Ahead of the Munich Security Conference, James Kirchick argues that the major problems confronting Europe today existed long before Trump entered office and will continue to plague the continent long after he’s gone. This piece originally appeared in the Washington Post.
France and Italy are locked in an unprecedented feud. The European Union can’t agree on whether to recognize Juan Guaidó as the legitimate interim president of Venezuela; nor has Brussels managed to forge any coherent response to Moscow’s latest aggression against Ukraine. Britain still can’t finalize its divorce from the E.U. with less than two months to go before the March 29 Brexit deadline.
You’ll notice one name missing from this dismal summary, conspicuous by its absence: Donald Trump. That’s because the major problems confronting Europe today—anemic growth, Russian belligerence, migration, and deep internal divisions—existed long before Trump ever descended his fabled escalator, and will continue to plague the continent long after he’s gone. (Indeed, I wrote an entire book about them.)
Yet, listening to European elites, one would think Trump is the primary source of the continent’s manifold woes. One recent article in The Post compiled a litany of grievances. A representative complaint, from former German foreign minister Sigmar Gabriel: Trump “has done damage that the Soviets would have dreamt of.”
Put aside the absurdity of Gabriel—who spent much of his time in the foreign ministry calling upon the West to ease sanctions against Russia—criticizing anyone else for being an instrument of Moscow. It’s true that Trump’s boorish behavior and noxious bluster are doing damage to the transatlantic relationship. His questioning of NATO’s very existence is unconscionable. But, by focusing on his tweets and verbal outbursts to the exclusion of actual policy developments on the ground, Europeans are making the situation worse.
Aside from pulling out of the Iran nuclear deal and the Paris climate agreement (entirely legitimate policy options that most of Trump’s Republican competitors would also have implemented), critics can point to few, tangible moves by the Trump administration that have negatively affected the continent’s cohesion. Most of Trump’s offenses—cheering on Brexit, paying compliments to Russian President Vladimir Putin—are rhetorical. On others, namely, his insistence that NATO allies spend more on defense, his opposition to the Nord Stream 2 pipeline, and his withdrawal from the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty, Trump is right. That some European countries are scrambling to find a way to maintain their trade with Iran even as that regime plots terrorist attacks on European soil, merely demonstrates their fecklessness.