relied so much on a U.S. political system over which they had no control. The fact that a bipartisan consensus among U.S. foreign policy elites sustained the transatlantic bargain for decades didn’t mean that that consensus was permanent.
Defenders of the status quo, whether they call it primacy, deep engagement, or simply American leadership, often claim that our dominant position in the world order will never be challenged because the United States is uniquely poised to reassure others. Core classical liberal principles, such as the importance of the rule of law, and governmental transparency and accountability, make Uncle Sam a reliable partner. Checks and balances between competing branches supposedly ensure that no one individual is able to effect dramatic changes in the way that the United States conducts its affairs.