Wait and See: Advice for European Policymakers

Michael John Williams

New York University

Michael John Williams is Clinical Professor of International Relations, Director of the International Relations Program and Affiliate Professor of European Studies & History at New York University. His functional area of research is war studies with a regional focus on the twentieth century Atlantic world. He is particularly interested in comparative civil-military relations amongst NATO allies. His most recent publications include “Brexit and the Future of the US-EU and US-UK Relationships” in International Affairs (May 2016) and Science, Law and Liberalism in the American Way of War: The Quest for Humanity in Conflict (2015). Dr. Williams is a Stephen M. Kellen term member of the Council on Foreign Relations, a Fellow of the Inter-University Seminar on the Armed Forces and Society and an alumnus of the International Summer Policy Institute at American University. He has held a Robert Bosch Fellowship in Germany, a Visiting Fellowship at the Rothermere American Institute at the University of Oxford & Nuffield College and a DAAD Fellowship at the Bundeswehr Center for Military History and Social Science in Potsdam, Germany. Educated at the universities of Delaware, Bayreuth, Hamburg, Bath, Berlin, and Moscow he earned his doctorate at the London School of Economics and Political Science.

He is a 2016-2017 participant in AICGS’ project “A German-American Dialogue of the Next Generation: Global Responsibility, Joint Engagement,” sponsored by the Transatlantik-Programm der Bundesrepublik Deutschland aus Mitteln des European Recovery Program (ERP) des Bundesministeriums für Wirtschaft und Energie (BMWi).

Wait and see. That is the best advice I can give to German and European policymakers regarding the forthcoming presidency of Donald Trump. Trump’s misogynist, xenophobic, Islamophobic, and lie-ridden campaign rhetoric has rightly disgusted many Americans. And his promise to reexamine U.S. alliances around the world has rightly worried U.S. allies. But we have also seen that Donald Trump says, or usually tweets, a lot of poorly considered, populist policy “ideas,” but he seems to have no concern about breaking the promises he makes to his supporters. During the campaign he said he would launch an independent counsel investigation into Hillary Clinton—he recently said that he would not pursue this course of action. He promised to scrap the Affordable Care Act (ACA) on day one in office—but he recently said that he is open to reforming the act and that many of the most popular provisions will stay in place. On the campaign trail Trump said that under his administration the U.S. would torture “terrorist” prisoners for information—but after meeting with retired Marine Corps General Jim Mattis, who told Trump torture does not work, Trump said that he changed his mind and would follow Gen. Mattis’ advice. So when it comes to Trump’s rhetoric on alliances and the U.S. role in the world the best thing Germany and Europe can do is wait and see. But this does not mean that Europe should do nothing.

There are two issues on which European leaders can focus in the coming months and years: EU reform and military reform.

First, the vote in Britain to leave the EU last summer, and discontent with the EU across European electorates, is a sign that EU leaders must seriously reform the organization to account for some of the most valid critiques of the EU. To ignore the message of Brexit and to continue down the same path would be a disaster. Reforming the EU doesn’t require involvement of the Trump administration and if reforms strengthen EU solidarity, it will be a boon for Europe even if the worst of Trump’s foreign policy rhetoric does come to pass. It will also be necessary to reform the EU despite the unknowns of the Brexit process. The EU cannot afford to simply sit and wait while the UK figures out how to actually leave the EU. Elections in Germany and France in 2017 will be two “unofficial” referenda of a sort on the idea of a liberal, unified Europe. The sooner EU leaders engage the public and start a reform process, the better.

Second, for decades now American policymakers have asked, begged, pleaded, and threatened European policymakers to take on more responsibility for the defense of the European continent. Europeans essentially ignored these requests, taking the easy political route of letting the U.S. provide for European security while spending their budgets on the domestic policies favored by their constituents. American policymakers meanwhile reinforced these choices by upping the U.S. contributions to compensate for the lack of European defense spending—the very definition of a failing policy. The U.S. created the defense dependency it regularly bemoans. It is not surprising that Trump attacked America’s NATO allies on the campaign trail—his critique is relatively fair, even if it overlooks the U.S. role in this process. It was only a matter of time before the American public and their elected officials lost patience with Europe. Thus, the time has come for Europe to invest more in defense research & experimentation, research & development, and capability enhancement. If European leaders want to do this smartly, they will recognize the need to work on developing pan-European capabilities that can be used in NATO or in some future EU security pact if NATO collapses under a Trump presidency. But they need to be realistic in the goals—there is no need for a new headquarters or duplication of existing planning structures. Much smaller cooperative efforts at the regional and bilateral levels is the place to start. The German/Dutch Corps and the Weimar Triangle are good examples where progress could be made. A truly integrated and cohesive EU foreign and defense policy will only come at the end of the EU integration process and there is simply no chance that overnight the EU is going to become a security superpower. Thus, the reader should look the the first point above for where the real work needs to occur.

The Germans have a saying, “Nichts wird so heiß gegessen, wie es gekocht wird”—nothing is eaten as hot as it is cooked. While this might be little consolation to those despondent about the election of Donald Trump to the U.S. presidency and the possible implications for U.S. foreign policy, it is pretty much the best hope that things turn out better than his campaign rhetoric portends. In the meantime, Europe should work on reform at home and wait and see if Donald Trump abandons America’s role as the world’s liberal hegemon or if serious minded policymakers prevail and avert catastrophe.

The views expressed are those of the author(s) alone. They do not necessarily reflect the views of the American-German Institute.