When did the Cold War end? Ask the average American, and you’re likely to get a variety of responses. Was it when the Berlin Wall fell? Did it end when the Hammer and Sickle was lowered for the last time over the Kremlin? These events marked the collapse of Communism in Europe, but the age of American dominance arguably began with a whispered concession aboard a boat in the Mediterranean.
An interesting and often overlooked anecdote as recalled by former Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice sets the table. As the Warsaw Pact began to teeter in the winter of 1989, George H. W. Bush and his Soviet counterpart, General Secretary Mikhail Gorbachev, held a floating summit amid stormy seas off the coast of Malta. The Bush administration had been watching instability in Eastern Europe with cautious optimism. They chose to take a hands-off approach to mounting political instability in the Soviet Bloc so as to not antagonize Moscow into acting as they had in Hungary in 1956 or Czechoslovakia in 1968. The Soviet delegation eased the Bush administration’s fears with a remarkable concession. “President Bush said something about America’s allies wanting to stay in Europe, and Gorbachev said ‘We want the United States to stay in Europe, too,” Rice recalled. “‘The United States is a European power.’”
With that, the United States achieved one of its primary geopolitical objectives and without firing a shot. America’s chief foe on the continent of Europe, whose objective had always had been to decouple the United States from its European allies, had given up the ghost. They not only acknowledged the reality of the American presence in Europe but welcomed it. Atlanticism, the guiding belief that a close relationship between the U.S. and Europe was the key to peace, had won. The Brezhnev Doctrine was defunct.
For a generation, the Atlanticist consensus went largely unchallenged, but American voters have never prioritized the privileged U.S. position in Europe as have their elected leaders. The consummate populist, Donald Trump has effectively tapped into the fear of foreign entanglements embedded in the American DNA, and it’s making Europe nervous.
As observers have noted, Donald Trump’s comments about NATO in a much-discussed interview with the London-based Sunday Times were far friendlier toward the alliance than were his attacks on that institution during the campaign. For a candidate who once speculated openly about abandoning NATO’s most threatened allies if they were attacked by Russia, all things are relative. It is true, however, that Trump said that NATO’s mission structure—deterring Russian aggression in Europe—is obsolete and that it should do more to reorient itself to counter Islamist terrorism. Despite assurances from Trump-friendly voices that these comments represent a bizarre species of pro-Atlanticism, Western Europe has not responded favorably toward them.
“Moscow shares Trump’s opinion that NATO is a remnant of the past,” said Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov. The Russian government surely reacted with jubilation to the weekend news that Trump was interested in reducing the sanctions burden on Russia that had been imposed on Moscow following their invasion of Ukraine. If Russia is elated, America’s allies are nervous.
“Senior figures in the government fear that a warming of US-Russian relations under Trump risks leaving Britain—which has led the calls for sanctions against Moscow over Putin’s aggression in Ukraine and Syria—out in the cold,” the Sunday Times revealed as reactions to their interview with the new American president mounted. They reported that “British intelligence has sought reassurance from the CIA that the identity of British agents in Russia will be protected when intelligence is shared.”
“We Europeans have our fate in our own hands,” declared German Chancellor Angela Merkel this weekend in reaction to Trump’s comments. Her foreign minister quickly confirmed that there had been “no easing of tensions” between the incoming administration and their Western European counterparts.
The center-right German leader is facing the fight of her political life in her bid to retain the chancellorship for a fourth term, and her position has been directly threatened by Trump. The 45th U.S. President has attacked Merkel’s handling of the refugee crisis resulting from the Syrian civil war and threatened to impose a 35 percent tariff on German automakers importing vehicles into the U.S. (citing as justification his perception that German cars had become ubiquitous on Manhattan streets). With a GOP Congress hostile toward Trump’s populist Trade revanchism, the only purpose comments like these serve is to strain U.S.-German ties.
The German government’s defiant comments may represent political posturing for a domestic audience. The same cannot be said for French President Francois Hollande—the deeply unpopular socialist who has declined to seek a new term in office. “Europe will be ready to pursue transatlantic cooperation, but it will be based on its interests and values,” Hollande declared. “It does not need outside advice to tell it what to do.” The outsider to who the French leader refers with remarkable contempt is the upstart new American president.
The ties that bind North America and Western Europe are fraying, and to what end? Will American or European interests be better seen to by a collection of disparate states at cross purposes than they were under the rubric of an American-led alliance structure? It’s doubtful. This is a crisis of choice. The incoming American administration seems prepared to surrender the hard-won gains of the 20th Century. What problem do these measures aim to solve other than an unprecedented spate of post-Cold War peace and shared prosperity? That remains an open question.