American Solitaire for Europe

A new bombshell, published by The Washington Post, has once again turned the U.S. president into the chief global newsmaker, capable of successfully landing on the front page even as the World Cup is in full swing. The newspaper wrote that during Emmanuel Macron’s April visit to the U.S., Donald Trump suggested he lead France out of the European Union in exchange for favorable terms of cooperation.

Critically, it’s by no means the first time a united Europe has been the target of the U.S. leader’s attack, lest one might write off Trump’s “indecent proposal” as a spontaneous effort to shock. Indeed, the other day the American president called the EU “possibly just as bad [a trade partner] as China,” accusing it of protectionism in agriculture in spite of the incredible sums the U.S. spends on European security through NATO.

It’s obvious that at this point, it’s substantially more than a one-time needling or provocation. But is it appropriate in this regard to speak of the existence of a Trump tactic or strategy with respect to the European Union? Is this perhaps merely a perfectly natural desire on the part of a president still forced to win a place for himself in the global political establishment to snub European politicians – and not only them – by unflatteringly pointing out to them their disproportionate weight class and status? However, regardless of the answer to the question, the state of affairs for the EU might turn out to be difficult. Trump is very popular with the Eurosceptics,* without exception. Because of this, he’s one of the rare politicians who can at the same time effectively influence both the elite and counterelite of Europe.

Nevertheless, Trump’s tactical game is undeniably easy to trace. He has significant domestic political reasons for putting hard-nosed public pressure on Europe in the name of defending American interests. First of all, in the run-up to the midterm elections, it’s a stylistically important and lively demonstration of the president’s consistent and uncompromising assertion of America’s interests, a demonstration directed at American voters. The American economy is on Trump’s side in this situation: there’s undisputed economic growth in the country and unemployment is at its lowest level in many years. The logic of his campaign easily allows this to be presented as a direct and obvious result of the president’s tough policy toward international counterparts.

Second, such pressure makes new room for subsequent communication with Europe. The argument that everything that’s happening is merely a pre-election performance that will end with the election and that everything will go back to normal isn’t going to work. After the vote, the U.S.-Europe conversation will continue from the exact same position that has emerged in the run-up to the vote.

There is a third objective that’s also vitally important to Trump. The fact is that his attacks on the EU significantly weaken, if not crush, the pro-Clinton opposition entrenched there, which managed even upon Barack Obama’s departure to pronounce Angela Merkel the “new leader of the free world,” under whose wings it would be possible, if it came down to it, to sit out Trump’s presidency. Indeed, if Europe continues to be a bulwark of the globalist liberal and even libertarian ideals with which the forces in the U.S. opposing Trump are closely tied, any victory he might achieve wouldn’t be decisive. In this way, his interest is for the European Union to cease being an alternative resource base for his opponents – even ideologically.

At the same time, not everything is limited to American domestic considerations. The problem lies in Europe itself, or rather, in the fact that it will have to undergo significant transformations in the foreseeable future. Today the European Union is both politically and ideologically quite amorphous: decision-making is decentralized and many issues drag on for years. And the once unconditional values upon which the EU is based have today already ceased to be obvious. The invasion by immigrants from North Africa laid bare and aggravated all these weaknesses. The problem of immigrants proved unsolvable conceptually and operationally at the action level of the relevant agencies. The EU’s next move will go in one of two possible directions: either it will centralize and consolidate power, or it will decisively transform into a territorial entity. The strategic question for Trump that arises in this regard is what kind of Europe will correspond not to the situational interests of the U.S. but to its long-term interests.

Here we find ourselves up against one of the key strategies of American policy, laid down in the Constitution by its founding fathers. As is well known, the world of U.S. politics was initially rigidly segmented due to the well-known system of checks and balances. But politics were divided not least of all in order to make the American market indivisible. The “European circumstances,” by which the founding fathers meant Europe’s partition into many small economies, should in no way be repeated in the case of the city on a hill.** And there’s an obvious reason for this, which Alexander Hamilton largely intuitively sensed back then and in our time is formulated by Grigoriev,*** that the purely physical size of the market sets the economy’s level of development. The bigger the market is, the more technologically complex things can be produced and at the same time pay off, while the smaller it is, the lower the technological ceiling of development will be. Let’s put it this way: it’s impossible to build a subway in a rural village. It’s technologically redundant for a village and would never under any circumstances pay off.

It seems that the considerations formulated by the founding fathers inspired Woodrow Wilson in his European policy. As is well known, his ambitions grew in direct proportion to the indebtedness (which accumulated extremely dynamically) of European participants in World War I to the United States. As early as the first year of the war, Wilson modestly dreamed of equal status for the U.S. in strategic relations with the British and German empires. A couple of years later, he spoke only of an alliance with the British empire. And by the end of the war, he was proclaiming any empire whatsoever a “prison of nations,” thereby making a contribution to the postwar disintegration of European empires into dozens of nation states. Indeed, from the point of view of economics, the U.S. thus structurally consolidated its status in Europe as sole hegemon and technological leader.

Today’s situation is quite close to what Wilson confronted then: in a situation where the U.S. needs growth at any price, it needs Europe as a market and not as a competitor, even if an ideologically and historically close one. Hence, in a situation where Europe would have to choose between consolidation and disintegration, the option of consolidation would be, a priori, for today’s Washington, disadvantageous. And in this respect, it seems Trump, for all of his excitement and flamboyancy, is a far more traditional American politician in his European policy – one who actually implements its principles – than one can imagine.

*Editor’s note: Euroscepticism (also known as EU-scepticism) means criticism of the European Union and European integration. It can also mean opposition to and total rejection of the EU.

**Editor’s note: The term “city on a hill” was initially invoked by English-born Puritan leader John Winthrop. The concept became central to the United States’ conception of itself as an exceptional and exemplary nation.

***Editor’s note: The author may be referring to Leonid Grigoriev, a leading Russian statesman and theoretician, and authority on the Russian economy. Grigoriev is a professor and chairman of global economics at the National Research University Higher School of Economics in Russia.

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About Jeffrey Fredrich 199 Articles
Jeffrey studied Russian language at Northwestern University and at the Russian State University for the Humanities. He spent one year in Moscow doing independent research as a Fulbright fellow from 2007 to 2008.

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