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Unquiet on the Western Front: Why the 74-Year Alliance Between Europe and America Is Falling Apart

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When German Foreign Minister Heiko Maas suggested during a June 15 video conference between 28 European Union diplomats and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo that the U.S. and Europe push Israel and the Palestinians to revive peace talks, Pompeo was diplomatic, refusing to accept or reject the proposal.

The same was true of nearly every other item on the 90-minute call’s agenda, according to U.S. and European officials familiar with the session, who said the disappointing meeting was symptomatic of the steady erosion of the 74-year-old transatlantic alliance since President Donald Trump came to office. Since the end of World War II, the U.S. and its European allies have been united in their commitment to cooperation and democracy, despite repeated dustups. Now, in less than four years of Trump’s America First foreign policy, the allies have become divided on issues that require an urgent and unified response, ranging from China and coronavirus to the Middle East, arms control, and trade. “The EU-U.S. relationship doesn’t exist anymore,” says Heather Conley of the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington.

Pompeo did nothing to address — much less repair — the damage during the scheduled summit, said the U.S. and European officials, all of whom spoke on the condition of anonymity to avoid, as one American put it, “making a bad situation worse.” According to one European diplomat, Pompeo “mailed it in, and the return address was the White House.”

Indeed, it was Trump who set the tone of the meeting, surprising European allies as the meeting began with his plan to slash the number of U.S. troops in Germany, which the Washington deploys to deter Russia and project force in the Middle East and Africa. Trump said he was making the cut because Germany isn’t paying its fair share of European defense costs.

European defense officials immediately pushed back against the move. German Defense Minister Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer said at a conference in Berlin the next day that the U.S. military presence in her country helped keep the peace in Europe throughout the Cold War and noted that German forces have served alongside Americans in Afghanistan. In an apparent reference to Trump’s repeated complaints that Germany has failed to meet NATO’s defense spending target of 2% of its GDP, she added: “NATO is not a commercial organization, and security is not a commodity.”

But the president’s move was less about Germany’s NATO contributions than retaliating against German Chancellor Angela Merkel for declining a few days earlier to attend this year’s G-7 economic summit that Trump is hosting, two State Department and one defense official said.

“Here we have another example of Trump’s personal animosity and personal proclivities being put in front of U.S. interests,” said Andrea Kendall-Taylor, a former U.S. intelligence analyst and senior fellow at the Center for a New American Security. “The announced troop withdrawal adds yet another source of tension in the relationship, and another way that the U.S. is creating fissures in the Alliance and undermining deterrence against Russia.”

Prior to the U.S.-EU conference, some American and European officials had hoped China’s early mishandling of COVID-19, its “wolf warrior” attempts to bully other countries, and its move to impose a new national security law on Hong Kong would underscore the heightened need for U.S.-European economic, political, and even medical cooperation.

The U.S. and its European allies agree that China poses a threat. “The rise of China is fundamentally shifting the global balance of power, heating up the race for economic and technological supremacy, multiplying the threats to open societies and individual freedoms, and increasing the competition over our values and our way of life,” NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg said in a June 8 speech to a conference hosted by the Atlantic Council and the German Marshall Fund of the United States.

But so far the longtime allies have taken markedly different approaches in trying to win that race. In May, the U.S. declared in a policy statement that 40 years of economic, social and political engagement have failed to prod China into the “citizen-centric, free and open rules-based order” and concluded that confrontation and containment must replace cooperation. The U.S. has made some headway convincing allies that relying on Huawei’s 5G communications infrastructure and other Chinese technology poses security risks. But European nations continue to rely on trade treaties and international organizations such as the World Trade Organization and the World Health Organization – both of which the U.S. has undercut – to try to manage China’s rise and ambitions.

The Europeans scored a victory on June 15, when Beijing dropped a four-year effort to have the WTO declare it a market economy in trade disputes, and the same day the EU announced that it is moving to prevent China from subsidizing exporters and planning a move to make it harder for Chinese firms to take over European companies.

The U.S.-EU video conference did nothing to forge an agreement on how to respond to China, or a host of other issues that require transatlantic unity. While the U.S. has remained silent about Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s plans to annex Palestinian areas in the West Bank, German Foreign Minister Heiko Maas told Israeli officials in Jerusalem that Europe has “serious concerns” about such actions.

European officials also have been rattled by the Trump Administration’s decisions to abandon the Open Skies Treaty, which allowed the U.S. and Russia to conduct surveillance flights over some military installations, and the Intermediate Nuclear Forces treaty with Russia, which limits both nations’ arsenals of ground-launched medium-range missiles, rather than pressuring Moscow to adhere to the agreement.

The only tangible agreement the 90-minute conference produced, multiple officials acknowledged, was what State Department spokesperson Morgan Ortagus called “joint U.S. and EU resolve to uphold Ukraine’s sovereignty and territorial integrity and our insistence that Russia cease its aggressive actions in the Donbas region” of eastern Ukraine.

“Out of the thousand issues that we discuss with the EU on a daily basis, they could only agree on the Donbas (which is a hot mess that no one is paying attention to),” Conley of CSIS noted in an email.

The erosion of transatlantic cooperation could prove costly as new global threats such as the current and future pandemics, climate change, cybercrime, and economic competition multiply. “The challenges that we face over the next decade are greater than any of us can tackle alone,” NATO Secretary General Stoltenberg said on June 8. “Neither Europe alone, nor America alone. So we must resist the temptation of national solutions.”

Correction, August 10

The original version of this story misstated Angela Merkel’s position. She is Germany’s chancellor, not its president.

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