The US president has been dismissive of decades of Western alliance and his ‘America Alone’ attitude is dangerous and destabilising, says John Lloyd.
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 the US president, Donald Trump, announced he would cease to support the nuclear agreement with Iran, which was co-signed by China, the European Union, France, Germany, Russia, and the United Kingdom.
Edward Luce, in the Financial Times, put it bluntly: “History may recall it as the day the US abandoned its belief in allies… For the first time in decades, the US is acting without a European partner.”
France’s Le Monde newspaper says that Trump is obsessed with undoing everything achieved by his predecessor, Barack Obama, 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, US president, Dwight Eisenhower, forced British, French, and Israeli troops to end the invasion into Egypt, for fear that its new leader would nationalise the Suez Canal; France and the UK, 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 US president, Lyndon Johnson, the latter is said to have asked whether that included US soldiers buried there.
"At the heart of the Iran deal was a giant fiction: that a murderous regime desired only a peaceful nuclear energy program. Today, we have definitive proof that this Iranian promise was a lie." pic.twitter.com/9m4VBjnHj7— The White House (@WhiteHouse) May 8, 2018
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 centre-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 US 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, and a focus on the environment, poverty, and crime.
They were mostly on same side in the Middle East, too. An invasion of Kuwait, by Iraq, in 1990, was squashed, largely by the US; 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, deposing and executing him.
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 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, he has trashed 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: for example, the opening of the US embassy in Jerusalem, in spite of the controversy over the city’s status, and he will soon 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 Germany’s chancellor, Angela Merkel, was cool to the point of insulting, as he initially ignored her outstretched hand. 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.
"Today I am honored to welcome Chancellor Angela Merkel back to the White House... We are also pleased to have our newly confirmed United States Ambassador to Germany, Richard Grenell." pic.twitter.com/vgNEFJ6mU6— The White House (@WhiteHouse) April 27, 2018
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 that 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.
John Lloyd co-founded the Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism at the University of Oxford, where he is senior research fellow.