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Trump’s European Trip Was a Watershed Moment

A split has emerged between the U.S. and its European allies. And there's probably no going back.

Mandel Ngan/Getty Images

Like a jilted spouse who has finally had enough, Western Europe is going its own way. German Chancellor Angela Merkel announced the split on Sunday, shortly after President Donald Trump concluded an official visit to the continent that created a deep rift in the heart of NATO. “The times when we could fully rely on others are to some extent over—I experienced that in the last few days,” Merkel declared, speaking at a Bavarian beer hall rally. “We Europeans must really take our destiny into our own hands.” At the end of her speech she took a swig from an oversized beer mug, smiling, as if relieved to be done with it.

Merkel was not alone in showing an open hostility toward the United States. Emmanuel Macron, France’s newly elected president, on Monday took a hardline against Russian interference in French politics during a meeting with President Vladimir Putin in Versailles, a marked contrast to Trump’s soft approach to Russia. Macron’s white-knuckled, tug-of-war handshake with Trump went viral last week, and in an interview with the French newspaper Journal du Dimanche he followed it up with what amounted to a slap in the face: “My handshake with him—it wasn’t innocent. It’s not the be-all and the end-all of a policy, but it was a moment of truth.”

Both Merkel and Macron see political upsides in ostentatiously standing up to Trump. But there’s more than political theater involved here. Trump’s trip is likely to be a pivot point in history: the moment when Germany, joined by France, decided to fully take on the mantle of European leadership. There’s every reason to believe that this shift isn’t just a temporary one, with the old alliance returning to normal once Trump leaves office. Rather, Trump’s rhetoric and actions have made European leaders confront long-held doubts about the U.S., forcing conclusions that aren’t likely to soon change.

Trump, for his part, is desperate to convince everyone that his first foreign trip as president was a big win. He tweeted on Sunday:

That same day, a senior White House official made a strident pitch to reporters on Air Force One, saying, “I’ll just implore you all, whether you’re talking about our successes on trade and migration in the G-7 or summit in Saudi Arabia, to tell the story back home about what an unprecedentedly and historically successful trip this was by an incredible leader and an amazing man who has done extraordinary things in a very short time for the country he loves and the people of America that he serves so faithfully.”

But nothing the American press wrote could compare to the open mockery Trump was receiving at the hands of his European counterparts. Here, the leaders of the Nordic countries teased Trump for his much-ridiculed appearance with the leaders of Saudi Arabia, Egypt, and a glowing orb:

Never has Europe’s leadership been so brazenly dismissive of an American president in the post-war era. In the 1960s, even when Charles de Gaulle disagreed with American intervention in Vietnam, he couched his dissent in respectful terms. How has it come to this?

Trump caused this crisis by refusing to directly affirm the collective security oath of Article 5 of NATO’s founding treaty, while berating the other members of NATO for not spending enough on military defense. Trump described Germany as “bad, very bad” for running a trade surplus with the United States. He also refused to join a G-7 statement affirming the importance of international trade and dealing with climate change.

This marked a clear divergence of interests, frustrating European leaders of all kinds. Merkel was not speaking for herself alone, but rather conveying a wider transformation in European attitudes toward a relationship that has long cast Europe as a junior partner in an alliance with the United States. Merkel’s political rivals inside Germany didn’t dispute her calls for a new direction, but rather made her oblique critique of Trump more explicit. Martin Schulz, head of the Social Democrats and the chief rival to Merkel in an upcoming election, condemned Trump, saying, “The chancellor represents all of us at summits like these, and I reject with outrage the way this man takes it upon himself to treat the head of our country’s government.”

But in many respects, Trump’s boorishness is just the last straw. As New York Times columnist Max Fischer observed, the roots of the current breakdown in the trans-Atlantic relationship go back at least as far as the presidency of George W. Bush. “One crucial piece of context getting lost in assessing Trump’s damage to American alliances: the still-healing wounds from GW Bush’s tenure,” Fisher tweeted yesterday. Bush’s unilateral foreign policy, complete with a disdain for the views of “Old Europe,” led to an unnecessary war, the ripple effects of which are still disrupting the Middle East, North Africa, and Europe.

After the election of Barack Obama, with his promise of a return to a multilateralist foreign policy, European leaders hoped for a reset of relations with the U.S. But in Trump, European leaders now see the problems of George W. Bush return—only with greater intensity in some respects. With Trump’s go-it-alone foreign policy, combined with a new era of trade protectionism and climate denial, the United States now looks like a rogue superpower rather than a responsible international leader.

Furthermore, Europeans cannot ignore the fact that the problem goes far beyond Trump. It also encompasses the foreign policy establishment and the Republican Party, both of which have acted as Trump’s enabler. National Security Advisor H.R. McMaster accompanied Trump on his trip and deceptively argued that the president had affirmed Article 5. Tennessee Senator Bob Corker, chair of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, described Trump’s trip as “executed to near perfection.” And as my colleague Brian Beutler pointed out, Republicans in Congress have consistently excused the Trump team’s suspicious coziness with Russia.

Gideon Rachman of The Financial Times has argued that “it is a mistake to allow four months of the Trump presidency to throw into doubt a trans-Atlantic alliance that has kept the peace in Europe for 70 years.” But for Merkel and Macron, the problem with America extends beyond Trump’s coarse manners or their policy disagreements with him. There’s an entire electorate that voted for Bush and then Trump, and that could easily vote in a Trump-like figure in the future. One of America’s two major political parties and elements of the foreign policy elite are also willing to go along with any future Trumpian president.

After Bush, Europe gave America a second chance with Obama. But after Trump, the U.S. would be foolish to expect a third chance. The only responsible option that Europe can take is the one Merkel outlined: to take control of its own destiny apart from America.