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How frayed transatlantic ties could impact global landscape

German chancellor Angela Merkel speaks with President Donald Trump during the G7 summit in Italy on May 26, 2017. Photo by: Guido Bergmann/picture-alliance/dpa/AP Images
As part of his first foreign trip, President Donald Trump refused to endorse NATO’s doctrine of collective defense at a meeting in Belgium and then declined to support the Paris climate accord at the G7 summit in Italy.

In response, German Chancellor Angela Merkel questioned the strength of the world’s transatlantic ties, suggesting that her country’s relationship with the U.S. has shifted. “All I can say is that we Europeans must really take our destiny into our own hands,” she said at a campaign rally on Sunday. “The times in which we can fully count on others are somewhat over, as I have experienced in the past few days.”

We asked European politics expert Mai’a Cross, the Edward W. Brooke Professor of Political Science at Northeastern, to discuss the potential impact of Germany’s deepening rift with the U.S.

First and foremost, how might a significant division between the U.S. and Germany impact the global political landscape?

It certainly signals a growing transatlantic divide. German Chancellor Angela Merkel is one of many key leaders in Europe, and when she speaks about the problems with Trump’s foreign policy, she is expressing the sentiment of many European leaders. When the Europe-U.S. relationship is weak, this undermines the fabric of the post-WWII liberal international order, based on international institutions, the rule of law, human rights, democracy, the use of force as a last resort, and so on.

Many other countries—China and Russia chief among them—would like to see an international order based on different norms and values than the ones the West has supported. These countries are more concerned with national sovereignty, military power, and self-interest than finding ways to cooperate and work together to promote development, stability, and peace.

The question is how much could the current transatlantic rift potentially undermine the liberal world order? That mainly depends on Trump. So far, his foreign policy rhetoric and actions have served more to empower authoritarian countries like China and Russia, than to support long-standing allies like Europe. His statements about NATO and the EU have betrayed either a strong disregard for these cooperative arrangements, or profound ignorance about their history and purpose.

What would Europeans do differently if they did take destiny into their own hands?

The immediate impact of Trump’s foreign policy, including his recent trip overseas, is to bring Europeans closer together in their own foreign policy goals. Clearly, they are no strangers at working together in their external relations because most European countries are in the European Union, and nearly every area of foreign policy is coordinated through EU institutions. Trade, development, humanitarian aid, and climate change, among many other issues, are the EU’s prerogative.

Newer areas of EU policy, such as the Common Security and Defense Policy, are subject to close cooperation, and this is where Europeans are taking actions to become more united in their approach. It is not that they would do things differently from what they have done in the past. Their main foreign policy goals are very clear, especially as outlined in the 2016 Global Strategy.

EU countries have unswervingly stood up for the very goals the U.S. has shared with them since the end of WWII: creating peace and stability around the world, protecting human rights, strengthening multilateralism, supporting democracy and development, and so on. It is U.S. divergence from these goals that has given Europeans new impetus to speak with one voice and act together as much as possible.

President Trump criticized Germany’s trade policies on Tuesday, tweeting “We have a massive trade deficit with Germany, plus they pay far less than they should on NATO & military. Very bad for U.S. This will change.” Is he right? Are Germany’s trade practices hurting the U.S.?

First and foremost, one thing that Trump seems unable to grasp is that the U.S. cannot sign trade deals with individual EU member states (indeed, Merkel repeatedly informed him of this, but to no avail). Germany’s trade is predicated upon the rules surrounding EU trade—it’s a common market. And while it is true that Germany and the U.S. trade a lot with one another, and that Germany exports more to the U.S. than vice versa, the trade relationship is extremely beneficial to the U.S.

Germany is a major source of foreign direct investment into the U.S. ($255.5 billion in 2015). And German companies provide nearly 700,000 jobs for U.S. workers (almost half in manufacturing) as the third-largest foreign employer in the U.S. Moreover, German imports into the U.S. only account for around 14 percent of the U.S.’s overall global trade deficit (around $500 billion in 2016).

The U.S.’s trade deficit with China is by far the largest. Moreover, the connection Trump made between German trade and NATO did not go over well in Europe. Europeans, including Germany, have made clear their plan of increasing defense spending to meet the 2 percent guidelines. And for Trump to chastise the Europeans for this while not even reaffirming Article 5 was not keeping with the spirit of the alliance, not to mention diplomacy.

Russia has long sought to divide the U.S. and Germany. How might the Kremlin capitalize on the fraying relations between the two countries?

Again, it is important to remember that this is about more than the German-U.S. relationship. German identity and politics are fundamentally about Germany’s place in Europe and the EU. Russia has not only wanted to divide the U.S. and Germany, but to divide European countries from each other and fragment the West in general. A transatlantic divide certainly plays into the hands of Putin. He will likely continue his strategy of interfering in western elections and influencing public opinion. All of these countries, including the U.S., are weaker when they are not together, and working in support of the international order that countries like Russia don’t necessarily support.

A recent poll showed that Germans now find the U.S. as trustworthy as Russia. What steps could President Trump take to rebuild the German relationship—or is the damage too catastrophic to recover from?

The transatlantic relationship has been one of the strongest and longest standing partnerships in the international system over the past 70 years. It is not something that can be permanently destroyed because of a few statements or a handful of contentious summits. During George W. Bush’s presidency, there was also a pretty serious transatlantic divide, especially after the 2003 Iraq invasion, and it was immediately repaired with the election of Barack Obama.

Short of a change of leadership in the U.S., Trump could start to rebuild his relationship with Germany and Europe through a foreign policy stance that respects the importance of this long-standing alliance. It is probably too much to expect for Trump to re-align with the policy priorities that both sides of the Atlantic have shared over the past few years, especially the Paris climate accord, but if he would at least stop trying to undermine the institutions that are core to European foreign policy—the EU, NATO, and the U.N.—that would go a long way in preventing the transatlantic relationship from worsening. Europeans understand that the U.S. is more than Trump, and that leaders come and go.