What if you are a Republican foreign policy expert and you witness the Trump administration abandoning one of the U.S’ closest allies in the fight against terror during one fateful telephone call? You are certainly alarmed about the misfortune of your friends in the field (the Syrian Kurdish militia), but you might also be troubled about how this sudden betrayal undermines America’s credibility with its strategic allies across the Atlantic. Surely, European leaders did not fail to notice that the brave abandoned partner put much more on the line for the U.S. in recent years than their nation-states did. In fact, 11,000 Syrian Kurds died acting as America’s foot soldiers in the fight against the Islamic State.
Surely after America’s rushed withdrawal from Syria last October, European leaders must be worried that their insubstantial contribution to U.S. global strategic interests makes them vulnerable for a similar desertion. Certainly, traditional Republican foreign policy experts fear that America’s security umbrella looks like it is full of holes to its European strategic partners.
A Broken Strategic Umbrella?
It is true that the EU has a propensity to establish “strategic partnerships” between itself and over a dozen other entities, including emerging powers and international organizations. However, finding out what is strategic about many of these partnerships is often a daunting task. In fact, the only genuine strategic partnership the EU has is the one it has with the United States. This is because, as two University of Leuven scholars, Stephan Keukeleire and Tom De Bruyn, point out, the U.S. has the structural and relational power to assure that the Europeans do not engage in strategic partner-swapping.
However, given the fickle and feckless way Trump treats allies like the Syrian Kurds and other differences between the EU and the U.S., such as policy towards Iran, is this still true today? Will the EU swap its partnership with the U.S. for one that is more predictable? Even Russian President Vladimir Putin, who stood by his partner in the Middle East, Bashar Al-Assad, is more reliable if even less palatable than Trump. Besides, after the Trump administration’s withdrawal of forces from Iraq and Syria, Putin is emerging as the kingpin in the Middle East.
Moreover, the most important link in the U.S.-European strategic partnership, the unity of the North Atlantic Alliance, has been undermined over the course of Trump’s presidency. As former NATO Secretary General Anders Fogh Rassmussen recently said in Warsaw, “NATO is militarily strong, but politically weak.” Perhaps it is so weak that the EU would prefer another strategic friend amongst the dozens of partnerships that it has brokered over the past decades? Perhaps Trump’s questioning of the underlying logic of the alliance will prompt European allies to contemplate hedging against possible U.S. disengagement and align themselves instead with an emerging strong state?
Republicans to the Rescue
The short answer is no, there is no alternative for European nation states to swap with at the global level. Emerging powers do not share Europe’s values and emphasize might over human rights. Add to this that as an alliance NATO means very little without the U.S. in it. The Europeans members in NATO are unable to guarantee the security order on which they rely upon without the United States.
European leaders know this but so do many Republicans in the U.S. Congress. Acknowledging the new strains that abandoning allies in the Middle East put on NATO (in part, because a NATO member promptly invaded the relevant part of Syria), a few days after Trump’s imprudent decision, Republicans in the U.S. House of Representatives joined Democrats in condemning the president’s impulsive decision.
By mid-December, the Senate Foreign Relations committee took a further step in unanimously passing a bill to stop Trump from withdrawing from NATO. Paradoxically, while the U.S. Constitution requires a two-thirds vote in the Senate to ratify a treaty it does not include instructions on how to leave a Senate-approved treaty. Meaning that the president could on his own initiative exit the NATO treaty. Unmistakably, Trump’s fellow Republicans want to prevent this and to ensure that America’s strategic partnership with European nation-states endures. It is further interesting to note that the group of bipartisan Senators felt the need to write this bill despite Trump’s recent defense of the alliance against French president Emmanuel Macron’s comment that NATO was experiencing “brain death.”
In the wake of Trump’s impetuous mistreatment of the Syrian Kurds, Republican members of Congress do not trust him. Although he is practically no one’s preferred source of information, in November 2019, Trump’s former National Security Adviser (NSA), John Bolton, warned that if re-elected in 2020, Trump would go “full isolationist” and withdraw from NATO.
Undoubtedly, this legislation is important for European leaders, but its passing was largely lost in the glare of the klieg lights of the impeachment process undergoing in Washington, D.C. Beneath this glare, there is a perceptible fear taking hold in Europe that Trump will win a second term with the likelihood that Bolton’s predictions are realized. Even with a law prohibiting withdrawal from NATO, European leaders know that a reluctant Commander In Chief will increase doubts about whether the U.S. would come to their defense in a real crisis, such as Russia sending masked “little green men” into the Baltics.
Celebrating a Common Cause for 75 years
All this strain on the strategic partnership between the U.S and Europe comes when the people of The Netherlands are commemorating their liberation from the Second World War. Most villages in Limburg have placed American and Dutch flags at their center while my neighbors and I put up posters in our windows that say, “Wij vieren de vrijheid! 75 jaar Liberation!” I also attended some of the commemorations along with hundreds of others who wanted to pay their respect to the young men who gave their lives for the future freedom of Western Europe. In the fields of southern Limburg, it is unmistakable that American and Dutch people had a common cause and that they once shared a formidable strategic partnership.