America’s closest European allies know this much: They’re furious at President Donald Trump for withdrawing from the nuclear deal that his predecessor struck with Iran. But they have no idea what to do about it. Or, more accurately, they’re not sure they can do anything about it.
Britain, France, and Germany “are near-bursting with anger and exasperation at the United States,” The Washington Post reported on Monday, describing “a frenzy of meetings and phone calls among them over the past week” about the withdrawal and whether Trump will—as national security advisor John Bolton suggested—sanction European companies that don’t cut business ties with Iran. But these allies’ options are limited. “They can retreat in sullen bitterness, as one European official put it, but they realize that would accomplish little,” the Post reported. They can also try to preserve the Iran deal without the U.S., but “have not yet decided how far they are willing to go in antagonizing Trump.” Which is to say, Europe isn’t likely to respond to Trump’s latest decision with the “active resistance” that some pundits have called for.
Such indecision—some might call it helplessness—has come to define Europe’s reaction to Trump, despite its leaders’ claims of standing up to him. “Europe is taking more responsibility in turbulent times,” European Council President Donald Tusk insisted last June as they prepared to face Trump at the G20 summit in Hamburg. “We will speak with one voice.” But with one Trump decision after another—withdrawing from the Paris climate agreement, moving the U.S. embassy in Israel from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem, refusing to criticize Israel for killing protesters in Gaza—that is all Europe has done: spoken. It is a rhetorical resistance, at best. While nations like North Korea and China take advantage of Trumpian chaos to improve their position in the international order, Europe remains paralyzed.
That’s partly because Europe is wedded to the pre-Trump international order: an American creation that was dependent upon American power, and which is now being undermined by its own creator. NATO was spearheaded by the U.S., and the European Union was nurtured by American encouragement from Eisenhower to Obama. The creation of an international order built on trade, girded by institutions like the World Trade Organization and the World Bank, was an America project that Europe came to embrace. Now America is led by a protectionist president who has little regard for either NATO or the EU.
Europe flourished under American leadership, so it isn’t prepared for the harder path of going it alone. As America took on the role of the world’s democratic superpower, Europe spent less money on the military, preferring social spending instead. “Americans are from Mars,” the foreign policy analyst Robert Kagan declared in 2002, “and Europeans are from Venus.” He meant that Europeans preferred multilateral diplomatic solutions while the U.S. preferred displays of raw force. This inevitably made Europe subservient. “Even today Europe’s rejection of power politics ultimately depends on America’s willingness to use force around the world against those who still do believe in power politics,” Kagan argued.
Kagan’s dichotomy was a bit too extreme. France have shown themselves more than willing to exercise power in interventions in African countries like Mali. But the core argument remains true: Europe doesn’t have the military muscle to be either a rival or alternative to the U.S. The strongest European power, Germany, has an especially deep aversion to deploying military force abroad, for obvious historical reasons. Despite prodding from the U.S., Germany’s military spending is likely to remain below the NATO member pledge of 2 percent of GDP:
America’s extraordinary strength comes not just from its military, but its economy. The U.S. dollar is the world’s default currency, and much of the planet’s financial transactions go through American internet networks (such as the SWIFT financial messaging service). Thus, the U.S. wields unparalleled power to impose devastating sanctions. The Trump administration’s threat to use that economic clout against Europe caused France’s financial minister Bruno LeMaire to grumble, “The international reach of U.S. sanctions makes the U.S. the economic policeman of the planet, and that is not acceptable.”
China, it seems, has found a way to appease the economic policeman. Chinese telecommunications giant ZTE was facing collapse after being fined and sanctioned by the U.S. for selling equipment to Iran and North Korea. But Trump appears ready to go easy on the company. On Sunday, he tweeted:
The following day, in explaining the U.S. shift on ZTE, Trump tweeted that the company “buys a big percentage of individual parts from U.S. companies. This is also reflective of the larger trade deal we are negotiating with China and my personal relationship with President Xi.” But some outside observers took a more cynical view, noting that Trump’s announcement came just days after the Chinese government loaned $500 million to a Trump Organization–connected project in Indonesia.
This potential quid pro quo with China “could have important implications for Europe’s response to Trump’s reimposition of Iran sanctions,” political scientists Henry Farrell and Abraham Newman argued in The Washington Post, as European leaders “may believe that they have the opportunity to push back more decisively against a U.S. sanctions regime that appears far more open to negotiation and political tit-for-tat than it did 24 hours ago.” In concert with other powers, Europe might try to create alternative systems of international financial exchange, so as not to be victimized by American unpredictability.
But there are limits to what Europe can achieve. The European Union is too weak and its countries are too divided to act in concert, as they would have to do to wield power over Trump. The United Kingdom is in the process of leaving the EU and Italy has elected a populist government hostile to the European policy on many fronts, as are the governments of Poland and Hungary.
The powers that have achieved foreign policy victories in the Trump era are authoritarian regimes with specific goals. China may have gotten Trump to exempt ZTE from further punishment. (Trump appeared to backtrack slightly on Wednesday.) Saudi Arabia also has a transactional relationship with Trump: The Saudis spend tens of billions on American arms, and Trump supports the oil-rich kingdom’s aggression against regional rivals like Qatar and Iran. Russia has flourished as a regional power, and Trump’s pursuit of friendlier relations with President Vladimir Putin has been a major stumbling block to any concerted Western response. North Korea has won an unprecedented degree of normalization, with Trump even praising Kim Jong Un for being “excellent” to U.S. captives. Israel, by no means an authoritarian regime but certainly a hawkish one, has also achieved major goals, such as the embassy move. (And there might be a quid pro quo here, too: Republican donor Sheldon Adelson is a major advocate of the Jerusalem embassy.)
Tusk argues that Europe should see Trump’s erratic foreign policy as an opportunity to develop an independent stance. “[F]rankly speaking, Europe should be grateful to President Trump,” he said. “Because thanks to him we have got rid of all illusions. He has made us realize that if you need a helping hand, you will find one at the end of your arm. Europe must do everything in its power to protect, in spite of today’s mood, the transatlantic bond. But at the same time we must be prepared for those scenarios, where we will have to act on our own.”
Tusk’s own words, in reaffirming the need to protect “the transatlantic bond,” reveal the fundamental ambivalence of the European position on Trump. Europe doesn’t seem prepared at all to act on its own, at least not against Trump. And rather having a specific agenda with the U.S., as China and others have done, Europe has pursued the more abstract goal of preserving the international order that America created. But that’s the one goal Trump won’t budge on, because it goes against Trump’s fundamental instincts. He might be a weathervane on specific policies, but the thrust of his Weltpolitik is clear: everything is about bilateral dealmaking, not securing multilateral institutions.
Nostalgic for the old order, and unable to work with the new reality, Europe is likely to remain paralyzed. Their only policy is to hope that Trump leaves office.