Donald Trump’s Message Received: Germany’s Merkel Says Europe Should Stand On Own

This article appeared on Forbes on May 30, 2017.
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Pearls were clutched across Washington after German Chancellor Angela Merkel declared that it is time to “really take our fate into our own hands.” Washington Post columnist Anne Applebaum, one of many horrified observers, complained that U.S. influence “is at its rockiest in recent memory” while the German-U.S. relationship “just hit new lows.”

Really? So what?

Sure, it’s better to be on good terms with other nations than not. But the Europeans wouldn’t have noticed President Donald Trump’s occasionally boorish behavior if they really feared Vladimir Putin was plotting a Russian version of the Blitzkrieg. In fact, their incessant whining for U.S. support is unseemly; no wonder President Trump’s disdainful, even contemptuous, attitude cuts so deep.

The most obvious victim, if that’s the right word after the president’s infamous push, was Montenegrin Prime Minister Dusko Markovic, who shouldn’t even have been in Brussels. Montenegro possesses a military numbering all of 2000 men, yet was invited to join the transatlantic alliance. Washington again is adding a defense commitment without gaining any security benefit in return. But President Trump couldn’t complain since his administration agreed to Podgorica’s accession to NATO. Markovic is likely to find U.S. patronage useful for a micro‐​state most notable for its corruption and shooting locale for the Bond movie Casino Royale.

What is Germany’s complaint? The Federal Republic possesses Europe’s largest economy and makes much of its money through international commerce. Berlin has achieved disproportionate influence in the European Union and possesses the continent’s greatest military potential. Yet after promising to hike military outlays, this year Germany devotes all of 1.22 percent of GDP to its armed forces. At least that’s up from 1.19 percent in 2016.

Of course, Germany’s military spending is up to the German people. Berlin could disarm if that’s what they want. But then the country shouldn’t ask the U.S. for support. Berlin certainly shouldn’t expect Washington to waste money and risk lives defending Germany if the latter won’t do so for itself.

What was President Trump’s real offense? He didn’t slobber all over the Europeans, seeking to “reassure” them, as his predecessors routinely did. He didn’t coddle them, offering hugs if they felt unappreciated. And he didn’t ostentatiously reaffirm the Article 5 commitment, which theoretically requires America to fight a nuclear war with Russia if the latter attempts to conquer the Baltic States, which are important for the security of neither America nor the rest of Europe.

Instead, he told the Europeans to pay up! Most don’t meet the NATO two percent of GDP objective. Most, like Germany, don’t come anywhere close. Of the four (besides the U.S.) which do, Poland and the United Kingdom used statistical tricks to get over the line, while Greece aimed most of its guns at fellow NATO member Turkey (which was aiming back).

In 2014 the allies promised to hit two percent by 2024, but no one expects Germany to almost double its military outlays by then. Nor will the other alliance laggards. In fact, they don’t face any threats requiring that kind of expenditure. Vladimir Putin may be evil, but he’s not stupid. And he’s certainly not suicidal. He won’t be attempting to conquer Europe. And beyond Russia there’s no there there, as once was said of Oakland, in terms of threats. Everything from cyber‐​crime to refugees to Third World civil wars could be handled outside of a military alliance created to contain the long‐​defunct Soviet Union.

But the German chancellor obviously was not pleased with what she had heard. “The times in which we could rely fully on others—they are somewhat over,” said Merkel: “This is what I experienced in the last few days.” Indeed, “We have to know that we must fight for our future on our own, for our destiny as Europeans.”

Americans should wish her good luck. Just as she advocated doing so “of course in friendship with the United States of America,” so too should the U.S. act in friendship with Germany and the other European nations. Revamping or even abandoning an obsolete military alliance doesn’t prevent close economic, cultural, and political ties, as well as military cooperation on issues of shared interest.

Instead of the U.S. and Europe dragging each other into each other’s stupid, unnecessary wars—nation-building in Afghanistan by Washington, Libya’s messy civil war by London and Paris, in particular—the two sides of the Atlantic should join where the conflict is of mutual interest. That should mean staying out of Middle East wars. No wonder the Europeans so far have resisted the Trump administration’s entreaties to take a more active role fighting the Islamic State.

Still, Applebaum is not the only observer reeling from President Trump’s refusal to cater to European sensitivities. Ivo Daalder of the Chicago Council on Global Affairs wailed that “this seems to be the end of an era, one in which the United States led and Europe followed.” Neoconservative guru Bill Kristol said the president’s failures are “also America’s failure, and damage America.”

Stephen Bierling of the University of Regensburg complained that “The belief in shared values has been shattered by the Trump administration.” The Eurasia Group’s Cliff Kupchan warned that “Trump is creating the biggest transatlantic rift since the Iraq War, perhaps even since WWII.” (Actually, the alliance wasn’t formed until 1949.)

If only these fearful pundits were right. If only the Europeans were prepared to go on their own way militarily.

Today the EU nations have a comparable economy and larger population than America. Europe’s advantages are far greater compared to Russia. The Europeans even spend nearly four times as much on the military as does Moscow. It hardly seems unreasonable to come up with a new division of military responsibilities.

As today, Americans would pay to protect America. Unlike today, Europeans would take over the job of protecting Europe. Wars which primarily concern one or the other would be paid for by the interested party (Afghanistan, Iraq, Grenada, and Panama go to the U.S., while Europe gets Bosnia, Kosovo, and Libya). Issues of shared interest, perhaps transnational terrorism and navigational freedom, would be handled cooperatively.

It’s certainly not a case of inadequate resources for the Europeans. But change won’t occur until Americans stop insisting on protecting their cousins across the Pond. And most everyone everywhere else, including in Asia and the Middle East. While President Trump hasn’t moved to end Washington’s defense dole, at least some Europeans apparently believe that he might. And that’s helpful.

For years America’s foreign policy has been the international equivalent of what has ever been must ever be. But the world has changed. And the U.S. is functionally bankrupt. Deficits are again headed toward $1 trillion annually, and the numbers will grow far worse as the Baby‐​Boomers continue to retire. The U.S. can’t afford to forever police the world and cater to its rich friends.

President Trump would change the international order for good if he lives up to Angela Merkel’s fears. She’s apparently ready to take Germany’s and Europe’s fates into her hands. President Trump should encourage her to follow through and fulfill her promise.

Doug Bandow

Doug Bandow is a Senior Fellow at the Cato Institute. He was a former Special Assistant to President Ronald Reagan, and is a Senior Fellow in International Religious Persecution with the Institute on Religion and Public Policy.