Does Europe still have a partner, a big brother across the water? One which can be a scold, a nag, an annoyance, a puzzle – but which has always been there for it? A partner that is also a protector, with a military and security network of unrivalled power and reach? Is the United States still that partner?
That’s been the question of anxious, angry commentators all over Europe since President Donald Trump announced Tuesday he would cease to support the nuclear agreement with Iran signed by China, the European Union, France, Germany, Russia and the United Kingdom as well as the United States.
Edward Luce in the Financial Times put it bluntly: “History may recall it as the day the U.S. abandoned its belief in allies… For the first time in decades, the U.S. is acting without a European partner.” France’s Le Monde says that Trump is obsessed with undoing everything achieved by his predecessor and that Trump’s “absurd” decision will have a “devastating effect” on the Middle East.
Franco Venturini in Italy’s Corriere della Sera wrote of a White House that has “opened a wound hard to heal.” On Germany’s Deutsche Welle channel, security analyst Markus Kaim noted that German, French and British companies would be harmed by the sanctions as well.
The United States and Europe have had other differences, which in their time were termed crises. In 1956, U.S. President Dwight Eisenhower forced British, French and Israeli troops to end the invasion launched into Egypt for fear that its new leader would nationalize the Suez Canal; France and the U.K., two former imperial powers, were duly humbled.
France’s General Charles de Gaulle, president from 1959 to 1969, held his country aloof from NATO and maintained an independent military and diplomatic posture, demanding the removal of all American personnel from French soil. When De Gaulle made that demand to then President Lyndon Johnson, the latter is said to have asked whether that included that included those U.S. soldiers buried there.
But the countries were on the same side, in the end. The Cold War was a disciplining force to keep the Europeans in order; the European center-left parties agreed with those on the right that Communism was a menace which must be kept in check by the massive deployment of weaponry and troops that only the United States could provide. When the Cold War ended with the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, the “West” – which includes eastern outposts like Japan, South Korea, Australia and New Zealand – rejoiced as one, and looked forward to an era of peace, collaboration with old enemies, a focus on the problems of environment, poverty and crime.
They were mostly on same side in Middle East too. An invasion of Kuwait by Iraq in 1990 was squashed, largely by the United States; 12 years later, as Iraqi President Saddam Hussein continued to flout UN sanctions, an American-British alliance spearheaded the war against him – again quickly routing his army, but this time deposing and executing him. This meant the invaders were in charge in Baghdad as the country descended into civil war.
The war in Iraq divided the allies, especially in Europe, but the demons it unloosed, though bitterly controversial, remained containable within the ambit of Western alliances and produced little lasting diplomatic damage. And though the invasion has been blamed for sparking off the present dangerous escalation of tension in the region, it did not presage a radical shift in a Western policy based on an endless effort to damp down hostilities, to remain allied to Israel and to seek markets for Western products, including armaments.
Trump’s decision this week is of a different order. Paying no heed to the pleas from his European allies, and in the face of the united opposition of all other signatories, he has set out to reshape the Middle East. Basing his approach on an Israel convinced that Iran is at the root of all terrorist evil, and a Saudi Arabia of the same mind, he wishes to isolate Iran and destroy its leadership – hoping that its people will replace the present leaders with pro-Western figures. And, for good measure, trashing the agreement his reviled predecessor, Barack Obama, was instrumental in achieving.
He’s expanding that hardline no-consultation-with-allies approach to other areas too. Later this month he is expected to announce the formal opening of the U.S. embassy in Jerusalem, in spite of the controversy over the city’s status, and decide whether to raise tariffs on imported steel. He also is forcing Canada and Mexico to rewrite the North American Free Trade Agreement – or he will leave it. And all this before he meets with North Korea’s Kim Jong Un in Singapore next month to persuade him to renounce his nuclear weapons.
Trump was cold, even dismissive, toward Europe after coming to power. He had to be cajoled into supporting NATO by British Prime Minister Theresa May. His first meeting with Chancellor Angela Merkel of Germany was cool to the point of insulting, as he initially ignored her outstretched hand. He expressed support for far-right French presidential candidate Marine Le Pen. Last month, he feted Emmanuel Macron, flattering and even kissing him before going on to dismiss the French president’s pleas not to withdraw from the Iran deal.
But the renouncing of the Iran deal takes scorn to another level. This is not just America First, but America Alone. It’s a posture which portends turbulence, or even war in the Middle East; a Europe no longer able to believe that the West can present a united front; and a United States losing the store of trust and affection on which it has been able, even in disputatious times, to count. Sad!
John Lloyd co-founded the Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism at the University of Oxford, where he is senior research fellow. The opinions expressed here are his own.