As President Trump kicks off a bruising NATO summit, trans-Atlantic relations are said to be in the grip of an unprecedented crisis. On multiple fronts—defense spending, Iran sanctions, trade, and immigration—the United States appears to be on a collision course with its European allies. Running through these disputes is a deeper sense of division inside the West, as Trump questions the cost and wisdom of American troop deployments in places like Germany, criticizes the European Union as a threat to American interests, and seems more enthusiastic about reconciling with an authoritarian Russia than standing in solidarity with democracies like Germany and France.
For their part, multiple European leaders have made clear the unease they feel toward their American counterpart. “With friends like that, who needs enemies,” tweeted European Council President Donald Tusk earlier this spring, subsequently warning of the EU’s need to prepare for “worst case scenarios” in Western unity. German Chancellor Angela Merkel has declared that Europe can no longer rely exclusively on Washington for protection but instead “must take its destiny in its own hands.”
Yet while the Trump administration’s supporters and detractors are both fond of describing its approach to the world as a total break from the past, in reality, periodic crises have been a feature of the trans-Atlantic relationship from nearly its outset. Almost as if by clockwork, a serious breach has tended to flare up between the United States and its European allies every 15 to 20 years going back to the mid-1950s—inspiring fears of a broader, more enduring unraveling of the alliance.
The current crisis, according to this calendar, is happening pretty much on schedule. And in every case so far, the West has bounced back.
Could this time prove different? Perhaps. But there are good reasons to believe that this too shall pass. At the very least, it’s useful to situate the current tempest within the context of past storms that have swept across the Atlantic. The point of reviewing this history isn’t to diminish the seriousness of the present rift or to encourage complacency. But it does offer an important corrective to the doom and despondency about the future of the West—increasingly heard among foreign-policy thinkers on both sides of the Atlantic—as well as the counterproductive amnesia that overlooks just how much we’ve already gotten through together.
The first major breach in postwar trans-Atlantic relations took place in 1956, when Britain and France, together with Israel, attempted to seize control of the Suez Canal from Egypt. Even though it was the height of the Cold War, President Dwight Eisenhower not only vociferously criticized the military gamble by London and Paris, but actually aligned with the Soviet Union at the UN Security Council to demand the removal of their forces. Anticipating a French and British veto, Washington then took its case to the General Assembly, where it again linked up with Moscow to pass an even stronger resolution. Eisenhower went on to impose crippling financial pressure—blocking a British loan petition at the International Monetary Fund and thereby jeopardizing London’s solvency—until Her Majesty’s Government acceded to a ceasefire. The humiliating British and French withdrawal from Egypt took a battering ram to the global standing of America’s two closest European allies and shattered any notion that they retained the capacity for autonomous action. All this transpired, moreover, in the halcyon days of post-war solidarity recalled so nostalgically today.
A decade and a half later, a new set of trans-Atlantic divisions arose as the Vietnam War inspired large-scale protests across Europe. Despite the conflict’s origins in French colonialism in Southeast Asia, now it was Washington that many Europeans saw as an imperialist bully. As a result, NATO allies declined to send forces to what the U.S. insisted was a vital front in the struggle against communism.
At the same time, political developments on the continent began to call into question fundamental assumptions of Western unity. Most alarming for the U.S. was the rise of Willy Brandt in West Germany and his pursuit of normalized relations with the communist bloc. Implicit in Brandt’s so-called Ostpolitik was the danger of a neutral, unified German state emerging in the heart of Europe that could unravel the entire postwar security order. Washington, for its part, toppled one of the economic pillars of that order in 1971 by unilaterally suspending the convertibility of dollars into gold. The move took Europe by such surprise that it quickly became known as the “Nixon Shock;” within two years, it brought an end to the Bretton Woods system of fixed exchange rates.
A decade after that came Ronald Reagan, whose military buildup and messianic rhetoric set off alarm bells across the continent. The trans-Atlantic trouble crested in 1983, when NATO confirmed its deployment of Pershing II nuclear ballistic missiles to West Germany and U.S. cruise missiles to Italy and Britain. Antinuclear protests broke out across Europe, drawing over a million demonstrators in West Germany alone—the largest protest in its postwar history. Domestic opposition put political pressure on leaders like Margaret Thatcher and Helmut Kohl, who supported the missile deployments. A Washington Post analysis at the time warned that the dispute heralded “a qualitative change in Atlantic relationships,” with Europeans seeking greater strategic autonomy from the U.S. than in the past.
Then there was the invasion of Iraq. As debate over a new war against Saddam Hussein heated up in 2002, U.S. relations with France and Germany grew toxic. Inside NATO, Paris and Berlin joined with the Belgians to block planning for the defense of Turkey in case of Iraqi retaliation. Outside the alliance, even more remarkably, the French and Germans partnered with Russia to oppose U.S.-U.K. proposals at the UN Security Council, barnstormed across Africa to rally opposition among non-permanent members of the Council, and warned Central European states that their accession to the EU hung in the balance. German Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder campaigned for reelection on an explicitly antiwar, anti-George W. Bush platform, touting a new “German Way” in foreign policy. Millions of Europeans joined protests against the war, and a poll found that most Europeans believed U.S. global leadership was undesirable.
The sense of American outrage was profound. Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld denounced “old Europe”—meaning France and Germany—contrasting it unfavorably with “new Europe,” meaning formerly communist states like Poland and the Czech Republic that supported the invasion, noting that “the center of gravity is shifting to the east.” By the time U.S. forces began their march to Baghdad, the Bush administration was barely on speaking terms with Paris and Berlin. “Punish France, ignore Germany, and forgive Russia” was the bumper sticker of U.S. policy at the time—revealing a more lenient disposition towards the Kremlin than against two core NATO allies. When Bush was reelected in 2004, predictions became commonplace among European foreign-policy analysts that the trans-Atlantic breach with Washington would now prove irreparable.
