Guest Opinions

Alienating our allies is not normal behavior. That's not how friends treat friends.

German Chancellor Angela Merkel speaks with President Donald Trump during the Group of 7 summit meeting in La Malbaie, Quebec, Canada, June 9, 2018. The photo quickly went viral after it was shared on Merkel’s Instagram account.
German Chancellor Angela Merkel speaks with President Donald Trump during the Group of 7 summit meeting in La Malbaie, Quebec, Canada, June 9, 2018. The photo quickly went viral after it was shared on Merkel’s Instagram account. German Federal Government via The New York Times

When the American president met with six foreign leaders at the G-7 last weekend, things did not go well. Before departing the White House, President Donald Trump called for Russia’s return to this gathering of the world’s largest advanced economies; other leaders rejected this idea, given Russia’s continued illegal presence in Ukraine. At the meeting, the group struggled to find common ground on everything from trade to foreign policy. After the president left, he called the Canadian leader “very dishonest and weak” and refused to sign a joint agreement that reaffirmed our shared values. While allies frequently disagree, this behavior is not normal. The American people need to speak up before relations with our closest friends are permanently damaged.

To be sure, the United States and Europe have bickered many times before, most seriously in 2003. The US had imposed 30 percent tariffs on European steel products, arguing imported steel had swamped American markets and hurt domestic producers. We disagreed about the wisdom of U.S. military action in Iraq, with the House of Representatives serving up "freedom fries" in response to French criticism of the war. And our European allies were stunned to learn about new U.S. counter terrorism practices, including water boarding and abuses at Abu Ghraib.

As with many marriages – personal and political – unresolved irritants get rehashed repeatedly. Many of today’s arguments have similar root causes: balance of trade, military burden sharing, and differing approaches to security challenges. Yet what’s happening now is very different and could do lasting damage to the transatlantic relationship.

The 2003 disputes focused on policy differences, particularly American measures taken in response to the 9/11 attacks. But both sides were clear on the other’s views. There were open channels for discussing disagreements. Everyone respected the rules of the game, and no one questioned the institutions or values that served as the foundation of the relationship.

In 2018, the American president is unpredictable and provocative – for no good reason. He has justified steel tariffs on “national security” grounds, a claim that our allies find both insulting and deceitful. He has ripped up a deal that seeks to prevent Iran from obtaining nuclear weapons, but he lacks an alternative plan and has threatened to sanction allies abiding by the agreement they helped shape and still support. He has questioned America’s long-standing commitment to NATO security guarantees, the value of EU integration that rebuilt a continent decimated by wars, and the merits of international free trade. And he spent the weekend insulting our closest friends, with disputes that normally occur behind closed doors spilling onto the public stage. The disastrous end to the G-7 meeting sets the stage for an even worse outcome at the NATO Summit next month.

The question for Americans is does any of this matter? Should we care that Trump is alienating our allies while praising dictators like Kim Jong-un? Republican Sen. John McCain thinks so. In the wake of the unprecedented G-7 spat, McCain tweeted a message to our allies: “bipartisan majorities of Americans remain pro-free trade, pro-globalization & supportive of alliances based on 70 years of shared values. Americans stand with you, even if our president doesn’t.” All Americans, particularly congressional leaders, should repeat this sentiment clearly and repeatedly. We cannot slam friends one day and ask for their help the next.

The world is confronting problems that are too big for any single country – even one as wealthy and powerful as the United States – to solve alone. Rather than spending our time developing common solutions to everything from terrorism to global pandemics, European leaders are now devising an “America strategy” to respond to a temperamental president who fails to listen to reason. We should never forget the United States, like Europe, has always been strongest when working in partnership with its closest allies. We are nearing a dangerous point in our relations when our partners feel they have no choice but to protect their own national interests by countering ours.

Even more disturbingly, the White House’s own analysis of the new steel and aluminum tariffs concludes they will hurt our own economy. Other countries have already retaliated by imposing or threatening their own tariffs on everything from orange juice to pork, which economists say will slow U.S. growth, particularly in the agricultural sector.

The only countries that benefit from this rupture are those who do not share our values. China and Russia have been working to supplant the rules-based order that we established with our European allies in the wake of World War II. What they want more than anything is for Europe and the United States to weaken or abandon that order, which is one of the strongest tools in our shared toolbox. They no doubt cherished the divisions that plagued the G-7 this weekend.

American citizens and leaders must speak out before it is too late. This is not how friends treat friends.

Amanda Sloat is Robert Bosch Senior Fellow at the Brookings Institution. Julie Smith is senior fellow and director of the Transatlantic Security Program at the Center for a New American Security. Both served in the U.S. government with responsibility for Europe policy. Follow them on Twitter: @A_Sloat and @Julie_C_Smith
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