The foreign policy world is atwitter about German Chancellor Angela Merkel saying Sunday, in the wake of President Donald Trump's diplomatically discordant first visit with America's European allies, that "The times in which we could completely rely on others are over to a certain extent. That is what I experienced in the last few days….That is why I can only say: We Europeans must really take our fate into our own hands."
Edward Snowden called Merkel's statement "an era-defining moment." David Frum deemed it a "catastrophe for U.S.-Europe relations." Foreign policy establishment lifer Richard Haass, in consecutive tweets, laid bare an underexplored tension at the heart of the very trans-Atlantic project he seeks to defend. "Merkel saying Europe cannot rely on others & needs to take matters into its own hands is a watershed-& what US has sought to avoid since WW2," Haas wrote. Yet also, "Would be ironic if one result of pro-Brexit, anti-European Trump foreign policy would be emergence of a stronger EU. Seems to be happening."
Funny how that works.
The day after this era-defining, catastrophic watershed, new French President and sudden Atlanticist heartthrob Emmanuel Macron, not content to rest on the laurels of his Trump-dissing handshake and Merkel-favoring head-fake, called out malicious Russian propaganda (and more besides) while standing right next to Vladimir Putin:
New Republic tweetstormer Jeet Heer described it all as "the moment when Germany, joined by France, decided to fully take on the mantle of European leadership." To which one might archly add, sounds like a win-win!
This being high-profile, head-to-head diplomacy, and Trump being a prior antagonist of Merkel ("What she's done in Germany is insane"), NATO ("obsolete"), the European Union ("basically a vehicle for Germany"), Brussels ("a hellhole"), and the "global power structure" ("meets in secret with international banks to plot the destruction of U.S. sovereignty"), coverage has understandably focused on the style and substance of the president's performance, rather than on the effects that it helped produce, intentionally or not. But it might be worth holding up the two strands separately.
First, yes, Trump did beclown himself on more than one occasion during the past week. For instance, this morning:
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
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) May 30, 2017
Bitching about trade deficits is one of lower forms of dull-witted mercantilism, no matter how popular the line of argument is now in both major political parties. And Trump's notion that, as he tweeted in March, "Germany owes vast sums of money to NATO & the United States must be paid more for the powerful, and very expensive, defense it provides to Germany," is at best a very inaccurate way (nobody "owes" any money to anybody in NATO; not in this sense) to make the plausible Transitive Property argument that Germany underspending on defense impels America to spend more than it otherwise would.
But let's imagine that instead of coming on all blustery and EU-skeptical, Trump had couched his cup-rattling as more of a plea to have the other alliance members pay their "full share," in the name of a more robust European integration. Well, that's exactly—and I mean exactly—what Trump's predecessor did, all of 13 months ago:
Barack Obama has accused Europe of being "complacent" about defence by failing to meet the Nato two per cent spending target.
It came as he delivered a passionate plea for the European Union to hold together, saying it is one of the "greatest political and economic achievements of modern times". […]
Mr Obama warned that states are failing to pay their "full share" of spending two per cent of GDP on the military. "I'll be honest, sometimes Europe has been complacent about its own defence," he said.
Search your feelings: Whose approach, Obama's or Trump's, is more likely to result in NATO members ponying up more for their collective defense? (And yes, it was under Obama that the 2 percent target become more than just a purely rhetorical goal.)
I will not here contend that Trump's European vacation was some kind of Bob Corkerian demonstration of "near perfection." Regardless of whether you believe NATO should exist (I am that lonely libertarian who does), it does, and as such the other partners in this alliance were vocally anxious to hear assurances that the new anti-multilaterialist president still believes in the foundational commitment to collective defense. Trump pointedly refused to do so. And just one year after complaining that "We've had a president who dislikes our friends and bows to our enemies," Trump tilted his head downward to receive a medal from the king of Saudi Arabia, then days later upbraided our closest allies for not being "fair to the people and taxpayers of the United States," in a speech during which he praised Saudi King Salman as "a wise man who wants to see things get much better rapidly."
But if Trump proves to be the U.S. president who successfully encourages the European members of a mostly European alliance to take a leading role in the defense and foreign policy considerations along the borders of Europe, those ends should be considered a success, even if the means smell weird. Too much responsibility for global affairs has accrued in Washington over the years, leading to the corruptions of both domestic power and international powerlessness. It has been far too easy for the common Parisian to lay blame for the world's ills on the doorstep of the one country that will act when all others choose not to. And for all of Russia's meddling beyond its borders, the bulk of it has been in its own Near Abroad, and/or on the continent of Europe. I for one am heartened to see a Frenchman at the front of that dispute.