All is Not Lost: How a Trump Presidency May Fall Short of European Fears

Brian Veber

Treliant Risk Advisors

Brian Veber is a Senior Analyst with Treliant Risk Advisors.

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).

President-elect Donald Trump remains over a month away from being sworn in as the 45th president of the United States, but concerns over his potential European agenda have already taken hold across many corners of the transatlantic community. Although such fears have been buttressed by domestic European politics, there is reason to believe a Trump presidency will not produce a worst-case scenario for transatlantic relations.

From a political standpoint, the Trump administration will likely be slow in developing ties with its counterparts across European capitals. There are two primary reasons for this approach. The first is that elections in France and Germany in 2017 will almost certainly delay attempts at building ties with both nations. The second reason is that, despite his widespread, pro-Brexit rhetoric during the campaign, Donald Trump will likely refrain from becoming too involved in remaining European elections as he builds his own agenda for his first year in office. Such rhetoric was popular on the campaign trail, but will prove less politically valuable post-election. For populist parties pointing to Trump’s victory as a watershed moment for their own movements, any serious vocal support from now President-elect Trump should not be assumed. A President Trump silent on Europe’s forthcoming elections could benefit pro-EU stances.

The other more obvious European agenda item will focus on security cooperation between Europe and the U.S. Calls for greater European contributions to shared defense spending were being made well before the Trump administration, and they will continue to be made with renewed energy early in his term. Any concerted effort by European nations to bolster defense spending—a move already being made under a new $5 billion defense research plan—will place pressure on Mr. Trump to reduce his threats to remove U.S. assistance to its allies.

Trump’s comments about Putin are undoubtedly cause for concern for a European continent still wary of Russian intentions in the region, and favorable comments on Putin made by some European candidates on the right will bolster any growing fears. However, Mr. Trump has signaled a willingness to place individuals who are more skeptical of Russian cooperation in his cabinet. Greater collaboration with Putin in the Middle East will certainly be sought, but achieving such cooperation will be no simple task between two sides that will remain very wary of one another’s objectives. It is hard to envision a Trump White House casting aside the bulk of European interests in the name of Russia.

Europe will certainly be faced with a President Trump seeking to quickly establish a certain level of assertiveness over his political peers. However, the businessman turned politician will find negotiating with fellow heads of state an entirely different affair, which could dampen any negative impacts on Europe in the near future. Nevertheless, concerns for Europe over a Trump presidency remain, and Europe cannot expect many similarities with the past eight years of an Obama presidency. Europe may, at times, take a backseat in the global Trump agenda. However, with a number of campaign promises already being softened before he has even moved into the White House, there is hope that President-elect Trump will be able to find common ground with European leaders—whoever they may be.

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