Of course no historical antecedent is exact—and it is true that, since World War II at least, the United States has never had a president quite like Donald Trump, with his public questioning of NATO’s basic value and the extent to which it serves U.S. interests. Today, moreover, it is not one big issue like Suez or Iraq that has fractured the West, but a panoply of disagreements and grievances.
Then again, each of the episodes described above were unique in their circumstances too. Today they may look like relatively modest deviations from an overarching story of Western solidarity. But that isn’t how they felt to the people living through them. In fact, during many of these crises, foreign-policy thinkers warned that the disagreements were the product of more than just an unfortunate misalignment of interests or an unlucky combination of leaders with conflicting worldviews. Rather, they insisted, there were structural, tectonic forces at play that threatened a common Western future.
And they often had a point. The Suez crisis, for instance, arose out of a longstanding trans-Atlantic fault line over European imperialism. The fight over the Iraq war a half-century later really did reflect the fact that, especially in the wake of 9/11, Americans and Europeans had different threat perceptions and attitudes about the use of military force.
In every case, though, the crisis receded, and habits of cooperation revived. The idea of the West proved capacious, flexible, and resilient enough to soldier on, despite the diversity and divisions within it.
There is cause to think that this will again prove the case today—and that the current rift may even prove less damaging than previous ones.
First, unlike in 2003, anti-Europe fervor is little shared beyond the Oval Office. There are no “freedom fries” in Capitol Hill cafeterias. Congress appears more concerned about Trump’s distancing from Europe than about the allied conduct that has provoked the president’s fury. Even within the Trump administration’s own senior national-security team, there seems to be a deliberate effort to tamp down trans-Atlantic discord and avert any kind of a battle royale within the alliance. Vice President Mike Pence, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, Secretary of Defense Jim Mattis, and others routinely stress America’s commitment to NATO, hailing the shared interests and values that bind its members together.
Nor do most European leaders seem to be chomping at the bit for a confrontation with the United States. So far, the criticism of Trump has been offered more often in sorrow and bewilderment than in anger. And while it’s possible for domestic political winds to shift in favor of a vigorously anti-American (or at least anti-Trump) approach, the Merkels, Mays, and Macrons of Europe have until now been at pains to manage relations with Washington, rather than blow them up. At least thus far, anti-Americanism of the 2002 Gerhard Schroeder variety hasn’t begun to get traction. And ironically, where populists and nationalists have swept to power in Europe, they have in many cases been favorably inclined towards Trump.
Even more important is the heightened sense of danger posed by a snarling and thuggish Russia. Perhaps had Vladimir Putin not smashed into Ukraine in 2014 or made himself the indispensable enabler of Bashar al-Assad’s atrocities in Syria, he might now present Russia to Trump-wary Europeans as an attractive alternative pole for responsible global leadership. But Moscow forfeited that option when Putin chose Damascus and the Donbass over Berlin and Brussels—a choice that may prove as tactically adept as it was strategically misguided for Russia.
Nor is a U.S.-Russia strategic condominium in the cards—regardless of the rhetoric that emerges out of Trump’s coming meeting with Putin in Helsinki and any U.S. concessions that he may gratuitously offer there. Whatever the reasons for Trump’s reluctance to criticize Putin in public and his wish for better relations with the Kremlin, the substance of U.S. policy toward Russia has actually hardened, not softened, over the past 18 months. This includes targeted sanctions on top Russian oligarchs, the shuttering of Russian consulates and expulsion of diplomats, further military reinforcement of NATO’s eastern flank, the dispatch of anti-tank weapons to Ukraine, and the use of military force against both the Assad regime over Russian threats and objections and against Russian mercenaries when they moved on U.S. forces in eastern Syria. These policies reflect both an overwhelming, bipartisan congressional consensus and that of the executive branch’s national-security and intelligence apparatus—including Trump’s own top appointees. Despite the risks associated with the Helsinki summit, the Kremlin’s continuing provocations are likelier in the long term to drive the trans-Atlantic allies together than to splinter them apart.
It also helps that, for all the oft-stated ambition to increase Europe’s geopolitical independence, the continent has neither the strength nor the internal cohesion to protect its expressed interests and values on its own. And there is not another major power that can plausibly step into the role of the United States as a partner for a liberal, democratic EU.
Similarly, the United States has strong incentive to look across the Atlantic first whenever it seeks to make a military or diplomatic move. As much as Washington grouses about inadequate defense spending by its NATO allies, it is European forces that are operating alongside America’s own in the counterterrorism fights in Iraq, Syria, and Afghanistan. When it comes to partners for power projection in Africa, the Middle East, or Eurasia, Washington has few substitutes for European militaries. While other centers of power offer additional options for the U.S., which is all for the good, neither Japan, nor India, nor Australia, nor Saudi Arabia, nor the UAE, nor Israel have seats on the UN Security Council, nor is there any regional grouping with the combined heft or coordination of NATO.
None of this is to suggest that things are predestined to stabilize between the United States and Europe. But it is to recognize this is not the first time the trans-Atlantic alliance has confronted division in its ranks. It probably won’t be the last.
As a general rule, things that are rotten tend to collapse under pressure; things that have value tend to endure. The West has endured, as a strategic concept and a geopolitical reality, because it has value. Rather than writing its obituary or predicting its imminent collapse, those who believe in the trans-Atlantic alliance should therefore look to the future with a measure of confidence in our ability to defend the order we have built and to persevere beyond the strains of the moment. We have done so before, and we can do so again.